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.

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.

 

 

 

Shut Up! Barking behaviour explained…

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Firstly, the caregiver needs to know that barking is a natural behaviour of dogs and one that they have been selected for throughout history. A dog’s barking has served the humans who live with him/her to be alerted to intruders and to announce the arrival of visitors. So some barking is normal!

Of course there is a time when barking behaviour, because of the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviour, becomes problematic – both to the caregiver and to the dog.

It is such behaviour we are talking about today.

Let’s think about dog vocalising:

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Dog barking is an attempt to communicate to both other dogs and to caregivers.

Distance decreasing signals are designed to solicit care and attention. Dogs with separation distress may classically engage in whining and crying, as well as bark in a monotonal way with intermittent breaks as if saying: “Hello – where are you?”

Distance increasing signals are designed to keep intruders away and alert the caregivers to a change in the environment. This kind of barking tends to be loud and insistent and is related to a disturbance, noise or visual threat. Most people actually want their dogs to perform this action when required, but it is not in a dog’s repertoire to easily distinguish between friend and foe, and so a dog that performs this aroused barking may need to given extra protection from the sight and sounds of what is occurring outside of their home to have this barking decrease.

Most complaints come about because of repetitive and insistent barking, and many times a complaint can signal to caregivers that their dog is not coping when they are home alone. Some owners may be unaware, till the complaint is made, that their companion has a barking problem, if it is solely about separation distress. Separation distress barking is a serious welfare concern.

It is always advisable to record the behaviour of concern, and so if it is occurring when you are not home this can be done on a laptop set up to record the dog. Viewing the behaviour can allow you to distinguish the emotion behind the behaviour and then you are in a better position to address the problem.

Some canines have been selected for barking more than others and some breeds are known for their high propensity to bark – eg Maltese terriers, Jack Russells, Dachshunds, working breeds, to name a few. Some of these dogs may engage in barking behaviour when they are aroused by play and therefore it is important to keep play between yourself and these dogs as a less arousing activity. Some dogs may have had their barking behaviour reinforced – for instance barking before being fed and then getting the bowl given to them simply encourages further barking. Feed when silent.

The most efficient way to reduce barking is to first identify the cause and see if this can be avoided and the environment managed to reduce the exposure to the trigger that begins a bout of barking.

I never suggest the use of punishment devices such as shock collars or citronella spray collars as these have been associated with a worsening of anxiety.

Many patients I have seen have had their conditions deteriorate after the use of a shock collar, and, even if barking has decreased, a replacement problematic behaviour has emerged.

If your dog has an issue with barking – take is seriously – and consider a vet behaviourist appointment to treat this behaviour both compassionately and scientifically.

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn BSC BVMS MANZCVS

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.

Positive Communication

When treating dogs with behavioural issues it is important for caregivers to understand the importance of developing positive communication. Effective communication results in a pet that has some control and predictability in their lives. Both these factors are soothing to anxious animals. It makes the pet feel safe.

When communication is poor between pet and caregiver the end result can be frustration for the caregiver and confusion for the pet. When caregivers are frustrated they are more likely to resort to punishment in an attempt to stop behaviours that they don’t like, but simply stopping behaviours is not usually a long-term solution. Often unwanted behaviours are repeatedly punished ineffectually with the added effect of not decreasing the behaviour. This results in a nagging, abusive relationship. Punishment has the added disadvantage of destroying the human-animal bond. The pet will lose trust in its caregivers and be less willing to interact. Punishment has been linked with dog bites and increased aggression.

When communication is based on a common language learning is fast and the animal becomes enthusiastic to participate.

Rewarding an animal for behaviours you want to strengthen is the key. If you DON’T want a dog to jump up on visitors, teach a sit for a reward. Ask all persons to follow your lead. Instead of chastising a dog for jumping up, try ignoring behaviour you don’t like. Even “telling off” can be the attention a dog is seeking and may not result in a decrease of the behaviour.

Instead always ask yourself – What do you want the dog to do? – then teach it.

Use a clicker, or a marker word, to signal to your dog it is performing the behaviour you are after. Over time the dog will be an active participator in trying to do behaviours that earn him/her a reward.

A click is always followed by a tangible reward in the form of a very small piece of food. Acquiring a new skill is fastest when reinforced at every opportunity at a high rate. Over time the reward can be intermittent but still remembering to reward every time the click or marker word is used. See clicker handout.

Working in a positive style with your dog has many other advantages. It teaches you that behaviour change can be force-free. When you stop punishing your dog you will be surprised how quickly your dog can learn. Without fear the dog is much more willing to engage and play. Both are powerful motivators.

Giving a dog a choice is also important. Sometimes new learning is hard and a momentary break is required. It is okay for a dog to say No – I can’t do it, not yet. It is your job to make it easier.

Only engage in training when you are in a good mood and have the patience to teach and guide. Think of them as cues NOT commands.

As a Veterinary Behaviourist my advice will only ever be based on the principle of using the most minimally aversive and least intrusive methods to achieve change.