Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Transforming the relationship your dog has with anxiety and fear
All organisms are pre-programmed to survive including our dogs.
When dogs are born they have no concept of good or bad, dangerous or safe, these are all things that they need to learn from their surrounding environment. Nature has designed a system for young dogs to slowly leave their mother and family over a course of 6 months to a year, encountering new things in their environment at a manageable rate. Pups are rarely born into a natural environment these days and it has become the breeders job to replicate this careful exposure.
Early environments for pups can be very different in the quality and quantity of learning they provide. When we buy a dog from an impoverished environment or from a breeder that has no interest in the pup's long term development e.g. something we would call a puppy farm, then the number of experiences that dog's brain has encountered can be limited. The pup you are bringing home is very often undernourished, carrying a parasite or disease and a brain that cannot cope with a typical modern family life. These dogs have a tendency to become overly aroused, reactive, excited or extremely anxious.
If we return to our natural pup, or the carefully bred pup who has access to a garden and imagine they are exploring close to their home site. Whilst outside they have their first encounter with a hedgehog. Like all young animals they are pre-programmed to play, and view this new stimulus as a toy. When the hedgehog rolls into a ball, the pup moves forward to investigate and touch. The pain from a spine is experienced, they will be startled, the amygdala is now on full alert and causes the pup to move away to safety.
As the amygdala calms down the lesson that hedgehogs cause pain and are not worth hunting will be stored in the long term memory. In the future, the dog will not only choose to avoid hedgehogs, but the memory that long, thin objects may cause pain, will be remembered by the amygdala and every time the pup encounters something that looks similar, a memory will be triggered, causing the dog to pause and assess. This pause and subsequent assessment gives opportunity to avoid and remain safe - we call this growing up, maturing and learning.
The natural pup or carefully bred pup has the advantage of learning about new stimuli slowly, experiencing fear, and other uncomfortable emotions with a safety net of a canine family, plenty of sleep and adequate nutrition in place. They are experiencing arousal, learning how to deal with it and most importantly how to calm themselves down. Over time their brain will learn to notice what is happening in the environment, assess, evaluate and react appropriately.
Compare this to our pup from an impoverished environment who has just arrived in their new home.
Bombarded with completely new stimuli, without the safety of their mother and litter, they are plunged into family life with all the excitement that a new puppy should bring. From day one this pup is on the back foot, if they are given a quiet space, plenty of time to assimilate, lots of sleep, good food and veterinary care, they can catch up and be ready to explore.
Understandably, this is unlikely to happen. A pup comes into a home to be part of that family, to go out for walks and adventures. We expect family dogs to enjoy being handled, played with and quite happy with all our machines and technology. Bringing a dog into our human family is anticipated as a joyful event, and in this positive emotional state people are motivated to introduce their pup to as much of their family life as possible.
Overwhelmed, this new pup may seem quiet and docile, in fact their brain is protecting them by shutting down. It is as the pup gets older that we see stress responses such as chewing, biting, high pitched barking, pulling on the lead or guarding food/toys/bed. When this behaviour is seen out and about whilst the dog is on lead it is described as ‘reactive’. Our training history tells us that we need to seek more control over the dog, show the dog who is in charge or punish ‘bad’ behaviour. Unfortunately, this puts the dog under even more stress and behaviours that are dangerous or difficult to live with increase.
What can we do instead?
Accept what is happening – when being a dog owner isn’t turning out as you expected it is natural to experience disappointment, this often goes alongside anxiety, especially around taking your dog out or having people in your home. By accepting what is happening and seeking to understand how your dog is feeling can help lessen your anxiety, which in turn helps your dog.
Double check your management tools – part of accepting what is happening means coming to terms with the fact your dog may need to be on a lead or wear a muzzle around other dogs. It may mean your dog cannot be loose in your home when you have tradespeople or family visiting. Check your dog’s collar fits securely, your leads are in good repair, harnesses fit snugly, baby gates fit properly etc.
Review your dog’s daily routine – are they getting plenty of good quality sleep away from children, technology and other pets. Sleep is a powerful health provider. Is your dog getting opportunities for relaxing outings, opportunities to sniff rather than busy environments which cause them to be on hyper alert? Provide plenty of play opportunities and keep your training programmes playful; play is a potent antidote to fear.
Offer your dog ‘Sensitive Exposure’ to stimuli (follow the link for more) – this is a protocol that I use for dogs that have been referred to me as being ‘reactive’ or are fearful of being outside. My goal is to transform the relationship the dog’s brain has with anxiety and fear. By choosing our environments carefully we create opportunities for the amygdala to learn how to cope with stimuli which were previously experienced as fearful. The dog is learning the skill of noticing that the environment has changed, and this does not always signal danger. Over time the dog’s brain can be calm enough to learn new behaviours and emotional responses.
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