Understanding dog anxiety symptoms (and what to do about them)
As we look to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety is a concept many of us can relate to. But what about our dogs? Do dogs show anxiety symptoms, too?
The short answer is yes, dog anxiety symptoms are real and can be as disruptive for our canine companions as they are for us humans.
We’re here to help you understand and manage dog anxiety symptoms—a win-win for everyone.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the anticipation of danger. What’s tricky about anxiety is it often shows up without an actual threat or obvious trigger.
Although sometimes their symptoms present similarly, anxiety and phobias are not the same. While there are different degrees and types of anxiety (more on that in a minute), a phobia is an excessive or persistent fear of a particular situation or stimulus.
Under the right conditions, dogs can develop phobias of just about anything. The two most commonly diagnosed dog phobias are thunderstorms and noise.
Now that we’ve touched on how these two differ, let’s talk about what symptoms might tip you off to an anxious dog.
Dog anxiety symptoms
Sometimes dog anxiety symptoms can be quite mild, making them tough to identify. Other times, anxiety is so severe that it becomes debilitating, interfering with your dog’s ability to function and cope.
If you pick up on any of the above symptoms, mark it down in your calendar and start keeping a log of each event. Anxiety is not the only cause for the symptoms listed, so if you are noticing anything persistent it’s the perfect time to check-in with your family veterinarian.
Are anxiety and separation anxiety the same?
Not all anxieties are created equal.
Expert tip: so-called hyperactive dogs can actually have anxiety. These dogs are often hypervigilant and sleep with ‘one eye open.’ They might react and respond to things that other dogs ignore, and constantly keep an eye on their environment.
Generalized anxiety shows up differently than separation anxiety in dogs. Although it’s an innocent mistake with the best, most caring intentions, there is often confusion among dog parents about what category their dog falls under. Your dog’s veterinary team will help set the record straight so you can take the very best care of your anxious dog.
To add another layer of complexity, it’s entirely possible for a dog to have both generalized anxiety and separation anxiety. We’ll explore what that looks like next.
A Q&A with veterinarian and doting dog mom, Brittney Dow
Brittney and her two beautiful beagles, Zumma and Skye, were among the first to join our Waggle Mail family. In the time her good girls have been subscribed to our vet-curated dog subscription boxes, Brittney has completed her training in veterinary medicine and is supporting pet parents in Charlottetown, PEI.
Zumma and Skye won the lottery with Brittney as their mom: not only is she an animal expert, she’s also given these former teaching dogs—both diagnosed with dog anxiety—an epic retirement full of love and adventure.
Brittney sat down with us to share her story caring for Zumma and Skye and how she manages their dog anxiety symptoms:
Tell us about your dogs and their dog anxiety symptoms.
Zumma and Skye were both teaching dogs at the Atlantic Veterinary College where I studied. Skye spent four years there, but after just one teaching lab on restraint techniques, it was obvious Zumma suffered from severe anxiety. When I brought her home to enjoy an early retirement, she would jump at every noise or unexpected movement. TV was terrifying and any dog that wasn’t a beagle would cause her to freeze up. She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder soon after.
Skye’s anxiety came as more of a surprise. She had been one of the more confident beagles in the program, but when I took her home I started to pick up on issues related to separation and the outdoors. Skye would howl and pace anytime she was left alone—even if we were just in the other room. When it came to the outdoors, she was perpetually overstimulated. We brought her in for an assessment where she was diagnosed with hyper-reactivity, hyper-arousal, separation anxiety, and social anxiety.
What is the most challenging part of parenting a dog with anxiety symptoms? The most rewarding?
The biggest challenge for us has been managing expectations. In the beginning, I imagined all kinds of activities we’d do together: camping, visiting popular beaches, eating on a restaurant patio, and so on. Even if your dog progresses to a point where they can comfortably be in these types of situations, you’re always on high alert for possible triggers. It’s exhausting to be constantly scanning your environment, and discouraging when you feed thoughts that people around you are judging you and your dog’s behaviour.
On the flip side, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching your dog come out of their shell. Often, anxious dogs feed off your excited, positive energy and recognize how proud of them you are for handling a new, difficult situation. Many dogs with anxiety live in small, contained worlds; helping them expand those boundaries is such a gift.
|Nickname||Scrappy-Doo, Goobie, Zoomboomafoo|
What strategies have helped your dogs overcome or better manage their dog anxiety symptoms?
Four things come to mind: one-on-one training (shout out to Tonji Stewart at Canine Company Clicker Training & Consulting), the behavioural medicine service at the Atlantic Veterinary College for their kindness and expertise, behavioural medication to supplement environmental modifications (special thanks to Zumma and Skye’s doctors, Dr. Overall and Dr. Squair), and choosing products specifically geared towards dogs with anxiety. The girls’ Waggle Mail subscription box is something we all love; even though I’m a veterinarian, there have been products inside that were new to me, too. From supplements to dental chews with calming ingredients like L-theanine, we know we can trust the quality because we see the benefits firsthand!
As a veterinarian, what would you recommend dog parents do to make trips to the vet (or anywhere, for that matter) more pleasant for an anxious pet?
There’s a lot we can do to set our anxious pets up for success. These are a few of my favourites:
- My girls love their Thundervests; they give an extra boost of security. If you’ve never heard of Thunderworks, I highly recommend checking them out and considering a dog anxiety vest for your next adventure. A spritz of Adaptil pheromone spray can also help.
- Don’t feed your dog a big breakfast before heading out. It’s better if they’re a little hungry for their visit; they’ll be more motivated by treats at the vet!
- Look for “Fear Free” clinics in your area. If there is one nearby, give it a try. These clinics are set up to accommodate anxious animals. Exam rooms are species-specific, there are no waiting rooms, and the veterinary team are trained in fear-free techniques.
- Ask your veterinarian about medications that can be administered a few hours before an appointment to help ease some of your pet’s stress.
Any other tips for parents with anxious animals?
First and foremost is patience. Caring for an anxious pet isn’t easy. Everything takes longer than you anticipate and sometimes you have to think outside the box to reach whatever goals you’re pursuing. There will be set-backs, and it will be hard not to get frustrated, but in those moments it helps to remember how far the two (or three, in our case) of you have come.
Keep training sessions short and fun. An anxious animal may have to think a little harder than a non-anxious pet when learning something new. Brief, feel-good sessions have a much more positive impact in the short- and long-term.
Never resort to positive or negative punishment with anxious pets. This can be extremely damaging to them and to the human-animal bond.
When the opportunity presents itself, record your anxious dog. Sometimes I forget how far my girls have come until I watch a video from years ago when they first joined our family and their dog anxiety symptoms were out in full force.
A big thanks to Brittney for taking the time to share with us, and to all the dog parents finding ways to put their anxious pups at ease.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO