Anxiety doesn’t get more extreme than this dog, who was the subject of a question raised during a recent Holly & Hugo Q&A session:
“I have a Bluetick Coonhound… he is a rescue dog… He is brilliant but scared of everything. He’s petrified of cars, bikes, people, loud noises, sudden movement etc… We are unable to cross at the traffic lights as he can’t go near people, he will jump into the road. When we have had people over, he cowers in the corner and not move until they are gone. He has no physical scars, however I think he was abandoned and not exposed to people, noise etc. when he was a puppy and his fear has just got out of hand.” Excerpt from the owner’s question
For arguments sake, let’s call this dog ‘Blue’. His owner is dedicated to his rehabilitation but despite considerable effort Blue remains a nervous wreck. Poor Blue’s predicament really struck a chord, hence I’m dedicating a couple of blog posts to anxiety in dogs.
Is Anxiety all in the Mind?
Is Blue just a big scaredy-cat? No, he has an over sensitized amygdala (the part of the brain that “Acts first and asks questions later”).
In the face of danger, the dog’s brain kicks into survival mode to fight or run– the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. A potent cocktail of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol pour into the dog’s blood stream in order to prepare his body for action. These physical changes are associated with other unpleasant signs such as a dry mouth, pounding heart, and ultra-heightened awareness to form the basis of the emotion we call ‘fear’.
In his previous life Blue learnt running away as a survival strategy. Now, when he sees something scary his instinct is still to run – hence pulling his owner into the road. And when he can’t run away, he withdraws mentally, such as cowering in the corner when visitors call.
Blue’s reaction happens automatically and he is locked into a cycle of anxiety which breeds more anxiety. Normal behavioral advice is to counter-condition or desensitize the dog to the fearful situation. But I suspect this won’t cut it for Blue – not yet at least.
First Blue must learn to relax. Before he will become receptive to retraining he must switch off that over-sensitive automatic reaction and ‘chill’ instead.
Changing ‘Distress’ to ‘De-Stress’
These tips can also help your stress-out canine companion:
- Set a Routine: Anxious dogs crave a predictable life. Knowing what to expect next, helps the dog relax just a smidge, because it happened yesterday and he survived. Make sure mealtimes, grooming, walks, and bedtime happen at predictable times so the dog has anchor points during the day.
- Reassuring Pheromones: The Adaptil collar is impregnated with Dog Appeasing Pheromone (see here: Adaptil, D.A.P (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) Collar”. A nursing bitch gives off this pheromone to help her puppies feel safe and secure. No it’s not a miracle answer, but it can send out a reassuring message to a stressed out dog.
- Massage for Dogs: Some dogs live in a permanent state of high tension. Tellington Touch is a combination of massage and reflexology that helps your dog to relax. Once he knows what relaxed feels like, then you are really making progress.
- Body Wraps: Swaddling the dog in a snug-fighting T-shirt or a Thundershirt (e.g. Thundershirt Dog Jacket for Anxiety) simulates being held in a tight embraces. Many dogs find this reassuring, a bit like someone holding your hand and it bolsters their confidence. Unfortunately, Blue’s Mum reports that he’s even fearful of a Thundershirt, which makes me think he needs medical help.
When Medical Help is Required
Not all anxious dogs need medication but for some, such as Blue, it could make all the difference. Living in that constant state of high anxiety drains the dog’s reserves of neurotransmitters, making it more difficult to learn new behaviors. Modern drugs can help correct that. Not all dogs respond well to medical therapy, but those who do best are the anxious dog that prefer to flee not fight.
- Selegeline: There is a dog-version of this human drug and it beefs up the pleasure pathways in the brain so the dog experiences a greater feeling of well-being, and intensifies the feel-good factor of rewards.
- SSRI drugs: These are human drugs such as fluoxetine which are potent anti-anxiety medications that can cut through the constant need to be on high-alert.
Prevention is so much better than cure. Poor Blue never had the chance to be socialized and as a result lives his life in fear. Don’t let that happen to your pup. Get out there and get social!
Check Now: The Anxious Dog – Part II: Learning to be Let Go of Fear![*] This question was asked at a recent Holly & Hugo Q&A webinar. These sessions take place twice a month and are free for all Holly & Hugo students. To sign up click on Webinar banner in Your Virtual Campus. Not a student yet? Sign up to our Newsletter to get discount offers for our courses and FREE guides and resources. Sign up Now!
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