Anxiety is simply arousal with nowhere to go!
Arousal is a deep, deep survival reflex. Fright! Flight! Your dog’s response to perceived danger is always arousal – their Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is triggered, and a range of hormones are released. The adrenal glands go into overdrive, pumping out adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones prepare the body for intense physical activity, shunting blood from the gut to the muscles, and increasing heart rate.
I see so many dogs that live in a constant state of arousal- and in many cases, the humans are (innocently) part of the problem. You see, we are monkeys, primates, and we love to raz our dogs up! Many humans confuse an over-aroused dog for a happy one.
It’s generally believed that high arousal play like throwing a ball is great for dogs. I disagree (except in moderation, modified to make it as low impact as possible). I have seen many dogs with ball addictions. They constantly carry a ball around. They will drop the ball at the human’s feet again and again, nudging and imploring if the human doesn’t throw it.
Dogs like this are in a constant state of arousal. They never relax. This is not healthy. (You should remove all balls/toys from dogs like this except for structured play sessions.)
Key point: Humans often don’t recognise unhealthy levels of chronic arousal in their dogs. In many cases they encourage excitement/arousal in their dogs because they think that an excited dog is a happy dog!
There are a lot of other reasons that dogs can live in a constant state of anxiety. Because domestic dogs can’t move away from things they think are dangerous, they often live with chronic stress. Sounds. Other dogs. Strangers. All of these and many other stimuli can be frightening for your dogs. Fear triggers arousal.
A common cause of anxiety is a dog being left at home without their humans. This is called separation anxiety. It can happen even when there are other dogs in the house, too. Some dogs will show really obvious signs – chewing or damaging things, escaping, etc. Others suffer more quietly, and the only way you’d ever know is to set up a camera and record them when you go out.
Many people are surprised to see that their dogs are stressed, panting, pacing and obviously anxious when left alone. I encourage everyone to do this, because if your dog is in distress when left alone, you need to help them! And you can’t help if you don’t know there is a problem…
Humans are crap at healthy boundaries with their dogs
It’s true. Probably 95% of the people who come to me have no idea how to communicate healthy boundaries in a way dogs understand. Their dogs come in and out of the human’s space whenever they like. There is no respect at all for the human’s personal space. All too often, the dog is using the human like a drug, going to them for comfort any time anything makes them uncomfortable.
This is a big problem for two reasons:
- A lack of healthy boundaries increases anxiety in dogs. Dogs need to know where they fit in. They need to know where the edges are. Once they do, then they relax. This can be done with kindness, by using body language dogs understand.
- If you always comfort your dog, they never learn how to self-regulate to relaxation. Now this doesn’t mean you can’t have lots of cuddles! It just means that when you teach your dog to understand when you want them out of your space, and sometimes keep them out until they relax into themselves, then they learn how to relax.
I always teach this when people come into my clinic with an anxious dog. We will sit down, and the dog will be all over the human like a rash, jumping, nudging, begging for attention. I’ll then sit beside the human and teach the dog an “out” command using body language. I’ll keep that dog out until they stop pushing to come back in and they show obvious signs of relaxation. Usually until they lie down.
People are regularly amazed to see their anxious dog relax and settle so quickly when I do this. If you want to learn how to do this, I cover it in my online training at https://www.wholeenergybodybalance.com/webb-for-pets/
You need to teach your dogs how to relax
I believe this is an aspect of training that is all to often completely neglected. Sure, aroused, fun play is important, but teaching your dogs how to turn off and be calm is even more important. It makes a massive difference because then your dogs don’t get stuck in arousal (which is what anxiety is).
There are a range of things you can do to teach your dog how to relax:
- The Whole Energy Body Balance method: This healing bodywork for animals causes a deep relaxation response at a body level. I have seen many, many dogs with severe anxiety symptoms improve out of sight with regular WEBB bodywork. You can learn how to do this with your own dog in my online training.
- Communicate healthy boundaries: Your dog, no matter how cute and lovely, is a dog. Gently demanding that they respect your personal space is very important for their mental/emotional well-being.
- Deep Pressure: Thunder shirts and weighted blankets can be a great help for many dogs. Deep pressure on the body causes a relaxation response.
- Nose Games: Any games or training to do with the sense of smell is inherently calming. You can scatter treats around for your dogs to sniff out, or do nose works or scent tracking.
- Reduce high arousal activities: Only bring the ball out for 5-10 minutes once or twice daily. Otherwise keep all toys out of sight.
- Supplements: CBD can help anxious dogs a lot. Be sure to get an organically grown whole plant extract like Indivita.
And some dogs will need specialist care with a behaviourist, with prescription drugs! If you have an anxious dog you need help with, please email me at email@example.com – I’d love to help!