Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Underlying anxiety can be the cause of many behavior problems, and it can add complexity to the training process.
Anxiety can cause many behavior problems
Clients often start with, "he's a great with people or dogs he knows, but...". Anxiety is usually present in dogs who have a collection of fear based behavior problems including:
Fear of being touched or examined
Cowering or hiding
Barking, lunging or biting unfamiliar people or dogs
Stress during car rides
Fear of sounds
Stress related health issues
None of this is new to me. My dog, Timber is struggles with anxiety and has a collection of triggers and fears. My husband had to coax her to eat her breakfast with a spoon this morning because sometimes her bowl is scary (don't ask, that's a whole other blog post).
When is socialization too much?
Dogs suffer with anxiety and other mental health disorders the same way people do. Unfortunately, they can't put their paw up and say, 'I'm dealing with crippling anxiety today, I'd like to stay in'. We want our dogs to join us on our adventures, so we force them into situations that they can't handle. All. The. Time.
"I think she needs more socialization," is a common statement from clients living with anxious dogs. They may have tried the dog park or other busy outings with disastrous results. Don't get me wrong, socialization is VERY important, especially for puppies and young dogs, but it won't cure a dog with real anxiety concerns. These dogs need slow introductions to new things. Too many fearful triggers at once will overwhelm them.
Anxious dogs need time
Dogs with anxiety tend to categorize things as:
Safe: "that hasn't hurt me before"
Unsafe: "I've never met that thing, it might hurt be, I should be afraid"
They need many positive experiences for something new to fall into the 'safe' category. If you introduce new situations, people and animals slowly and carefully, your anxious dog can adapt.
Anxious dogs crave consistency
Variety is the spice of life, unless your dog struggles with anxiety. Anxiety by definition is fear of the unknown, and dogs with anxiety prefer familiarity and predictability. A change in environment such as moving to a new home or camping can worsen anxiety. Anxious dogs also need more quiet time to decompress after stressful events.
Anxious dogs benefit from training and enrichment
Anxious dogs worry a lot. It's important that they have opportunities to have fun and feel care-free. Is your dog truly happy when chasing a ball, wrestling with you, playing with a confident dog friend, doing tricks, or figuring out a treat puzzle?
Try adding more of these activities to enrich your dogs life and combat anxiety. Hide treats around the house, try new puzzle toys, do agility or nosework. All of these things have proven to create more confidence.
Anxiety may affect health
Stress affects health. We know this is true for humans, but may not recognize it in our dogs. Dogs who struggle with ongoing anxiety may also have tummy troubles, rashes, constant licking feet or other body parts, and more. Remember that reducing stress can have positive impacts on your dog's physical health.
Talk to your vet
When underlying anxiety is at play, training alone may not resolve all of your dogs behavior concerns. Talk to your vet if you've implemented positive training and enrichment strategies and your dog is still struggling. There are plenty of medical and alternative options to help reduce anxiety.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You may need to try a few solutions before you find the right fit.