Are we seeing a worrying trend in canine anxiety?

It’s hard to miss the headlines. There’s a human anxiety epidemic, we’re told. Our species becomes more anxious with every decade, commentators write. Some trainers say the same about dogs. That canine anxiety is on the rise. So are people and dogs more anxious or are we just more aware of anxiety as a condition?

Interestingly, research shows that when it comes to people, levels of self-reported anxiety haven’t actually gone up—we’re no more likely to say we’re anxious than in the past. However, we are reporting more symptoms of anxiety, even if we're not ascribing them to anxiety. (1) So it’s not a simply a matter of increasing awareness of anxiety. Anxiety itself is more prevalent.

With dogs, this question is harder to answer. No one really knows if dogs are more anxious or whether owners are simply more aware. We just don’t have enough historical data on canine anxiety to tease out a trend.

But we do know pet dog anxiety is a sizeable problem and large numbers of dogs suffer from it. A study by Bamberger and Houpt (2006) looked at 1, 644 case files from 1991-2001. They revealed that 14.4% of had separation anxiety and 5.7% had generalized anxiety. (2)

And while we don't know if canine anxiety is on the increase, we do know that aspects of modern life contribute to dogs' anxiety. Luckily, we have many options for helping our anxious dogs, and we’ll explore these solutions in this article.

First, though, we need to unpack what we mean by anxiety. And we’ll start by looking at anxiety’s accomplice, fear.

 

The relationship between fear and anxiety

If anxiety is a modern malaise, fear has always been with us. Organisms that are good at spotting threats stay alive longer than those that aren’t. Threat-scanning organisms get to pass on their genes. Organisms which aren’t alert to threats, don’t survive.

So fear wins out in the genes war, and animals evolve with fearful brains.

But where does fear stop and anxiety begin? Some neuroscientists argue fear is a response to a known threat. They position anxiety as a more generalized reaction to an unclear, unknown threat.

What's more, they explain, there is a sense of lack of control which accompanies anxiety. An anxious subject focuses on hazy future dangers and doesn’t have a clear response. The fearful subject is face-to-face with the threat, and can determine an immediate action.

With people, it’s easier to distinguish fear from anxiety. Humans can tell us whether they fear an immediate danger. Or whether they're anxious about something in the future they can’t quite put their finger on. We can’t do this with dogs.

Take separation anxiety. Does the dog see an immediate threat when its owners leave? Or does the dog have a sense of foreboding of unknown dangers? We could surmise the latter. But it could be the dog does see a threat to its survival as soon as the door closes. No one knows.

In the end, the way we train fearful dogs doesn’t differ from how we train anxious dogs. We use gradual exposure and pair the stimulus with positive associations. We also use the same medications. Vets prescribe fluoxetine for separation anxiety, as well as for dogs who are fearful of strangers or other dogs.

Whether it’s fear or anxiety, we need to help dogs feel better about their world. And it’s our gift to do so.

Dog getting trained with food

Why might modern life be raising our dogs' anxiety levels?

Numerous studies highlight the danger of suppressing normal behaviors in captive animals.

Dogs too have natural behaviors which need an outlet. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of the behaviors that are normal for dogs are things we don’t want them to do.

As Jean Donaldson puts it in “Culture Clash”:

“Virtually all natural dog behaviors…are considered by humans to be behavior problems. The rules that seem so obvious to us make absolutely no sense to dogs.”(3)

What’s more, not only do we stop their natural dog behaviors, we also control every other detail of their lives. We tell them what and when they can eat, when and where they can poop, what time they go to the park, what they play when they get there, how long they are there for.

Then when they get home, we dictate where they sleep, how many cuddles we give them, and when they get nail trims.

We make the decisions. We call the shots. If there was ever any question about who is in charge, the dog is in no doubt. The dog doesn’t need to be brutalized with an alpha-roll to get that. As Marc Bekoff explains, dogs are “always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their owner and other humans.” (4)

Our pet dogs may be well fed, warm, and safe from predators and, disease. But, Jean Donaldson asserts, this isn’t enough. “Many dogs are pretty much warehoused. They are fed, sheltered, loved and given veterinary care but get way too little exercise and way too little mental stimulation.”

And veterinary behaviorist Debra Horowitz adds “The inability to express most normal dog behaviors and have their mental and physical needs met can cause anxiety in our companion”(5)

Simply put, we are not allowing our dogs to relieve anxiety and stress in their way. If modern life unhinges dogs, it’s because we are not giving them outlets for their doggishness.

Dogs just being dogs

Are “street dogs” happier?

So if our “killing them with kindness” approach is failing our companions, do street dogs have it better? Some would say this is the case. That these dogs don’t have the psychological problems that our pet dogs do.

Let’s get real for a moment. Being a warehoused dog is tough. But so is fighting for your survival on a daily basis.

I discussed this with Linda Green, who runs Unidos Para Los Animales rescue in Antigua, Guatemala. Linda and her team take many dogs off the street.

Linda says “Most dogs come to us in pretty poor shape. Many have been roaming on their own for a good while; some are recent dumpees. Watching them in areas they congregate, like the market, is so interesting. Their body language is exquisite. They get much more mental stimulation than most pet dogs, but Lord, they face so many dangers and challenges.”

Life on the streets isn’t better. It sucks. But we can learn something from the mental stimulation aspect that Linda talks about.

Dogs on sofa aleep
Dogs need more than a comfortable sofa

 

Tackling anxiety in our pet dogs

We owe it to our bored, stressed pets to give them the outlets for normal dog behavior street dogs have. If we do, then we have the best of both worlds. Here’s how.

1. Enhance their enrichment

Assume your dog isn’t getting enough mental stimulation. Most dogs aren’t. Look for ways to build more enrichment into your dog’s day. Exercise, games, dog sports, and puzzle feeders are the obvious ones many of us can tick off the list.

But conjure up other opportunities. Trips to the store, having people round, having friends take our dogs out, brain games – the list is endless.

And take training. Training is a great way to engage with a dog, and provide mental stimulation. If you train with an plan, are clear about what you expect your dog to do, and use tasty rewards, training becomes a fun, enriching activity. It’s all tricks to dogs.

Choice also adds to enrichment. Give dogs choice over who they want to play with, which strangers they are happy to have pet them, which toy they want to play with. Even which treat they want to train with today day. And let them say “no”.

Chocolate labrador on red sofa with kong toy
Enrichment is about more than just food puzzles.

2. Don’t worry about how much is too much. Worry instead about how much is enough

I often hear the charge enrichment activities make things worse for dogs. For example that “fetch-heads” are more stressed by a game of ball than by not playing ball. But there is no evidence to back this up. The limited research on the topic is inconclusive.

We do know zoo animals have more behavioural and health issues when they don’t get to express the species-specific stuff they were born to do. And most vets and trainers would say the same about dogs.

Few, if any pet dogs are going to suffer from too much enrichment. If they did, I’d put that in the category of “nice problem to have.”

Is it possible for the thing you love to do also to stress you out? Of course, it’s possible. Anyone who’s ever followed their team in a major competition will tell you the win/lose anxiety is real. But that’s the whole point. The adrenaline rush that comes from nail-biting games is why we love sports.

In his bestselling book on stress, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky(6) gives a helpful explanation of adrenaline junkies. He explores the reasons why long-term exposure to stress is harmful. But he contrasts this with how short-term stress is beneficial, and increases dopamine. That’s why we like nail-biting sports games and why dogs love fetch.

Sure, these short-term rushes can become addictive, but for some, not most. If you’re worried, mix it up for the dog.

In fact, variety is as important as control when it comes to the mental health of zoo animals. So mix up time, location, game, whatever. But don’t deny your dog. The harm of not giving him an outlet for his chase needs outweighs the risks.

3. Accept that Animal Planet plays out in your living room.

Is our need to have well-behaved dogs impacting their welfare? Is it possible to mold these pointy-toothed creatures without trampling on their needs?

Yes, it is. We can have a well-behaved dog who also gets to be a dog. We need to do a bit more accepting and a bit less suppressing. Remember many of the things we’re asking them to stop are the normal behaviors of dogs being dogs.

I’m not suggesting you let them run wild. Sometimes let them be more dog, that’s all.

We live with pointy-toothed creatures.

4. Understand what makes them fearful and anxious

Contract to help them get over fear. Agree to not expose them to it. For example:

  • Don’t let strangers approach shy dogs.
  • Don’t let tiny dogs get bowled over by big dogs.
  • See what you can do to make vet visits less worrisome.
  • Teach your dog how to love nail clipping.
  • Don’t leave a dog alone for longer than it can cope with.

Have a pact to what you can to keep the dog away from whatever frightens it. Then use gradual exposure and counter-conditioning to help the dog overcome its fears.

Cockapoo puppy being picked up by owner.
Let them decide who gets to pet them and pick them up.

5. If a behavior stresses us, don’t assume it's stressing the dog.

There seems to be much chatter about overexcited dogs. Dogs who jump, run, zoomie, chase or engage in whatever dog-like activity cause concern for some. Somehow an idea has taken hold that doing nothing is the best way for dogs to avoid anxiety.

But is the anxiety ours? Maybe we're the ones stressed, by full-on “dogs just being dogs”.

Zoomies, or  Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAPs), top the list of contentious behaviors. As with fetch, there is no evidence FRAPs are causing anxious dogs. And dogs love to zoom. Marc Bekoff says, “If they didn’t [love zoomies], it's highly likely they wouldn't engage in them. Zoomies are surely part of what it’s like to be a dog”.(7)

6. Focus on what do know about the causes of anxiety and don’t let speculation spellbind you

If we addressed but a fraction of the factors that we know cause anxiety in dogs, we’d transform their lives. But in dog training, as in life, shiny, new ideas love to distract us.

Take “thwarting” as a cause of anxiety. It’s captivating and sparkly. And it worries many trainers. Some question the ethics of training in which the dog can get it wrong. They’re concerned about timeouts. Puzzle feeders bother them too because they might be too challenging.

But thwarting is inevitable. We thwart dogs all day, every day. We put leashes on, close cookie cupboards, stop belly rubs and ear scratches, end training sessions, close doors and fence yards. And when we go to work we thwart the dog’s significant need for human company.

If we go back to the life of the street dog, we see thwarting at every turn. Prey that runs away, locks on dumpsters, doors to inviting places slammed shut.

So let’s not obsess about thwarting our pet dogs. Instead, let’s give them fun, varied enriching activities. Some of those might themselves be thwarting activities. After all, where’s the thrill of the chase if the squirrel doesn’t thwart the dog by running up the tree?

Which way would dogs vote?

Modern domestication is failing our dogs. Fed and sheltered isn’t enough. However, we can remedy this. Most of the enrichment suggestions in this article are easy and cheap, the biggest cost is usually our time.

If our dogs could talk, they’d tell us how grateful they are for what we do give them. But they’d add, could we let them be a little more dog?

Article first published in BARKS from the Guild (Issue 28, January 2018), the official publication of The Pet Professional Guild. Read the original article here.

 

References

  1. Jean M Twenge, Ph.D. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us
  2. Bamberger M, Houpt KA Signalment factors, comorbidity, and trends in behavior diagnoses in dogs: 1,644 cases (1991-2001) JAVMA 2006;
  3. Jean Donaldson, “Culture Clash” 1996.
  4. Marc Bekoff, “Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them”, Psychology Today, August 2017.
  5. Debra Horowitz, “Anxiety in Dogs: The Silent Epidemic”, 2014
  6. Robert M. Sapolsky “Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping” 2004
  7. Marc Bekoff “It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs”, Psychology Today, September 2017.