Signs of stress and signs of anxiety are almost exactly the same. In both cases you’ll see at least one of these three signs:
1. Ears pinched back or down against skull
2. Whites of the eyes showing (if a dog is looking sideways, this counts. Comfortable dogs turn their heads, not their eyes.)
3. Back molars or pink corners of lips showing when and if they pant.
(Note that these symptoms also occur when your dog is under physical stress, such as overheating. Stop playing if you see these signs!)
There’s a fourth sign that doesn’t always show up, but for me is the flaming red flag of an anxious dog: the base of the tail will be pressed against the butt, though the tip may be out and wagging.
If these signs are happening without anything stressful going on (if, for instance, your dog is just hanging out in your house), then your pup is probably suffering from anxiety, as opposed to stress. There are some basic steps you can take to relieve some anxiety in your dog’s life.
1. Start walking daily (or as close to it as possible). The goal here isn’t to make your dog tired right after the walk, but to bring his overall levels of energy down. This takes consistency. If you drain off the energy, then you drain off part of what’s fueling the anxiety. Note also that I said “walking,” not “fetch.” Things that are exciting bump up the energy levels, whereas calm exercise will help bring them down.
2. Stop soothing. We all love giving our dogs love and affection, and I believe we should do that whenever we want, just because. However, one of the times this becomes detrimental is doing it when your dog is stressed out. Now, I’m not saying ignore your dog. While that can work, it takes a VERY long time. When we soothe, though, we tend to bring our shoulders in and forward. Our body language is saying, “I have no confidence here. I can’t deal with this.” In reaction, your dog says, “If you can’t deal with it, either, we really are going to die!” What you can do is be a cheerleader. “Spot! That time, you only cowered and didn’t pee! What a fabulously brave dog, I’m so proud of you!” When we praise, our shoulders come back and our voices rise, giving off happy-confident body language. While your dog won’t entirely match it, their emotional state will rise a little bit to match it closer, and furthermore, they’ll see that you’re confident and happy about the situation — clearly, then, it’s nothing to fear.
3. Confidence building exercises. This sounds fancy, doesn’t it? It boils down to this: teach your dog tricks. Use positive reinforcement, do something where it doesn’t matter if he gets it wrong (and you won’t get annoyed; if you start getting annoyed, walk away and come back later). Your goal is to give him something he can succeed at and feel good about.
4. Don’t run away. If you have a dog with generalized anxiety, chances are there’s a lot of things that startle or frighten them, too. When that happens, move along until your dog is no longer panicking, and then STOP. Sit, look at the scary thing, offer a treat and praise. If you keep moving, often your dog will think, “Phew! We escaped the monster!” If you stop outside his range of panic, then he has a chance to see that it’s not a monster, and you didn’t have to escape it.
A couple of extra steps: if she’s not panicking too badly, you can go towards the monster. With inanimate objects, I like to go over to it myself and touch it, pat it, etc. If I can’t touch it, my dog has no reason to believe it’s safe. I want to lead by example. With living creatures, I’m just going to sit and check them out from a distance; I don’t want my dog to react by fear-biting.
5. Be a guardian. There’s a lot of things about the world our dogs can’t understand. Our job is to protect them so they can gain confidence and flourish. This means, don’t push them into situations they think are scary; protect them until they’re ready to try it themselves. (This, in fact, relates to the last post on building trust. When your dog is no longer panicking, and “It’s a bad thing” is less likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, start doing this.)
The other day I was working with a timid puppy. Rather than encourage the puppy forward to check out the human, we asked him to sit down while his brother got some pets. When he stood up, we asked him to sit down again. Finally, he lifted his tail and stood (up tail = ready to engage. Low tail = not ready to engage, but might try for your sake.). At that point, we let him go forward.
If at any point he stood up with his tail low and offered to engage, we said no. I want him to feel confident before he engages with people; I don’t want him to feel pressured. When he realizes I’ll protect him, he’ll feel more confident checking things out, knowing I have his back! (ie, he’ll trust me.)
If the person reached out for him before it was time, I physically intervened by gently pushing their hand away and explaining, or by pulling him behind me. I want him to know I will protect him. (Within meeting three people, he decided he liked people after all. When re-training adult dogs, it takes a lot longer!)
6. Give your dog a safe space where no one is going to bother her. A crate, a bedroom, a closet, a dog bed in the corner — it doesn’t matter where (though tucked-away spaces usually work best), she just needs some area where she knows she can hide. Lily uses her crate, and to this day that’s her escape. If I’m boarding dogs, especially young ones, and she needs a break she puts herself in her crate. The rule is no other dogs are allowed to bug her in there, and I enforce it!
Phew! Start there, and know that improvement from anxiety takes time — usually six months before you’re seeing real results. If your dog is severe, or you need faster results, I suggest Rescue Remedy or some type of doggie Prozac from your vet. RR is an over the counter herbal supplement that works on most dogs, and the anti-anxiety meds today that your vet might prescribe are much better than they used to be. Hooray!