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.

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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.

 

 

 

Why I don’t suggest Boot camp…

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Have you heard it said that when your car needs fixing you send it to a qualified mechanic and therefore when your dog has problems it makes sense to send him/her away too…

The problem with this analogy is that a dog is not as simple as a car. A canine is a biological organism and an emotional one at that. A better analogy would be to consider your relationship with a dependent and ask yourself if you will improve your relationship with a child by sending him/her to boarding school?

To build a relationship with a dog you need to spend quality time. I suggest this time be spent building a strong relationship based on mutual respect and trust. So how do you get a dog to trust you?

Firstly, and most importantly, you give a dog predictability and control.

You make yourself understandable by being a benevolent leader who rewards the dog for following cues and teaches cues that are understood. A good leader of a dog does not lose his/her temper or teach through the use of punishment.

When you send a dog away you create stress – new place, new people, other dogs. Dogs and people do not learn well when they are stressed. In fact stress damages the learning and memory areas of the brain. Dogs can feel so overwhelmed by the process that they may appear obedient (learnt helplessness) during camp but this is seldom a long lasting change. Dogs attending camp are taught through aversive means and sometimes even have shock collars placed upon them whilst under such “care”.

Ending up with a well trained and happy dog does not happen in a few days, or even in a few weeks, at boot camp, but rather comes about by the slow, kind and consistent work of a caregiver who has their dog in their front of mind. Look at the dog in front of you and design a plan under the guidance your behaviour veterinarian and their recommended trainer if you want to achieve a life time of happy dog memories. The work may not be instantaneous but the change will come and it will be long-lasting, ethically-created and be mutually beneficial to you and the dog.

 

Say No to Punishment

When it is suggested to caregivers to use a shock device they are often told “it won’t hurt the dog.” This is knuckle headed in so many ways.

Sometimes sellers of these products even claim they “tickle” just enough to get the dog to stop what they are doing.

Some owners may have tried the device on themselves and claim they can hardly feel it. If that is the case then why use a device like this at all? By definition for punishment to work it must be aversive enough and occur within 0.5 seconds of the behaviour you are intending to stop. This means two things – the animal is still performing the behaviour you are wishing to eradicate, and then you are applying some physical correction immediately after it. This does not set up a dog to succeed.

An example of positive punishment at work is when you place your hand on hot plate. Immediately you are “punished” and you may never do something like this again.  Yet we don’t teach children not to touch a hot plate by putting their hand on one – instead we instruct, we manage the environment and they learn. Most shock devices are being used over and over again to deliver what is akin to abuse. This is neither effective punishment or humane.

A shock device may stop some unwanted behaviour, but the question caregivers should ask is at what cost.

Often these devices cause momentary pain that does immediately halt the behaviour, but if the behaviour is rooted in fear and anxiety (as most unwanted behaviour is) this is not a long-term solution. The emotion behind the behaviour has not gone away and may even have been made worse.

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Treating behaviour problems humanely and with positive reinforcement techniques has been shown to be both effective and without harm – whereas using punishment in the form of a shock device or an aversive collar can lead to the worsening of aggression, a change to compulsive behaviours or physical illness.

In my mind these devices should be banned. Most caregivers are not equipped to use them, and most trainers who advise them would be better not working with any animals at all.