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.

Understanding Aggression

The first thing to remember is that aggression can be normal. If a threat is real then it might be an appropriate response – just imagine an armed intruder in your home, threatening your life – you may very well act aggressively in return. If you are in pain and someone attempts to move you, you might shout at the person, or push them forcibly away to protect yourself – again a normal response.

So aggression, in and of itself, is not a diagnosis.

Aggression is also often labelled by the target or the context – also not very helpful. If your dog has aggression to familiar persons it may still stem from a variety of causes. Perhaps it feels threatened by past punishment (fear and conflict) or perhaps it values resources such as bones highly ( learnt behaviour, anxiety).  If your dog has territorial aggression again the underlying motivation can be varied and complex.

So what to do?

When we talk about aggression and the threat it poses it is helpful to look at a number of criteria to assess the level of risk. One such criteria is understanding that dogs should normally follow a set behaviour sequence. For instance they should try to communicate discomfort before escalating their threat. They should move away, turn their head, lift a lip or even growl to signal they wish an encounter to stop – be this with another a dog or human. There should be a PAUSE whereby the receiver of the signal can then respond appropriately by moving away, withdrawing, allowing space. A normal dog would then see that his/her communication had been successful and the threat would STOP. In an abnormal dog this sequence can either happen very, very fast, so the receiver has no time to respond or the sequence may be so abnormal that it feels as if a “switch” has gone off in the dog’s head. For the high risk dogs there is an abnormal ability to read and respond to signals. This makes their behaviour sequencing abnormal and therefore they fall into the category of high risk.

If the behaviour sequence follows a predatory pattern, which appears very different from a bite that follows failed communication, then this would also suggest a HIGH risk case.

A dog who shows predation does so silently, with the aim to bite and inflict injury – and, in essence, this drive arises from a different part of the brain than does the drive to keep a dog safe from something he/she fears.

The dog predating someone/thing is not feeling threatened. It is alert and poses a serious risk.

Another criteria for assessing the degree of risk when dealing with aggressive dogs is the ability of the caregivers to manage and understand the risk their animal poses. If, for instance, the dog has shown aggression around children and lives in a home full of them then this makes this a high risk scenario. If the same dog lives with an elderly couple with no grandchildren and who can ensure the dog does not meet children then the risk is reduced. If a dog has shown aggressive responses to other dogs and caregivers want to  routinely let the dog off lead then this equates with a high risk and caregivers who have a poor understanding of the risks involved. As you can see the same dog can be classed as carrying a low or high risk dependent on who is the caregiver.

It makes sense that the larger the dog the more serious the risk. Yes, any dog can bite, and even small dogs have caused fatalities, but clearly the larger the dog the more serious the injury to both human and other animal.

Knowing the predictability can be useful. If you know your dog is likely to become aggressive in veterinary visits this can mean you can prepare yourself and your dog ahead of time. There is so much that can be done to reduce both the risks and, over time, improve your dog’s emotional association with the vet visit. Most dogs who are aggressive in veterinary clinic scenarios are mostly acting out of fear. They may have had a previous poor experience and therefore very strong memory of the past event. They are desperate to keep the vet away and they are a very real bite risk if the vet must examine them physically. Understanding this can allow for interventions such as training ahead of time, e.g. muzzle desensitisation, chin rest exercises and simple training that can at least allow a vet to give a dog a sedation injection.

Having a dog that has displayed aggression can be very frightening and upsetting but it is imperative to remember that aggression is a very broad label and really tells you very little. A lot more detective work needs to be done to understand the emotion behind the aggression and then decide what is the most appropriate treatment.

Focus on the emotion not the behaviour. This is the way forward.

Many times aggressive responses will be based in fear and anxiety and hence it is imperative to never punish the behaviours being shown – you are just confirming to the dog that it has every reason to want to protect him/herself.

Acknowledgement – this blog was inspired by attending an Aggressive Dog Workshop run by Dr Martin Godbout DACVB. Thanks Martin!

 

Losing the growl…

Jimmy brave

Everyone wants to have a dog that “you can do anything to.” But the reality is that even though these dogs do exist, we shouldn’t expect that dogs will behave in this way. Just as we are all individuals and have individual abilities to deal with life’s stresses, so do dogs. Some are more affable than others. Some are rarely frightened or worried.

But to be fearful is not a choice dogs make.

Just because the dog you grew up with as a child was able to be pulled around by children and dressed in outfits does not mean that the next Labrador you own will also respond with polite disdain to the rambunctious attention of toddlers.

Daily I explain to caregivers the need to understand canine communication – and the more proficient humans are at reading the low level stress signs of their canine companions the better they are at predicting the outcome of encounters, and at protecting and redirecting their dogs before the dog becomes worried enough to bite.

Humans are hard wired to understand that the low guttural sound that a dog delivers when it growls means “keep away from me.” The point of growling for the dog is to make it clear to the person, or other animal, to whom the dog is directing his growl that he is uncomfortable about this encounter and wants it to stop. NOW. It is a clear and unambiguous sign that the dog is in real discomfort over the encounter and you should always heed it. Take note of what caused the dog to growl because now you have something to work on. You have identified a TRIGGER. But the time for teaching is not now.

When we tell a dog off for growling (which is almost everyone’s automatic response) we are essentially telling the dog that we are not listening to his attempts to communicate.

When we add scolding the dog also learns that the encounter was as negative as he felt it to be, and yes he was right to attempt to end the encounter. But it also teaches the dog that growling does not have the effect he wanted. The encounter continues sometimes with punishment added in. Sometimes caregivers physically reprimand the growl by pushing or yanking the dog – further confirming to him that his communication is ineffective.

After enough failed attempts at signalling politely with a growl the dog may proceed to snapping or biting and the humans are apt to label this as “coming out of nowhere.”

Please thank your dog for growling.

Understand that removing a growl from a dog, through the use of punishment, does nothing to change the dog’s association with the person, or other animal, but just removes a valuable communication tool. It is like removing the smoke detector from the home. It increases the risks of living with a dog. To change the behaviour of growling the dog must be taught a new positive association with the person or circumstance that creates the feeling of unease. This is done, not when the dog is growling, but at a later time when a desensitisation and counter conditioning program can be constructed. This is the kind of work we do at ANIMAL SENSE.

 

Dominance thinking getting in the way…

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Daily I am confronted by the pervasiveness of dominance theory as a describer of canine behaviour problems. As an explanation for canine behaviour it befuddles clients with advice like not letting dogs go through doorways first, getting them off high vantage spots like couches or beds and insisting owners take stuff from their dogs.

The theory suggests to caregivers that dogs are on a mission to rule the planet and take over the world, and that any hint of aggression is a dog’s signal to you that you are “below” them in some pack hierarchy. This kind of magical thinking gets owners all worked up into making sure their dog understands who is boss – suddenly rules are changed in households and dogs are being ordered about – because this is what “alphas” do.

Can you see how confusing this is to dogs? Dogs who like couches like comfy spots. Big deal. Dogs who like human beds like to be close to their people and the smells and coziness of being next to members of their social group. Dogs who exit doorways first are simply in a rush to get outside, because dogs find it hard to wait for good stuff, and may not have been taught to exit in any other way. Dogs who want to keep hold of something tasty they have been given are just normal, greedy dogs and maybe haven’t been taught to exchange in the first place.

Assigning dominance to dogs has resulted in may dogs being confused and mistreated. When a dog has an issue with aggression it is more likely to have come about through fear and anxiety. It may be genetically predisposed and have been reinforced through prior learning. There are many explanations for aggression to humans, but when the detective work is done – pain, anxiety, fear, conflict and learning are some of the possible causes – but dominance is not one of them.

Aggression is a tool that dogs use to keep scary things away.

It is what we call a distance-increasing signal that tells the receiver that I need space from you. Invariably signals to indicate this need for space have been given before the bite but many times humans have missed these. Sometimes humans have punished previous signals such as growls, as they make them uncomfortable, and hence the growl is forgone as either ineffective by the dog or not to be expressed. But, if the worry and fear remains, and the person continues to proceed, then the bite becomes more likely.

This is what caregivers should be spending their time contemplating. What makes the dog uncomfortable? List triggers. And then how do I change the emotional association with that object/event/person into a positive one. It is not curative to suppress a growl by admonishing it – since the fear remains. Cure only comes about through changing the way a dog feels. Actions are an expression of emotions. If you want the dog to be safe, then this is the kind of work that needs to be done. And in the meantime set up the environment so the dog is no longer coming into contact with the objects, persons or events that create that fear in the first place.