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Signs of anxiety

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

The general meaning of anxiety, a state of uneasiness or apprehension, is familiar to all of us. The unpleasant subjective experience of anxiety is associated with physiological changes, such as increased rate of breathing, pupils dilating, hair standing on end, adrenaline and stress hormones in the bloodstream, blood concentrated on the internal organs and so on. This is part of the body’s response to danger or threat. Anxiety can be acute or low-level, it may be a response to a real and present threat, or it may be more generalised. It may start with a specific threat then become more generalised as the dog learns to avoid not only the specific threat but anything associated with it.

Personally, I prefer not to get too concerned about debating whether anxiety is mental, emotional, physiological or behavioural. A dog, regardless of the nature of its problem, is a whole dog, and anything that affects the dog may be felt at all levels, including:

  • the experiences the dog has
  • the conditioned and unconditioned responses to experience
  • the behaviour which results
  • the emotions which drive the behaviour
  • the physiological states that underlie the emotions
  • the chemical and neurological reactions that occur
  • the feedback that can occur from any of these to any of the others

Rather than argue about whether something is basically chemical or basically learned, I prefer to say that all of these levels operate. The issue if you want to bring about change is:

What is the best entry point (or points) to work on?

Fortunately, there are several to choose from.

It is not well understood that anxious dogs benefit from leadership programs. Establishing leadership raises the confidence of the anxious dog by giving him a dependable structure to live within. Dogs in a high state of arousal, due to anxiety, show visible relief when leadership programs are started. At last someone is running the world! Because the dog certainly can’t handle this responsibility.

Other entry levels include behavioural conditioning programs. Systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning are the most commonly used. If conditioning is difficult to achieve, psychotropic drugs are increasingly being used.


A useful article from Doggonesafe…

Signs of Anxiety

These signs indicate that your dog is uncomfortable with the current situation and there is a need for intervention to prevent pushing the dog to the point of biting, and to make sure your canine friend is happy and not feeling anxious.

Please remember: It is a GOOD THING that a dog shows you that he is anxious or uncomfortable, rather than going straight to a bite. Never punish a dog for showing that he wants to be left alone by growling, leaving the situation or demonstrating more subtle signs. If you punish a dog for growling or breaking a stay to get way from a child you might suppress the warning or avoidance behavior and he might just bite without warning first the next time. The dog still feels exactly the same way about the child bothering him, but now he has no way to show it and no way out of the situation. Be glad if your dog gives a warning and take steps to modify the behavior of the child, condition the dog to enjoy the child and create safe spaces for both dog and child. See the parent information page and the dog owner information page to find out how to do this.

Avoidance Behaviors

Sometimes dogs are more overt when they feel anxious and want to remove themselves from a situation. Please don’t force a dog to stay in situation in which he feels anxious, especially if children are the source of his anxiety. Here are some examples:

•    the dog gets up and leaves an uncomfortable situation (he may bite rather than leaving one of these days)
•    turning head away
•    hiding behind person or object
•    barking and retreating
•    the dog rolls over on back in submissive way (please don’t hurt me!)

Other Body Language Signs of Anxiety
•    tail between legs
•    tail low and only the end is wagging
•    tail between legs and wagging
•    tail down or straight for curly-tailed dog (husky, malamute, pug, chow chow, spitz-type dogs etc.)
•    ears sideways for erect eared dog
•    ears back and very rapid panting
•    dog goes into another room away from you and urinates or defecates (Please find a professional behavior consultant for help with this – search our directory)

All dogs should have a safe place, such as a crate or mat that they can go to when they want to be left alone. All family members and guests should be taught not to bother the dog when he is in his safe place. We have recently heard of a mat product which gives the dog a shock if he tries to leave it, thus teaching him to stay on the mat. This is not what we would consider a safe place for the dog. This is a dangerous product and you should not have one of these.


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