Working through Anxiety
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
I have worked with noticeably more dogs recently whom owners described as anxious, or having anxiety, or having separation anxiety. While dealing with anxious dogs can be overwhelming and at times upsetting, it is neither a showstopper to ownership nor does it necessarily need to be medicated.
Anxiety routinely comes with side effects which are not only in and of itself difficult to manage, but they may have to be dealt with first, before actual anxiety can be addressed. I find anxious dogs often don’t have a lot or any food– or toy drive, they pace a lot, tend to be fidgety, and they may not settle easily to the point of destruction of themselves or other objects. They have fearful behaviors, or worse yet fear aggression. They are so occupied with being anxious, that their mind simply is not free to receive valuable information which helps them overcome their anxiety.
Finding that one food/toy that triggers even an anxious dog to be motivated is key to success, along with a gentle definition of rules, and some structure (think routine). It is also important to show the dog manageable and purposeful solutions instead of coddling or “rescuing “the dog. This is hard for owners who only want the best and mean well.
This process may mean to painstakingly build that food drive first before we can “get in”. It also is a patient process of building trust such that the dog learns increasingly there is nothing to be anxious about. A dog who is fearful of the owner leaving needs to be shown that owner returns, and it needs to be highlighted with something valuable when owner does return.
Improving anxiety also much addresses changing the feeling of the dog. As much as we think of treat training affecting a behavior like a Sit or a Down, we may also reinforce through food or toys specific feelings. In an anxious dogs, we would want to reward a calm and collected disposition. We must notice those moments of peace and calm, so we can reward them and work against that anxiety.
Anxiety can be improved in most dogs with a structured training routine, some clear rules, patience and the willingness to remain open about what may motivate the dog.