What is Extreme Anxiety in Dogs?
A happy greeting when you come home or a walk around the neighborhood are just a few things one might envision about having a dog. For some owners though, these situations are less than ideal and can be a constant reminder that things aren’t quite right. A dog might run away and hide under furniture instead of running happily towards them or they may lie flat against the ground instead of walking leisurely on leash. Owners seek help for their seemingly sweet, but anxious and nervous dog. This complicated set of behaviors is often labelled global fear or fear based aggression, but I’ll refer to it as extreme avoidance.
Like all behavior, both genetics and the environment play a significant role in the cause of extreme avoidance behavior. Certainly the behavior isn’t breed specific, but it is likely that your dog’s parents and grandparents were, at a minimum, shy as well.
In addition to genetics, one could imagine extreme living conditions could contribute to such avoidance behavior. Some dogs may have been homeless and living on the streets for most of their lives. Others may have been raised in very rural environments. Yet others were puppies raised in puppy mills. The common denominator with these environments is the lack of positive human contact and the lack of being raised around typical household sounds. Sadly, by the time a puppy is 16-20 weeks, it may be hard to easily overcome such poor early living conditions. This behavior can be evident even in young puppies and often becomes significantly worse with age without a good intervention and training program.
Current Environmental Causes and Treatment
Unfortunately, nothing can be done to change what happened to these dogs, but we can look to the current environment to improve their lives moving forward. The treatment is twofold: 1) pair the presence of “scary” things with something really pleasant and 2) reduce the ability to escape when your dog behaving with extreme avoidance.
It’s important to start by offering tasty treats and even meals around “scary” things. When doing so the “scary” items should be at a distance and somewhat tolerable. After consulting with your veterinarian, meals can be arranged around these slightly scary events. It’s important that your dog begin eating in such situations. It can help to have them off leash in a safe area or on a long line such that at the onset the option to escape is more available. Once your dog begins eating, begin increasing the intensity of the exposure, decreasing the rate of feeding, and decreasing the value of the food. (See our separation anxiety and storm phobia posts as alternative examples to similar exposures.) Be sure not to pet or try to physically comfort your dog while feeding. It can be helpful to praise as they begin eating or even try to get them to play.
Throughout treatment it is equally important to avoid situations in which your dog can escape. Each time they panic and are allowed to escape to area, that panic is reinforced. For example, if they run under your bed each time you enter the room, avoiding contact with you under the bed reinforces the running under the bed (i.e., panic). Instead, block the area under the bed and have them drag a leash. The leash will allow you to safely handle without having to grab your dog’s collar. Another example includes refusal to walk. If tension is applied to a leash because your dog stops and then you release such tension and walk towards your dog, the stopping is reinforced by the reduced tension as well as the pause in the walk. In the future, your dog will be more likely to stop and the “refusal to walk” will increase. Instead, coax your dog along with firm pressure and begin praising as they come along with you. Again, being off leash or on a long line to start can help during treatment as it gives the impression that escape is more available so the initial panicky behavior is presented less. It’s important that the training scenario begin with such equipment rather than the equipment occurring after the panicky behavior. The order in which these events occur is everything!
It is also critical to understand the danger in not allowing your dog to escape in certain situations. It’s imperative they not be forced to be petted, sat on, or physically handled by a person. Such situations can create very dangerous scenarios. As the motivation to escape grows, so does the likelihood of a bite if a person is within a few feet.
It’s all about minimal exposure to these scary events before your dog begins panicking while pairing at other controlled times and, simultaneously not allowing the anxious behavior to be reinforced by hiding or escape. Although treatment can be challenging, it is very effective. In more difficult cases, it might require direct help from a CAAB or a trainer experienced in dealing with extreme avoidance. For individualized help with such behavior, contact Beyond the Dog today!