Hm … I should have taken photos the other day just so you could see the difference between an anxious little wreck and a calm, happy dog, but I didn’t think of that until right now as I write about it.
This photo is late last summer with his swaddling jacket on, note normal height ears, he plopped down himself with no prompt and no curl-up at the tip of his tongue while he pants, which is appropriate to the temperature out at the time.
Rescued dogs are thought to have more separation anxiety. Reggie isn’t the typical rescue in that he never was left at a shelter, he just came directly to me at age 8 last summer. One of his earlier family members likes to come and see him and I like them to feel reassured, it’s been three times, and during and especially at the end and right after the visit he shows anxiety. Quite a bit of it – the majority resolves fairly quickly, although there is some fall-out still the next day and the next (some return to old compulsive acts). Funny how the brain’s pathways work.
The other day during the visit I pointed out the signs, not to necessarily discourage the visits, but to open the dialogue on how to make a visit less upsetting.
Common signs of anxiety include: urination/defecation in the house or in their confinement area, salivation, destruction of things, panting, pacing, freezing/immobile, trembling/shaking and vocalization.
Reggie’s signs: staring at the person, panting with a curled up tongue, pacing in fast circles that includes going over furniture instead of remaining on the carpet, spinning after interactions, ears pinned up and furrows in his forehead, very tight and agitated body and barking. If he’s in his crate, signs include ripping bedding and licking crate gate or sides, rearranging bedding and barking.
Other than the concept of being separated and the control of pre-separation clues other things that are controllable and ratchet up his worry include: being picked up, double-handed petting around his head and neck, prolonged choppy petting/patting (as in more than one or two strokes), attention when he is being pushy or otherwise acting anxious, threatening/repeated commands to sit, and tone of dismay at his actions.
An easy clue from him to know that his anxiety has ratcheted up and he isn’t happy is spinning, if the interaction was upsetting/frustrating he will spin right after it. Another way to know, instead of pushing into petting he will sink down away from it. And finally, looking at his ears and forehead will show very high ears and furrows.
When interactions are good for everyone, the dog (and that includes Reggie) are calmer and comfortable afterwards, even if they would still like to play their bodies are loose, not sprung tight.
So if you are the person that feeds the anxiety what do you need to do? (and this is to everybody who deals with an anxious dog) 1. Know that the dog has this tendency and that you didn’t cause them to be anxious in the first place, but that you can do things to help them be much more calm and comfortable or you can make it worse by not paying attention to what upsets them and keep on doing whatever it is because it is pleasant for you or you believe it should be pleasant for them. (This happens a lot with petting, the generally accepted idea is that ‘dogs like petting’, but they don’t, they like certain kinds of petting/touch at certain times).
2. Pay attention to the signs and signals the dog is emitting and change how you do stuff with them. Petting, needs to be something they are enjoying, make it longer strokes, slower rate and briefer overall and in the right spots … check to see if they want more by stopping and seeing if they prompt you to continue. And mostly don’t pick them up, you can sit and invite them up into your lap, but most dogs don’t like being picked up. Massages are good, as long as the dog wants one.
3. No punishment, no irritated tone. Just ignore them if they’re doing things you’d rather not have like barking or pacing or ripping things in their crate. When someone’s anxious being told not to be isn’t effective.
4. Food rewards for doing things they know, like tricks or cues. Food is calming. Reward calm behaviors a lot.
5. Exercise is good, just not crazy levels. Dogs do stuff in bursts, if they’re acting compulsive about it and over-excited change the pace and ignore any of their efforts (barking, bouncing off you, grabbing at toy) to get you to return to wildness.
6. Keep greeting and departure low-key, as in really low key, like there wasn’t one, more like just coming in/going out of a room or yard. Reward them for calmness, and catch them before they are too anxious … this can be a very slow progressive process. And in the meantime they need company of some person.
What am I doing about Reggie’s worries? a. practicing collar grabs while we’re playing, before release to get a toy, while getting treats, hundreds of times really getting it desensitized … to get him more comfortable with two-handed neck reaches that people so often do. Older dogs have a lot of history. b. beginning to teach jump up into my arms for brief hold and treat, since he’s small and sometimes gets picked up. Otherwise, I don’t pick him up, he’s quite capable of getting up on things if asked. c. practicing some frustration exercises and reward for calm/quiet dog – basically doing really brief sessions of the things that can make him want to spin, but getting the rewards in before he gets over the brink and chuckling (that can stop him) or ignoring if he does go over (he’s finding it amusing too). d. getting him to be the initiator of those things he previously resisted, e. rewarding him for the big relaxed sigh.
Does he have separation anxiety when I leave? Mostly no, but then I’m the queen of non-exciting departures and returns and of rewarding calm, not crazy. Occasionally he barks for a while if he’s confined in his crate, most of the time he doesn’t, except when we go to agility if he’s left in the car … “Don’t leave me, I want to run, too!” But he settles and seems good when I go back out to get him.
There are a lot more tools if your dog is more anxious and especially if it lasts longer. In the photo above he had a stretchy body wrap on to help (that was later last summer), there are pheromones that help calm, medications, dietary changes, slow food toys/games and much more in-depth behavioral change programs. The Medford library has a new book I asked them to get (and they did 🙂 called Decoding Your Dog, and it has a great section on separation anxiety.
A predisposition to be anxious doesn’t mean they have to suffer through their life and they don’t have to get worse as they get older.
If you liked this article please click LIKED. If you have a dog that seems to need some behavioral changes and training consider contacting me. All the best in your dog training adventures. Any stories about your anxious dog?