Anxious dogs – what’s really going on…

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Anxiety and anxiousness are words that are thrown around a lot. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what it looks like in humans (fidgety, heart racing, nail biting, worrying thoughts) and we can extrapolate that to dogs. But when is anxiousness a disease state? When should you be seeking help for your pet for suspected anxiety?

It might be somewhat normal to express some worry in a new environment or an environment that previously has been associated with some unpleasantness – eg the vet clinic and hence I think many dogs that show anxiety in their vet clinic may be dismissed as experiencing a normal level of anxiety for the event. For some this is probably reasonable. On questioning they cope well everywhere else and show no behaviours of concern to their caregivers. Make sure to tell your vet if this is not the case.

For others, the vet clinic is just one of many scenarios they display anxiety and it is these dogs that I am talking about. When a dog displays a concerning behaviour think about the frequency, intensity and duration of it to see if it qualifies as pathological. Does it serve a purpose? Or is it beyond what the environmental conditions would reasonably expect?

It is good survivability to feel fear in the face of danger. In a home invasion I hope you get out your baseball bat and swing it (or hide successfully in a cupboard), rather than offer the intruder a cup of tea. I can hear some of you arguing this point right now – but you know what I mean – there is a time to feel threatened, but hopefully it comes a long rarely, and when it does you act appropriately in order to survive. But if every time the door bell rings you act as if your life is in peril then this is a sign that you are living in a state that is unreasonably fearful.

It is bad for your brain and your general health to be living like the sky is falling. Poor little Chicken Little.

So, what do pathologically anxious dogs look like?

  • they show excessive arousal in unfamiliar environments – sometimes this is interpreted as “excited” but really look (at the emotional state) and see what you are witnessing – is this excitement a form of worry? Is there lots of lip licking, yawning, shake offs, whining?
  • they may be “frantic friend makers” – dogs who need to make contact with human faces, groins and lick a lot – all ways to gain and give information – just like the overly talkative person who is covering up their anxiety by talking at a million miles a minute, and laughing at the wrong moments. I see these dogs as the constant apologisers – not comfortable in their own skins and needing to appease everyone they meet.
  • there are physiological signs of over arousal – piloerection (hackles), pupil dilation, stressed vocalisations, panting, dandruff, needing to pee or poop, not being able to eat.
  • they don’t stop moving – they don’t lie after a short while in a new environment but instead remain hyper vigilant and often they are poor sleepers in general. Did you know a normal hound sleeps for 16-18 hours out of 24.
  • they startle and appear skittish to relatively benign sounds, changes in their environment, eg spook at a bin or something out of place in the home. They glimpse something from the corner of the eye and cower or scamper.
  • they might use aggression to keep whatever they are worried about at a safe distance from themselves and they might become better at this over time – becoming more and more offensive looking. They could be labelled “dominant” incorrectly. This is why it is important to ask what they were like when they were young and what did they look like when they first experienced the trigger. Often you will uncover signs of early fearfulness.
  • they make poor judgements about the intentions of others – both dogs and people and can be worried about benign interactions such as collar hold, or misinterpret another dog and warn another dog off, despite the appropriateness of the other dog.
  • they could be overly worried about access to their resources, including human attention, and therefore be poor companions with other canines, always needing to be the one to be next to the human they are bonded to.
  • they could be showing compulsive repetitive behaviours which can take various forms depending on the breed – they could be tail chasing, fly snapping, pacing, light chasing or any combination of these behaviours. As these behaviours become somewhat soothing to the brain they become harder and harder to stop and less and less interruptible. Then they begin to interfere with normal activity.

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What do we uncover in the histories?

There are often some commonalities for these animals:

  • they showed early red flags – eg timid, shy,  and made poor progress in puppy class
  • they came from breeding situations where not a lot of care was taken to select parents and give puppies the highest levels of nurturing care eg mother was in rescue, from a depauperate environment where genes for survivability have been selected for. Remember when selecting a puppy it is advised to know both parents – this is not to seeing them on Facebook – this means spending time with them and their breeder and really getting a sense of the dog’s temperament.
  • they have had some punishment in their past – maybe punishment that a “normal” dog would be resilient to, but in the case of the anxious dog it has been a stressor too severe and has caused further sensitisation towards any trigger – so often there is punishment in the history of anxious dogs.
  • they don’t cope well with change – be it in routine or smaller day to day things – anxious brains require predictability and control and whenever this cannot be achieved the animal’s ability to cope falters.
  • they have a “bubble” and outside of that “bubble” they find it very difficult to maintain executive thought and function – they then enter a reactive state where they are just trying to survive as best they can – they might develop strange coping mechanisms.
  • they often have other health issues – including skin and gut conditions and chronic pain.

So how should we treat these animals to make a positive difference in their lives and that of their caregivers? Make no mistake it isn’t easy living with a dog (or a person) who suffers mental health issues.

I suggest:

  • manage the signs – this may mean avoiding the triggers of the cause of anxieties whilst using short acting and intermittent use medications to alleviate the very horrible feelings associated with anxiousness. This is the humane thing to do. These animals are suffering. This might require some careful tailoring of medications that work to reduce arousal and anxiety and act rapidly.
  • modify the behaviour – this can be like watching paint dry if it’s done correctly and hence why you never see TV shows with positive reinforcement trainers desensitising a dog to his/her trigger. It should look boring because the aim is to keep the dog below his/her threshold for reactivity – using distance and intensity of the trigger – whilst creating a new positive/neutral association around the trigger. This is why you will always be paired with a recommended trainer as you will need someone to guide this process and stop you from flooding your dog.
  • change the brain long term – this is the role of the serotonin medications that are taken on a daily and ongoing basis. The aim of these medications are to enhance connectivity between the reactive (primitive) brain and the prefrontal cortex so that the animal becomes less impulsive, more clear thinking and his/her brain is protected from becoming more and more reactive. These medications require the caregiver to have faith in the long term goal and to stick with medications for sometimes a few years.

Alice

So how successful are we at changing the anxious state? Well it depends. It can depend on many things – how severe the dog’s current state is, how long the dog has coped with his/her current state, what else is going on in the dog’s health picture and how able are the caregivers to change their lives and adjust their expectations for their dog. We do not give these dogs new brains and there are many things we are still learning about the emotional issues dogs face, just as mental health research for humans changes constantly too. But we can make a difference.

And dogs and people do show improvements with the right ethical, humane and scientific care plan.

What I do know, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of dogs who have behaviour issues, is that the caregivers who love them have an incredible bond to these sometimes broken animals and are willing to help them and support them with extraordinary sacrifices. I take my hat off to all my wonderful clients and I say thank you for all the work you do and all the love you give.

You can take the dog out of the outback but you can’t take the outback out of the dog…

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When humans take on the role of rescuer they can feel they are giving a dog a better life. I get it. We all think our life is the one to be aspired to.

If you are an outback dog chances are you have developed some pretty good survival strategies. You are probably pretty good at holding on to your resources and keeping others away from them – maybe you have had to, to get enough to survive. But survive you have, and survived so well that you have passed these genes on to your offspring. You may have had to use aggression to get what you want, as resources are scarce.

Your mother might have been stressed because she suffered malnutrition and fearfulness, but she still went on to conceive and carry the pups to full term.

Along come some rescuers and they want you to have a better life. They would like you to have the benefit of health care and a comfy bed. They take you away from your mother, who they sterilise and leave in the community, and they take you and your siblings on a stressful journey to Perth to start a new life. Worse still they take the mother too, and expect her to adapt to a widely different life from the one she has successfully navigated till now.

Unsuspecting dog adopters are thrilled at the honey coloured fur and the street dog look of puppies that seem shy, but not aggressive, and who will surely grow out of that. Dog adopters are not thinking about the fact that maternal stress changes the way the future brain of these dogs responds to stress. They are not thinking that shyness tends towards fearfulness and later aggressive responses, as the dog matures.

Future adopters do not have a clue that they are adopting a dog with inherited traits that make it good for surviving a life in the bush camp, and not so good at negotiating the cafe strip.

Instincts for survival are not the necessary requirement of dogs whose biggest threat is missing out on sofa time.

We now know that the mother’s genes and the mother’s mother’s genes are all playing a role in the future temperament of the dog. This is why it is important to know what the mother felt, and how stressed she was. This is why it is important to not buy from puppy mills or adopt from bitches who have been distressed and in a state of emotional and physical hardship. This is why it is important to select pups from breeders who are selecting for temperament, NOT colour.

It is happening all over the world – In England rescuers bring dogs from the continent to live in England and in Australia dogs are “rescued” from the North of Australia or from Asia. The problem is that the potential adopters are not after an animal with severe anxiety related illness who is a square peg in a round hole – adopters are after a family pet and many of these dogs are never going to be able to fit this bill. They live with ongoing anxiety and aggression with the aim of keeping themselves safe, and their strategies, that would be quite successful in the world they came from, are not acceptable, or safe, in the urban environments into which they have been parachuted.

What would be better would be to give the dogs the health care they need, in the environments they live in, and to neuter all animals so they cannot continue to breed. The communities they come from would benefit from education into the care of the animals that surround them, and those animals, to my mind, would be better to live out their days in the environment they have evolved to be successful in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Not Pass The Puppy?

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In this image a trainer demonstrates conditioning a pup to being handled – no force is used.

Recently I read the responses a client had given in her Behaviour Q (which is the basis to the history taking ahead of a behaviour consultation) and noted how during puppy class her pup was often put in the “settle pose” for behaviour that was considered unwanted as well as the pup’s perceived comfort whilst being handed around during “pass the puppy”.

These are two antiquated and out-dated exercises that are still practiced in some puppy classes. So why not pass the puppy? Why not make pups submit to the settle pose?

It is true that we want your puppy to be friendly and affiliative with new people, but the way to ensure this is to expose the puppy, when he/she is neurodevelopmentally ready to do so, with the experience of new people.

The experience of new people should be that they are warm and nurturing – not giants that pick you up and pass you around as if you are their next meal.

The pup makes the choice to engage and that engagement results in a positive association – yummy treats. “Passing the puppy” takes away the puppy’s control and essentially allows a fearful puppy (maybe undetected) to be overwhelmed. This is what flooding looks like. A puppy that is worried about the approach of strangers should not be passed around as it confirms to the pup that the approach of new people is scary. If a pup cannot move away he/she may learn that a better strategy to keep these scary people away will be to act more threatening him/herself.

The “settle pose” was described as scruffing the dog till he desisted. It is used when a pup, who is acting in ways we don’t like, is held by the scruff, and asked to settle. The thought behind this is that it shows the dog who is in control – you – and that struggling or displaying any signs of resistance is pointless. This is relatively easy to do to a small pup and is very reinforcing for owners, as they immediately feel they have stopped whatever it is they don’t like and have therefore solved a problem. Trainers may tell owners that this is what a mother dog might do too and so therefore it is natural and normal and allows an effective way to communicate with your dog. Like you are speaking their language.

The problem with this is that it is untrue. Mother dogs do not scruff their puppies. Yes they move them like this, very gently when they need to, up until a certain age, but they do not grab them by the back of the neck and shake them.

And besides we are not dogs’ mothers. It is very likely that pups do not mistake us for their mothers. We are humans and we are scary enough.

When we physically restrain a dog and punish him with our touch we teach a dog that we will use force to get our way and that we do not care that they are experiencing distress. Their subtle signals do not work on us. We are not listening to what the body language is telling us (“I am afraid”, “I am overwhelmed”,  “I am over threshold”) and we continue on till the dog gives up. This neither helps the dog learn a behaviour that we want, (no replacement behaviour is taught) nor does it change the negative association into a positive one. It is unhelpful in so many ways. Later, as the dog grows, the “settle pose” can no longer be easily administered and many a person has been bitten attempting to assert themselves over a worried dog. The dog will then be labelled “dominant” and treated with more punishment. The cycle of misunderstanding will continue, till eventually the dog bites and bites hard. Then the dog will be euthanased or rehomed.

We do want the dog to be able to be relaxed, even on his back, perhaps being cradled in your lap – but this is done through slow manipulation of a relaxed and calm pup – a puppy that has come to be very trusting of what human touch means.

A pup receives deep, slow, long pats so he lies down and then once he has chosen to lie down, then he can be gently stroked along his belly. The pup is not forced into any position and  is not held down against his will. The pup is not scruffed.

Dr Karen Overall DACVB (my behaviour guru) says: “scruffing by humans is inappropriate to use in dogs”. That alone should be enough of a reason to stop this exercise.

Please give pups CHOICE, recognise when they are fearful and start making positive associations with the triggers of their fearfulness.

 

 

 

Socialisation – what it’s NOT and how important is it…

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Socialisation is not taking a small puppy to Bunnings and have it bombarded with attention and pats.

Socialisation is not taking an adolescent rescue dog down to dog beach to “play” with all and sundry.

Socialisation is not taking a fearful pup to a cafe and asking people to greet your pup while is cowers in your arms.

In a natural setting socialisation takes place when the pup, with mother near by, meets and interacts with new things. It happens in a safe way. It happens when the dog is neurodevelopmentally ready for the interaction. It happens because the mother dog is feeling safe and knows the interaction is safe too. She is not about to introduce her precious pup to something she deems is unsafe. Everything she is introducing the puppy to is something that later the puppy may experience as a “safe” object/state/place to be around. After a certain period of time, about 12-14 weeks of age, the pup becomes fully weaned from the mother and separates from her, and after this time anything newly introduced may be greeted with mistrust and a fearful response. It makes sense not to stay open, infinitely. Otherwise you might just bound up to the first tiger you meet. It is a good survival mechanism and has evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In normal development the mother is also able to move away from the puppy – to source food for herself, to toilet and to exercise, and so a pup learns that time away from mother is normal. Independence is gradually grown, not abruptly enforced. Bitches who are not allowed to move away from their puppies – as in a puppy farm scenario – may not be tolerant and nurturing in the same way that a mother who has time away can be. Then puppies are drastically separated, whilst at the same time forced into frighteningly new scenarios with all new sensations and with no nurturer to safely retreat to.

When we take on the job of socialising a young animal because the pup is no longer with its mother it is important to remember that socialisation experiences will only be good and beneficial to the pup if the feeling at the time is one of relaxation and associated with positive emotions. The pup must not be forced to interact, but rather make the choice to.

If the experience is frightening and causes the puppy to want to avoid and repel the new person/thing/place then the experience may be creating a very different outcome from want we aimed for. Fearful early experiences can create later phobias.

Ideal socialisation in a breeding setting would be a breeder who is able to expose puppies to all the future possibilities of its destined home. Some proactive breeders take part in programs such as Puppy Culture – where they follow a timetable of introductions ensuring a wide range of future possibilities. But a good rule of thumb is to consider all the senses and making sure puppies are experiencing a wide range of surfaces and obstacles, unusual sounds, smells, food textures, background noises, sights.  Puppies should be faced with some challenges and some mild frustrations that help to build impulse control. They should be being exposed to a wide range of people, other animals and environments consistent with their future homes.

CAN Socialisation FIX everything?

Recently I had a internet conversation with a person involved in dog rescue who had been worried by my labelling of a post of a dog as “another reactive rescue” and then we discussed how there is indeed a prevalence of behavioural problems in dogs whose mothers had experienced stress and distress in pregnancy, whether they be purebred dogs or dogs from rescue.

Sadly even pedigree dogs may be being bred in environments where mothers are stressed and distressed. Paying a lot of money for a dog does not preclude future behavioural problems. There is evidence that stress during pregnancy and during the neonatal period creates permanent effects on the ability of the offspring to deal with stressful experiences later in life. These animals may be permanently effected by their poor start and this may be reflected in later behavioural abnormalities.

Purchasers of puppies need to have reliable information about the source of their dog  and know that the mother was well-fed, well cared-for, emotionally stable and responsive to her puppies.

People adopting dogs sometimes assume that purchasing a puppy at 8 weeks of age is like buying a blank drive – ready to have information uploaded and stored, but the truth is that so much is already downloaded and installed, and sometimes, continuing the computer analogy, corrupted from the get-go by the early history and the genes inherited.

 

 

 

Canine Body Language

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The caregiver should look at the WHOLE dog, in context, but sometimes an observer can break the dog into body parts and over a few minutes take note of the following.

This list can help caregivers recognise stress, and I suggest caregivers get familiar with these signs in their own dogs and note the triggers that cause these reactions:

 Mouth/Expression – look for

  • Tight brow, furrowed – ear position can signal this
  • Pulled back commissures of lips, grimace – anxiety, stress
  • Closed mouth
  • Panting – commonly a short dry pant, some dogs however can hypersalivate
  • Baring teeth – distance increasing signal – threat – the more teeth shown the more defensive the dog
  • Turn head – polite withdrawal, social withdrawal, asking for space
  • Lip lick
  • Stress yawn – often repetitive
  • Licking persons – anxiety, seeking information, can be a reinforced behaviour

Eyes

  • Dilated pupils – fear
  • Whale eye (white showing) – fear, asking for increased distance by turning head NB breed differences, eg Cavalier King Charles, exophthalmic breeds
  • Darting looks – hyper-vigilance, anxiety
  • Not comfortable with eye contact, therefore looking away, averting gaze
  • Hard eye – stare, usually accompanied with freeze (you feel this!)
  • Squinting/blinking/closing eyes – can sometimes indicate stress, anxiety

Ears

  • Ears back against head – appeasement, fear
  • Ears forward – arousal, interest, alertness
  • Ears – position dependent on breed, not all dogs move ears as much
  • Ears twitching – hypervigilance
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Fearful GSD – Ears back, whale eye, dilated pupils, weight back, hackles, woo woo bark
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Fearful GSD – barking, whale eye, paw lift, uneven weight – mainly back, curved approach – asking for peace, hackles raised, woo woo bark – distance increasing signal

Tail

  • Tuck – fear, sometimes extreme so tip of tail touches belly
  • Held high – alertness – dependent on breed
  • Fast wagging, held high – can signal alertness, bite can be about to occur
  • Wagging – willing to engage – not necessarily indicative of happiness
  • Hackles near rump – fear, alertness
  • (the only true tail wag I trust is a whole body tail wag eg “helicopter tail”)

Movement

  • Slow movement or fast movement – both can signal anxiety
  • Failure to rest, lie down after 20 minutes in a room is suggestive of hypervigilance
  • Jumping on, pushing on people – seeking information, provoking response, anxiety
  • Curving body on approach shows appeasement, breaking off of conflict
  • Forward approach – offensive, also breed differences in greeting style
  • Avoidance, or hiding, slinking – anxiety, asking for distance
  • Seeking owner attention – fear, anxiety
  • Fiddle behaviours – eg scratching, sniffing the ground, genital check
  • Sweaty paws – stress
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Fearful Bull Terrier: Dry panting, paw lift, whale eye, ears back, look away, weight back

Body

  • Hackles – physiological arousal – adrenalin release – flight or fight response
  • Paw lift – appeasement, unsure
  • Look at body weight – forward or back? forward – interest, back – withdrawal, fearful. Can be both – sign of conflicted response
  • Muscle trembling/shivering – fear response
  • Startle response – an involuntary response to fear – seen to benign objects is a sign of over reactive fear response
  • Roll over – expose belly – can be a signal to ask for space, cut off engagement
  • Loss of hair, coat dander – anxiety
  • Shake off – seen after something stressful, usually social engagement people or dogs, look at what happened just prior to shake off

Vocalisation

  • Barking – usually a distance increasing signal or designed to alert caregivers although caregivers can distinguish between attention seeking and play barks in known dogs
  • Low bark with growl undertone – WooWooWoo – fearful bark, designed as distance increasing signal – give me space
  • Barking – separation distress – generally monotonal – bark…wait…bark, repetitive.
  • Growling – distance increasing signal, take note
  • Whining, crying – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers
  • Howling – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers, sometimes stimulated by sirens etc in some dogs, some breeds more inclined
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Worried Mixed breed – lip lick, furrowed brow, averting gaze

 

Dr Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Preparing Anxious Dogs for Christmas

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The upcoming holiday season can pose many problems for caregivers of anxious dogs.

At this time of the year anxious pets may have deal with an increased exposure to their triggers, without being probably prepared to handle them.

Their caregivers may have changed focus to creating special moments for family and friends and have forgotten the difficulties that having an anxious pet adds to this equation. Know your dog’s triggers and take these into account when arranging your holiday celebrations.

Some of the things that may add to the stress quota for an anxious pet include:

  • Christmas tree with flashing lights
  • A new object sitting in the room – yes something as simple as the appearance of a Christmas trees can be worrying for some pets
  • Change in daily routine – more/less contact
  • Being the object of increased attention
  • Being the object of decreased attention
  • Being dressed in silly hats/costumes
  • Christmas crackers
  • Visitors
  • House guests
  • Excited squealing, running children
  • Relatives visiting with their pets
  • Intoxicated adults
  • Party hats and whistles
  • Loud music
  • Laughter
  • Children’s toys that make noise
  • Not getting enough rest/sleep
  • Exposed to rich/new foods

Anxious animals may need to be given extra space and quiet time away from some of the new people and events that surround a holiday period.

If an animal is known to be anxious and worried by the arrival of visitors to the home the animal should be well prepared ahead of time, in a safe place, behind a solid and locked door where the caregiver is able to enter and check on the dog, but unknown persons cannot accidentally wander in there and disturb and startle the dog.

A startled dog is apt to react with aggression.

Some less worried dogs may handle the visits if guests follow the instructions of the caregivers.

Instructions should be made clear well ahead of the visitors arriving and agreed upon. Instructions may include – Do not TOUCH, do not STARE at, do not LEAN over. If guests are not trusted to follow the caregiver’s instructions then it may be better to sequester the dog away.

If a caregiver cannot relax while the dog is free amongst guests then the dog is better placed away. Sometimes a dog is better to spend time at an alternative house if the house is too unstructured to follow the dog rules.

Anxious dogs are helped by learning to enter and remain happily in a crate. This is a space not used for entrapment or confinement but an area that a dog seeks out to feel safe and no-one should bother the dog that seeks out time in his/her crate.

There are many good links to teaching a dog to use a crate. Here are two:

Once happily in a crate a dog can have good things to do in this spices, eg stuffed Kong, antler to chew.

Some dogs who are currently under the care of a veterinary behaviourist may be able to have intermittent use medication to provide anxiety relief over a stressful period.

Remember Christmas is not a time to expose your anxious dog to his/her triggers. Work to desensitise to triggers must take place at an intensity and at distance that sees the anxious dog remain calm. Christmas is not this time. If your dog is not ready for what lies ahead it is time to start preparing an alternative NOW.