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Preventing the Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Anxiety

I work quite often with anxious dogs. I enjoy building confidence in fearful dogs. I live for helping build healthy coping mechanisms for dogs. And I finally want to talk about how to help anxious dogs. I've given some overall tips and tricks before, but I want to delve a little bit more into the mental component the perpetuates anxiety. Before we jump in, I do want to say that in the case of consistent trigger stacking (the dog is triggered by noises and people and dogs and quick motion, etc) and is chronically affected by them (not a puppy jumping at stimulus because of a fear period for a few weeks) then I do recommend talking with their vet about medication to be used in conjunction with a training plan.

Some of the problem with anxiety is that people don't always recognize anxious behaviors in dogs. They see a tongue out and read it as smiling. They see wide eyes and assume it's bright excitement. Look at the picture to the right. Many many people would interpret that picture as a happy dog. Me? I see nothing be anxiety. Look at his mouth. See how the tongue is depressed into the mouth rather than lolling? That's a sign that it's anxiety rather than happiness/heat. His mouth is open and his nostrils are flared because he's panting, borderline hyperventilating. His eyes are wide and glassy and you can see just a hint of the whites of them (whale eye). All of these are signs of anxiety. Now, watch the video below to see more signs of anxiety.

This was the very first session this dog was ever willing to take treats - in his life. He was so anxious in public that he wouldn't eat. At times he was so anxious in his home he wouldn't take food. In the beginning of the video I am having him focus on looking at a treat. That tends to get them to close their mouth and breathe through their nose (and thus slower and slightly more calmly). As soon as I feed him the treat, notice how he licks his lips a bunch of times. That is a huge sign of anxiety and discomfort. That being said, in this case, the lip licking is a lower degree of stress than the panting, which he goes back to as soon as we start to move. Instead of continuing walking and letting him continue to pant and escalate his anxiety, we stopped and go back to a Sit. You can also here me using "Ready, Set" to refocus him which is a pattern game used for anxious dogs, which deserves a post in and of itself.

The end result of that session was this picture. The dog breathing through his nose, taking treats readily, and focused on me rather than glancing about anxiously like in the video. Now to me, this picture presents a much happier vision of a dog than the one above. Many might say he looks like he serious or focused. Perhaps, but to me we're on our way to that calm, relaxed dog that you're able to take anywhere because they aren't pulling you toward every dog and person and they're also not bolting at every shadow they come across.

Anxiety is typically caused by a lack of coping skills. Certainly, it can also be caused by genetic components and imbalances in the brain. Even so, give a genetically anxious dog healthier coping mechanisms and while the propensity for anxiety will still be there, the dog will be better able to handle those emotions and be more mentally health overall.

I've talked before about one of the few times I will correct a dog's behavior (leash bump or otherwise) even when they don't have an alternate preferred behavior is when it is an issue of safety. One of those behaviors is bolting. I've seen cars have to slam on their break because a dog bolted into the road. I've seen dogs that bolted get lost in the woods for days, and some not make it back alive. My first time working an anxious dog, if they try to bolt, I will leash bump them.

Now, that's a controversial choice. I won't deny that. But I want to talk about why that has helped the dog I'm working with 100% of the time. If I pick up a nervous dog's leash and they bolt (not just move to the end of the leash, not just pull away from me, but full on flee) I need that not to be the dog's first response, their first line of defense? Why? Because again, bolting is an incredibly dangerous behavior in the modern world. It served a lot of purpose in a less busy (less car filled) world, but today that instinct largely will only get a dog hurt. Typically, I hesitant to add a negative experience to something the dog already finds negative. I'm not going to leash correct a dog for barking because they're scared of something under most circumstances. However, in this case, making bolting less desirable is something I absolutely want to reinforce.

Most work I do with insecure dogs is about building confidence, about teaching them how to walk away from confrontation rather than lashing out. They learn how to interact with their environment confidently and that confidence begins to translate to other areas of their lives. Success with anxious dogs is about building their confidence and changing negative emotional responses into positive ones. That's 98%+ of the work. However, that last 2% is incredibly important and a piece that many trainers won't discuss or hesitate delve into.

For me, interrupting the vicious circle of anxiety is that last 2%. Anxiety perpetuates because there are many physical coping strategies that dogs use that alleviate some of the anxiety and so they perpetuate and then become habit. My dog's need to go out and become anxious about it, so they start to pace. That pacing is a physical release of the anxiety they are feeling so they continue it. The solution? Take them out before they start to pace. That being said, if I need to finish up an email, I'll tell them "No. Place." - essentially marking that their action is an incorrect choice (pacing sets off some sensory issues I have) and then giving them a cue for a known behavior instead- going and lying down while I finish up my work quickly.

If I allow them to pace, the behavior will be perpetuated. And then eventually it will become a behavior to be implemented in other scenarios. In this example, let's say my dogs now routinely pace whenever they want to go out. And then, they are anxious because I haven't fed them, so they start pacing then too. And then they hear a noise outside and since their learned coping mechanism for feeling anxious is to pace, they start to pace. Since pacing is paired with anxiety consistently in the dog's brain, whenever they pace they start to feel increasingly anxious, much more so than when the original pacing behavior started because those emotions have now been reinforced and escalated over time.

This is how anxiety and insecurity begin to build and escalate in a dog over time. My hypothetical was with my own dogs, who have a low propensity for anxiety overall. Imagine how much worse the physical manifestations of anxiety can get with a genetically anxious dog (one who has a history of anxious family members).

How do you prevent that build? Firstly, you give them alternate coping mechanisms-

  • Sniff the ground instead of barking

  • Looking at their person instead of lunging

  • Lying on their bed instead of pacing

  • Putting their chin on the floor instead of panting

  • Freeze in place instead of bolting (or better yet, move away from the trigger)

The key in these scenarios is that every single mentally harmful coping mechanisms needs to be addressed, because if they aren't, then all the dog's anxiety will be channeled into their one/few remaining coping mechanisms.

If a dog becomes so locked in a behavior that I cannot get them to perform a known alternative behavior (Place, Head Down, etc) that's where I will add positive punishment in the form of a squirt bottle, a leash correction, etc. Why? To stop the increasingly frantic, mentally harmful repetitive behaviors. Think of it as dousing someone who is increasingly manic and panicked in cold water -it serves as a jolt to stop the harmful pattern. Ideally, I would be able to move the dog far enough away from the behavior to where they wouldn't need to react/panic. However, there are many times when this simply isn't feasible and I will stand my my opinion: it is less harmful to leash bump a panicked dog to stop mentally deleterious behaviors that it is to allow those behaviors to perpetuate.

In this case, we're looking at acute negative emotions versus chronic negative emotions. Is it worse to leash correct a dog, which they will find aversive, or to allow them to work themselves up, which is certainly a problem for the dog's mental state. Yes. Absolutely we should be managing our dogs and keeping them below their threshold of panicking and reacting. But here's the thing. Even the best management can fail. Not preparing owners for that eventuality isn't helping the owners anymore than it's directly addressing the chronic problems with their dog's anxiety.

But doesn't this path harm your relationship with your dog?

I did a lot of stage managing for children's theatre before I came to dog training. What that meant is I set and enforced the schedule, the rules. In general, stage managers don't tend to be the fun ones during the rehearsal process because they're the ones reminding actors on the side that they need to be quiet and not interrupt. They're the ones banning snacks because they got left all over the rehearsal room again. But, without fail, once the show opened, once everyone knew their job and performed it flawlessly, that's when the fun started. Kids would always marvel how I would laugh and joke after opening (after they were doing their job) and note how much fun I was. And the next time I stage managed for them they would smile at me quietly from the side of rehearsals. They would stay late to help me clean up the spilled snacks of the new kids.

Establish your boundaries from the start. It's not always a fun process. But the end result will be worth it. Because once everyone knows their role, once everyone has a calm way to respond in difficult situations, then there's no conflict anymore and the real fun and bonding begins.

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