In this blog, I am going to address a behavioural problem seen in dogs that is on a rapid rise, a disease that seems to afflict more dogs than ever before, a disease that I am assisting owners with on an almost daily basis, a disease that is affecting dogs just like it is humans, we are talking about anxiety.
As we all know, anxiety is a mental health illness and in medical terms, it is an emotional response which follows an unpredictable situation or outcome and is prolonged compared to a normal fear response. A normal fear response is where you startle and get a bit spooked, you get a short rush of chemicals to prepare your body for danger but you recover within seconds and continue on as per usual and this is a normal self preserving reaction to protect us from dangerous circumstances. As soon as the danger is over, your brain sends another round of chemicals to calm you down and this juggling act of ‘mood’ chemicals occurs all the time.
When you are anxious however, the fear is irrational, there is no genuine cause of concern but your brain tells you there is, it sends signals that ‘something bad’ might happen or is happening, it overreacts and now this startle response starts to head down a different path. Various chemicals are now flooding into your body and you begin to feel light headed, your heart is pounding and your chest hurts, you are breathing rapidly and feel short of breath, you are sweating, you might tune everything out or become hypersensitive to your surroundings, you might feel nauseous and you become confused and then you either freeze or want to bolt. During this period you might also get very emotional where you want to cry or you might even get really angry and aggressive. In this moment, you are having a panic attack and you are being hijacked by your brain which is signalling you are in real danger even when you are not.
Now imagine you could not turn this emotional response off? Imagine going into a panicked state where your brain just cannot see or rationalise that the danger is over and you continue to feel that you cannot escape that feeling of dread? Now imagine feeling like that all day, every day for months and months. Imagine feeling like that each time you walk out the door or leave your home? Imagine feeling like that every time you are around others?
So now, let’s imagine this is a dog, who cannot book into their local GP and tell the doctor or even a friend that they have been feeling ‘weird’ lately. The dog cannot tell anyone why it is crying all the time or why it is angry at everyone and everything all the time, It cannot explain why it cannot understand you when you are trying to teach it something because it feels really worried about everything all the time. Imagine all this dog can do is ‘show’ you how it feels because it cannot speak to you…..but…. unless you can interpret it correctly, this poor dog continues to feel like this…..until …….hopefully……..eventually you work it out (or in Koko’s case, the trainer points it out!)
I am hoping that by sharing his story, more people can understand that dogs do suffer from anxiety and quite often, these dogs are left behind, they get put into the ‘too hard basket’ or worse, they go to trainers that use harsh methods, trying to bully them or even shock them to ‘get over it’. What these dogs need is sensitivity and understanding, they need time, patience and a tailored mental health care plan arranged by the Vet, Veterinary Behaviourist and their trainer.
Whilst I am not going to go into detail about anxiety and why dogs suffer from it (that’s another blog altogether!), I will share the story of Koko and what drew our attention to him, what we suggested and how things have turned around for him and his family.
Case study – Koko vs Anxiety
Koko is a Maltese and this is his story.
In December 2017, Koko was advertised on an online site, looking for a new home because his owners just had no time for him. They were too busy and felt he needed to go to a home where someone could spend more time with him. Koko met his new and current parents and was in quite a poor state; he was really underweight, his coat was terrible and it was clear he had been neglected. Koko’s new family had been mourning the loss of their aged dog and felt Koko was a great way to heal and start again. They had lots of love to give and thought Koko would slot right in and love his new life so they brought him home.
Within a few weeks, Koko’s new parents noticed each time he went for a walk, he would tremble and often refused to move. They could see he was scared but thought if they kept going out, he would get used to it. It took them a few months to get him going but still, he found it really difficult and each time he heard or saw another dog, he would bark at it and hide behind the parents’ legs and he just wasn’t getting used to it at all.
At home, he was also restless, he would pace, he would never settle, he constantly kept jumping up at them or their visitors, wanting to be picked up and held and he was always hyperactive, he would often bite at their shoes and he was terrified to use the stairs in the house. So Koko’s parents thought this would be a good time to look at dog training, thinking all he needed was some basic obedience and socialising to get him used to other people and dogs. Koko was booked into our Canine Classes and this is when his journey through life took a real turn!
Some of you reading this blog may have seen Koko in our course only a few months ago and some of you might be lucky enough to have him in your class now and if only you could compare the old Koko with the new Koko!
Koko 1.0 – before addressing the anxiety
- refusing treats
- dilated pupils
- trembling, muscle tremors
- high blood pressure (noticeable by the redness of eyes, blood coloured tongue and gums)
- irrational and unable to follow any instruction in class or out on the street
- extreme panic and desperately trying to escape the training venue including trying to climb the walls
- inability to settle for the entire duration of the lesson which was 60 minutes
- constant climbing on mum’s legs
- evasive behavior when we approached him
It was pretty clear during the first two lessons that Koko was having a severe panic attack and all he wanted to do was get out of the classes, not because he was naughty and did not want to learn, not because other dogs were near him, but because he was right out of his comfort zone and felt very unsafe, other dogs and people were in his presence in a foreign environment and he had no coping skills whatsoever to help him deal with this new situation. The behaviours mentioned above were Koko’s language and he was desperately trying to tell him mum how he was feeling. He was highly anxious and as his mum noticed this, she started to feel sad because she didn’t know how to help him and it dawned on her that he had been like that since they adopted him late last year. Koko’s mum thought he just needed some training but he actually needed a whole lot more.
Once we pointed out that his behaviours were all related to his anxiety and not ‘stubbornness’, it suddenly became a lot clearer as to why he could not learn, why he found everything so hard, why he overreacted even though he was not in danger, why having a loving family just wasn’t enough for him. No matter what they gave him, he could not see it because all he could do was worry!
We started to discuss options and as a behaviourist, it is our duty to ensure a dog’s mental health is always considered first. We would be pretty irresponsible trainers if we told his mum we could fix his problem through training alone. Training can do wonderful things but learning just cannot occur when the brain itself is not present and prepared and where ’emergency’ chemicals are flooding the body, placing it into overdrive all the time. The only solution at that point was to put training on hold and instead see the vet about Koko’s mental health illness and start on some anti anxiety medication.
Koko’s mum took all the information on board and could clearly see now how sad and scared her boy was, she could see he was not being naughty but instead desperately screaming for help. Koko was seen by the local vet the following week and I got an email shortly after saying he was starting his anti anxiety medication. Some drugs can take a while to work and for Koko it was a 4-6 week waiting period. So we pulled Koko out of classes altogether and decided to wait until he settled before giving it another go.
To my surprise, 5 weeks later, I saw another email from Koko’s mum, another booking, back into Canine Classes so I knew things must have improved already.
Koko 2.0 – after starting anti anxiety medication
Koko is just about to graduate from classes this week and I honestly cannot believe the difference in this dog. Two weeks into his medication and the first noticeable change was that he was now restful at home, no more pacing, no more hyperactivity, no more shaking. Koko seemed calmer, more relaxed at home and finally able to breathe. At the four week mark, he was now able to take instructions and was not distracted like before. Everything around him did not seem to matter as much and it did not worry him like before.
Koko restarted classes six weeks into his anti anxiety treatment and he has not looked back. He is no longer trembling, he is now breathing a normal breathing rate and he now has a normal heart rate, he is no longer hyperventilating and he is no longer trying to escape the venue. He is not barking at dogs and trying to hide and he is now taking treats and following instructions; in fact he is a bit of a star in classes now! Contrary to what a lot of people might think, he is also NOT a zombie and he is not stoned to reduce his anxiety. The medication provides him with the correct chemicals his brain needed to tackle the world and life without panicking. It facilitates learning by placing his mind at ease which then allows learning to take place. It open up roads in his brain so that new and improved behaviours can occur instead of taking the usual negative route over and over again. Anti anxiety medication allows him to see the world, his surroundings and his family with more clarity and it allows him to learn he now has options. More importantly, he can now see he has a family that are devoted to him and really love him and all they wanted was for him to be happy.
Koko is still in the early stages of his therapy and is improving more and more each day and we cannot wait to see how he is in 12 months time.
If you have a dog that is behaving in ways you cannot understand, it appears irrational, it struggles to learn, it finds situations or interactions overwhelming where it wants to avoid or displays aggression, if you feel your dog just does not ‘get it’ or continues to go down a self destructive path, if you feel training is just not helping or you are taking two steps forward and one back each time, if you feel your dog is often not present even with you standing right in front of it with the tastiest of treats and yet it seems to look through you, if you feel your dog appears worried all the time, then you very likely will have an anxious dog.
Speak to your qualified professional trainer, speak to your Vet and Veterinary Behaviourist about it, start the conversation that your dog might in fact be suffering from a mental health illness. They will know whether anti anxiety medication is the right solution for your dog. Not only is there medication but there are also other complimentary tools such as Adaptil, Thundershirts, supplements, diets, calming music and more. There is help out there and for the vast majority, anxiety can be addressed and remember anxiety is an illness just like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, etc. Anxiety is a disease of the brain.
To all the anxious dogs out there, help is on its way!