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Countering Anxiety-Based Behavior

In This Chapter

Fear, anxiety, and stress are the big three ingredients when it comes to psychological problems in humans, and they’re equally important in the psychology of dogs. Sometimes it’s quite clear that your dog is worried and afraid. In other instances, you only know your dog is afraid after he engages in certain unpleasant behaviors, which can run the gamut from destroying furniture and objects, loud barking and howling in your absence, or even behaviors that look much like unprovoked aggression, such as nipping or biting someone. The first step in helping your dog with his anxiety is being able to recognize it in the first place.

The Face of Fear

The more obvious signs that a dog is anxious or afraid include ears slicked back, tail down, whining, whimpering and other high pitched sounds, and cringing or rolling on the ground (see Figure 14-1). An anxious dog may respond in different ways, however, depending upon the type of fear it is dealing with.
Fear isn’t a simple emotion, and often surfaces in unique ways and to varying degrees. The strongest and most obvious form comes when the dog feels that its very life and safety are threatened. In such situations, only two courses of action are open to the dog.
It can escape the fearful situation, or it can fight the individual who is the source of the threat.

Figure 14-1: Typical fearful position with body lowered.
Technical Stuff
Among fearful dogs, you find a number of fear biters. These dogs are virtually swamped by their fear and may seem to be acting both inappropriately and unpredictably to otherwise everyday situations. If a trauma has left a dog legitimately so afraid of a person or situation that he is willing to attack to save himself from harm, he desperately needs to be reconditioned to accept the stimulus. Though this process may take time and patience, it’s not impossible.
A fearful dog prefers to head for the hills and run away from situations or people that frighten him, whether threat is real or imagined. Consider the dog who is afraid of newcomers and who will immediately hide the moment the doorbell rings. In the wild, this reaction is a survival skill; in the home, it creates confusion, as most people love to introduce and share their pet’s love as though it were another family member. Of course, if anyone in your family hid when a visitor knocked, you’d immediately seek help. So, too, should you be alerted if your dog is showing this level of anxiety.
Normal social fear and communication
It is fascinating that more dogs don’t use aggression when fearful or threatened, though as with many behaviors, an evolutionary explanation exists. It seems that evolution took a dislike to aggression among members of the same group, unless there is no other recourse. In a pack of wolves, for example, it’s important to their survival that they stay together, which requires strong social bonds. Within a pack of wolves, a hierarchy evolved to organize group interaction, with the brightest and most sensible wolves guiding the rest of the pack.
A nervous or fearful wolf might feel intense conflict when addressed by a more dominant pack member, but running away or showing aggression would not be an appropriate social response. Instead, wolves, and in turn dogs, learned more appropriate gestures to communicate respect, submission, and fear. In effect, this social skill allows them to stay in the group, share in companionship, and yet avoid conflict.
The eyes have it
If your dog is panting or showing any other signs of stress, look carefully at his eyes. In human beings, stress, anxiety, and excitement cause the pupils of our eyes to dilate. The same is true in dogs. If you have a breed where you can see the size of his pupils, check whether they’re larger than usual. If so, your dog is under pressure of some sort.
Of course, this assessment requires that you first know how large your dog’s pupils are when he’s not worried, so take this opportunity to look into his eyes now so that you have something to compare with later if you think your dog is going through an anxious period.
At times, a fear is manifested, and a dog can’t retreat. This situation creates an impulse of fight or flight, and when left no other option, a dog will react aggressively in its natural impulse to simply survive. In the wild, this reaction may be seen if a dog were cornered by a larger predator, such as a bear or a mountain lion, but in everyday life, this reaction can evolve when a dog is tethered, caged, or cornered.
Using social skills to resolve conflict
Fortunately, dogs who bite humans out of fear are in the minority. Dogs accept humans as other dogs, and they often use the same social skills that help them adapt to social living throughout evolution.
Truly fearful dogs often have a history of social isolation or neglect in puppyhood. If a young dog is isolated from humans and/or other dogs during her early socialization period (see Meeting the Needs of Your Growing Puppy), she’ll be unable to learn appropriate play and communication skills. When placed in “normal” social situations as an adult, the social “handicap” will be readily noted through fearful/aggressive displays.
When a dog is socialized normally, he develops natural communication skills to avoid conflict and stress with other group members. Obviously, in the case of conflict, escape and fighting are still options open to the dog. Of the two, fighting is a less likely outcome.
The major communication signal that submissive dogs use to avoid conflict is to lower their body frame as they cringe with both belly and head near the ground while looking up. Designed to shrink appearances, it’s exactly the opposite of expressing dominance, which involves standing tall, tail up, ears up, fur standing erect to make an individual look larger. In this case of submission, the dog is basically saying, “Let’s not argue” or “I accept your leadership and higher social status.”
The presence of a ritualized signal, such as the lowered body, isn’t a sign of physical fear, but rather a means of avoiding the frightening possibility of confrontation. This stance is no different than a peasant bowing before a king to show respect and acknowledge his rank.
Recognizing signs of stress
Fortunately, most of our dogs don’t often have full-blown bouts of fear, but they can suffer from a variety of stressors and worries. The following signs and signals indicate stress:
Just For Fun
The submissive paw is a common site in the early stages of obedience training classes where the dogs are quite unsure as to what’s expected of them. If the dog has been placed in a sit position and told to stay, for example, the dogs with their paws raised are also the ones that are most likely to lie down or to break and run to the safety of their master’s side before the time has been completed.
Litter tales
Many of the gestures that indicate anxiety, worry, or submissive behavior that results from fear actually evolve from things that happened in the litter. After puppies are fed, the mother nudges each pup over onto his back or side with her nose. She then holds him down and licks him from top to bottom. When she starts to lick his face and neck, the puppy’s reaction is to raise his paw and lie there submissively until his mother is finished with her task. Later, when the puppy’s eyes are functioning well, it takes only a hard dominant stare from his mother to cause him to roll over while lifting his paw.
Puppies often try to pacify their mother or other members of their litter by licking them when they’re acting hostile or threatening. Later, when the dog is more mature, he may use licking behavior for the same reason. He may lick the hand of his master who has been angry at him, for example.

The Leaky Dog Syndrome

The scene isn’t uncommon. You arrive home, a guest arrives at your house, or you meet someone in the street, and when an attempt is made to greet your dog, you see her crouching on the ground with yellow droplets or a pool of piddle around her. This anxiety-based behavior isn’t a lapse in housetraining. It is a sign that something about the situation is stimulating some extreme feelings of worry, and technically behaviorists refer to this problem as submissive urination.
Like many dog behaviors, you can trace the origin of this one back to the litter. Young pups need to be stimulated by their mother’s licking and nudging before they can urinate or defecate. If the pup doesn’t respond quickly enough, the mother may nudge the genital area quite hard to get things moving, and the resulting yelps from the pups indicate that this action can be unpleasant. Later, when the puppy is older and is effectively using his eyesight, the mother simply has to look as if she intends to roll the pup over to start the toilet ritual to trigger urination. This step saves the mother time (and the pups the discomfort of hard nudges) and prepares the pups to become “housetrained” when they’re capable of following their mother outside to eliminate.
Psychologically, puppies learn early to respond to a dominant look or gesture with submissive urination. As the puppies become more mature, they do gain control over this behavior, and depending upon their life experience, it may never again appear in adulthood. However, in cases of severe stress (which varies, depending on a puppy’s temperament or life experiences), submissive urination can occur and can become a messy and embarrassing problem to the dog’s owners.
Submissive urination is an involuntary behavior that you can’t correct by becoming angry or upset. Solving the problem requires you to control any display of emotion.
Before addressing the problem, analyze it. When does it occur?
Once the situations that trigger the urination are identified, you can clear up the problem in a few weeks, depending upon your skill, consistency, and severity of the problem.
Stopping the leak
Because submissive urination predictably results when your dog is greeting a person whose stature or vocal tones convey authority, you can easily predict when this behavior will occur. When interacting with these authority-type figures, inform them of your efforts and ask them to ignore your dog, either completely or at least until you’ve equipped them with a treat cup or your dog approaches them.
The good news is that a puppy or a young dog usually outgrows the problem as he matures and can predict interactions. Building your dog’s self-confidence is also critical in resolving this anxietybased problem. Punishment, on the other hand, only intensifies his anxiety and makes matters worse.
The essence of the correction is to remove any signs of threat at those critical times that you’ve identified as the triggers for this behavior. For example:
If your dog is treat motivated, use a treat cup, clicker, or hand-held goodies to externalize his focus as you encourage him to approach you (see Inspiring Behavior with Motivational Techniques).
In addition, make every effort to build your dog’s confidence in your day-to-day interactions:
The effect of this carefully planned social encounter can slowly recondition your dog’s fear into eager anticipation of positive social encounters. Submissive peeing no more!

Curbing Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a term used to cover a whole collection of extreme reactions that dogs have when their owners leave them alone in their home. Classic responses include
Our casebooks are filled with such instances: Jet, the border collie who quite literally stripped the kitchen wallpaper by the back door; Billy, the boxer who chewed and dug a hole through a wall between two rooms; and countless other dogs who daily destroy furnishings and clothing when they’re left alone. Separation anxiety is all too common in today’s world where dogs are left alone for prolonged hours and simply expected to entertain themselves. These poor social creatures don’t perform these acts joyfully — each animal was in a heighten state of anxiety, to the point of sheer panic.
Accept it or not, but people are the chief cause of a dog’s prolonged separation anxiety experience. Though most dogs experience separation anxiety during adolescence, handled properly, this developmental phase passes quickly. Handled inappropriately, however, this psychological issue can last a lifetime.
The experience of separation anxiety has evolutionary roots. In a pack, young puppies remain at the den with a chaperone, as the adult wolves/dogs would venture to a field to hunt or explore. As the puppies matured into adolescents, the release of adult hormones would herald a rite of passage, and the same puppies were included in all adult rituals. Fast forward to present day. Though young puppies readily accept your comings and goings, adolescent dogs must emotionally adjust to your separation as their impulses are quite literally telling them to join you.
Metaphorically speaking
Consider yourself a young child, say 8 years old. Suppose that your guardian leaves you alone in the house without telling you when she’ll be back. As the minutes tick by, you’ll likely grow bored, anxious, and/or concerned. You may find yourself involuntarily glancing at her photograph on the wall or finding a familiar object to reassure yourself. When your guardian does finally come home, you’re happy and relieved and show this feeling with a strong display of emotion.
Dogs experience a similar anxiety, especially heightened when it’s first experienced during adolescence. If you enjoy indulging your dog or you respond to every request for attention, your departure and consequent separation will be more pronounced. Because a quick phone conversation is out of the question, your dog may try to reach you by barking or howling. If your dog is a nonverbal type, he may visualize your presence and recall images of your activities around the house, such as your reading or television activities or clothing that is familiar and worn.
How can shoes or boots that are dragged from the closet be a sign of love and bonding? Though this dog isn’t happy at the moment, his thoughts are most certainly with you when you leave him behind.
How it all begins . . .
Here’s how a common reaction can take an understandably stressful situation for a dog and turn it into an anxiety-producing event: You get a new puppy that you leave at home while you go to work. Each time you return home, you joyfully greet the puppy with lots of touching, praise, and attention. Because, at least initially, you keep regular hours, the dog begins to anticipate these interactions.
But, of course, no matter how regular your routine is, there will be a day that you’ll be late. Because dogs have a reasonable sense of time, your pup will begin to fret and worry. He may imagine hearing the expected sound of your footsteps or seeing you enter the door, but when it doesn’t happen, he becomes anxious and wants to experience your presence. It’s then that he comes upon the book you were reading, slippers you were wearing, or the TV remote control that you handled. If he can’t have you, then at least he can have your scent and the taste associated with your body oils and sweat. So he sniffs, tastes, and ultimately chews the article to gain something akin to your presence.
Finally, you come home — only this time it’s not going to be a happily-ever-after finish. The puppy sees you and, in full innocence, begins the usual greeting routine, perhaps with an added nearly hysterical component of relief at your return. You join in because this display of love is comforting — that is, until your eye falls on the shredded paper that was the book you were reading, the chewed remainder of your slippers, or the bits of plastic that once housed the remote control. Understandably, a frustrated reaction, such as a verbal outlash or a grab-n-drag to what remains of a chewed possession, follows.
The puppy, however, is unlikely to register the object as his simple one-track mind is currently focused on your homecoming. When this confused pup yelps and tries to escape, he’s also filled with terror because the very person he instinctively turns to when distressed is, in fact, the one who is turning on him. Furthermore, because the punishment wasn’t associated with the impulse to chew, he can’t make any psychological connection to the behavior and instead links your reaction to your return and your separation to the events that are sure to follow, which in anyone’s dictionary spells S-E-P-A-R-A-T-I-O-N A-N-X-I-E-T-Y!!!
So when you’re away, your dog impulsively seeks objects that comfort him and grows exceedingly more anxious of your departures. Not only does this whole interaction not correct the puppy’s anxietybased behavior, but he now is likely to develop a conflicted view of you. In his mind, you become an angel and a devil, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the same body. If this pattern is repeated a few times, it can lead to anxiety about your homecomings, which add to the anxieties concerning your absence. One consequence of this may be submissive urination. (See “The Leaky Dog Syndrome,” earlier in this chapter.) The puppy now more actively solicits your attention when you’re home because he needs the comfort and security that your interaction gives him. When you respond, this causes him to miss you even more when you’re away, and this cycle of comfortseeking destruction, followed by more, perhaps harsher, punishment continues. This pattern eventually leads to other problems and ultimately can destroy your relationship with your dog. Egad!
Solving isolation and anxiety problems
To resolve the issue of separation anxiety, all efforts must be two-fold:
Resolving a dog’s anxiety requires more human behavior modification than anything else.
Secondhand dog separation anxiety syndrome
An adopted dog often shows signs of separation anxiety, many times resulting from the ultimate separation: sheer abandonment. Most shelter dogs, in fact, exhibit some form of separation anxiety in new homes. Suddenly transported from a familiar, predictable home environment to the unavoidable chaos of a shelter existence, they’re then placed into a new home, where they’re unsure of their new family members and the rules and rituals. These dogs are often left wholly undirected, especially when left alone.
In these situations, it’s best to isolate or crate a dog until he’s comfortable with his surroundings and routines. Follow the same conditioning exercises in this chapter to relieve separation anxiety.
Coming and goings
Although each of us loves our dogs and revels in their happy greetings, comings and goings need to become a far less dramatic event. If each time you (or anyone else) arrive or depart, a maniac scene ensues, your dog will never calm down when left alone. Each noise becomes cause for alert, each knock on the door a reason to kick into high gear. Though your reassurance upon departure may soothe your disappointment, it only highlights your inevitable separation, leaving your dog in an agitated state.
These simple efforts go far in de-emphasizing your absence and to condition your dog to being left alone:
Consider your door as the mouth of the den. Whether you’re greeting your dog or a visitor has arrived, always address your dog after he’s calmed down and is away from the doorway.
When boredom masks as anxiety
Some destructive dogs aren’t anxious at all! They’re simply not getting enough exercise and are bored. Upon close observation, these dogs are simply revved up and in need of a good romp in the park. To break their pattern of destruction, increase their exercise. When you leave, provide favorite bones or toys specifically designed to alleviate restless energy, such as food-filled hollow toys or boxes that dispense treats as they’re moved.
Toys that contain food items should be washed between every use and removed when you’re home.
Obsessive self-licking
Obsessive self-licking is a touchy topic because there are many theories as to its cause, none of which is incorrect, though each one addresses a unique situation. As with every behavior problem, different stimulus prompts a behavior, and you can interpret a dog’s reaction in many ways.
Here are several standing reasons that represent the occurrence of self-licking, or what is known in professional circles as Acral Lick Granuloma:
  • Many dermatologists think that boredom is a major underlying factor in some cases of Acral Lick Granuloma. The dog’s licking activity helps pass the time.
  • Some believe that allergic inhalant dermatitis creates stress in the skin resulting in inflammation and pruritus (itching), which triggers the dog’s propensity to lick at any convenient area.
  • A foreign body, such as a thistle spine, splinter, or bee sting, may start up a reaction in the skin, which draws the dog’s attention to the spot.
  • Bone or joint pain can draw the dog’s attention to the wrist or ankle area and, in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort, the dog licks over the top of the joint.
  • Psychological stimuli, such as separation anxiety, a new pet or child in the home, or a neighbor’s dog invading the dog’s “territory,” can create psychological stress. Self-stimulation, such as picking out an area to concentrate on and licking for extended periods of time, is a way for the dog to relieve the “stress.”
  • Hypothyroidism has played a role in some cases of Acral Lick Granuloma. Especially in Black Labs with lick granulomas, it would be a good idea to have the Thyroid Gland function checked. Thyroid medication may just be what the dog needs to have those skin lesions resolve.
If your dog suffers from this condition, speak to your veterinarian and consult with a behaviorist.

Soothing Fears and Phobias

Many dogs exhibit a fear response to specific situations, places, or people at some point in their life. It’s a natural reaction to inexperience: Presented with an unfamiliar string of sensory stimulations, a puppy acts startled and looks to authority figures for direction. Handled properly, a puppy will condition to the event and integrate it into memory. For example, the first time the phone rings, a puppy may be startled, but after experiencing the routine aftermath of a telephone call, the noise no longer even wakes him from a deep sleep.
Handled improperly, however, a dog may harbor residual fear or, worse, develop a phobic reaction, trying to hide whenever the stimulus is presented. Do you know any dogs who try to hide whenever an electrical storm occurs? Are you living with one? Dogs can develop a fear or a phobia (which is an irrational but strong fearful response) to just about anything. Here are just a handful of situations from our casebook:
Humans can contribute to a dog’s fearfulness in a number of ways. Some involve what a person does, and some involve what a person hasn’t done — for example, a lack of socialization (see Meeting the Needs of Your Growing Puppy). The more experience a dog has with different situations, especially during the first six months of its life, the more familiar he is with everyday life.
The best way to prevent a dog from being immobilized by fear of something is to fully socialize your dog.
Some dogs learn fears by mirroring their people’s reaction to certain events. One common situation is when a small dog is lifted at the sight of a larger dog. Though there may be a reality element to this protectiveness, it’s far better for people to socialize small dogs with familiar dogs of every age and size to ensure their comfort in the world surrounding them.
Another case involves a woman who is worried or apprehensive when she encounters large male strangers on the street. Every time she’s walking her dog and she meets a strange man, she becomes nervous. Because all dogs are sensitive to body language and are literally attuned to the scent of fear, this dog learns that every time his mistress meets a man, she becomes frightened. Not surprisingly, the dog learns to be anxious in such situations as well. In this way dogs can learn to be frightened of particular classes of people, defined by their sex, size, or race.
The second way dogs can learn fears and phobias is to be rewarded for being afraid. Though no one would consciously reward a dog’s fear, the difference between our languages can sometimes spell miscommunication. If, for example, your dog acts startled when he hears a sudden clap of thunder, your natural response may be to speak empathetically and bend down to sooth your dog. Though it’s a nurturing and effective response with human children, the lowered posture, soft tones, and soothing pats communicate a very different message to your dog. In essence, your shrinking posture conveys that you’re as unsure as he is and, at a very basic psychological level, you’re rewarding your dog for being fearful.
The key to solving many problem behaviors in dogs is to “reward the behaviors that you want and ignore the behaviors that you don’t want.” Applying this philosophy to fearful behaviors takes some ingenuity, as it’s often hard to highlight good behavior when your dog is in a fearful state, but you can get around this dilemma by playing through fear and working through fear.
Playing through fear
To solve fearful behaviors, it’s helpful to reproduce the conditions that cause the fear. Thus, if a dog is afraid of thunder, you need to produce the sound of thunder, while if the dog is afraid of men wearing hats, you need a man willing to wear a hat in front of your dog. It’s also better if you can control the intensity or distance your dog is standing from the fear-producing stimulus. Fortunately, if your dog is afraid of certain sounds, sound effect recordings are available, or you can download sound clips from many Web sites, often for free.
Here’s what you need to do:
  1. Prepare a favorite game, activity, or pastime as you stimulate his fear reactions.
Chasing activities, tug, or catch are great options. (If your dog doesn’t know them, teach him!)
  1. Introduce the fear-producing stimulus (at a low level or at a specified distance) and instantaneously (before your dog has time to become fearful) start your play routine.
Here’s what should happen. At first, your dog may act confused or may even revert to his usual fearful behavior.
  1. If your dog is confused or afraid, continue the happy play (perhaps while making the stimulus a bit weaker) for a couple of minutes and then stop.
  2. Go do something else for about five minutes, while paying no attention to the dog.
  3. Repeat the whole process.
You can repeat this process about four times, twice a day. You’ll know that you’re making progress when the dog starts to wag his tail and looks at you when the fear-producing stimulus starts. Then simply turn up the intensity of the stimulus a bit and continue.
Working through fear
If you’ve taught your dog basic obedience (see Happy Training, Happy Tails), use these directions to help your dog through these frightening moments. Your direction is communicating several things:
Begin with a low level of the fear-producing stimulus (see the preceding section). Instead of play, use a leash/training collar and food rewards to direct and encourage your dog’s cooperation. The moment that the stimulation is noted, direct your dog to “follow” you and proceed to lead him about the home, yard, or sidewalk. Stop occasionally and tell him to sit, or perhaps lie down, and give him lots of treats for paying attention and responding.
Your dog may act disoriented, looking at you as if you’ve lost your mind. However, confidence is catching; by simply attending to him when he’s calm and not fearful, he’ll soon learn to incorporate the situation into his memory bank of everyday experiences. Gradually, increase the intensity of the fearful stimulus a bit and continue your work routine.
Using a leash and food rewards to direct your dog through fearful situations has a great advantage: It’s equivalent to holding a child’s hand who is afraid. Consider using this procedure to get your dog through a fearful, real-life episode. For example, if you’re out with your dog and an actual thunderstorm begins, tell your dog to heel and start to practice. No one needs to know that you’re giving psychotherapy to your dog for his thunder phobia, although they may wonder about the soggy person walking a soggy dog in the rain, and giving him lots of soggy treats.

by Stanley Coren and Sarah Hodgson

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