Just like humans, dogs can experience anxiety, often manifesting in the form of vocalizations, obsessive behaviors or destructive chewing. While virtually anything can cause anxiety, the most common causes include separation from companions, inadequate socialization when young, loud noises and traumatic experiences. While some breeds appear to be prone to anxiety, most often, the behavior is learned and therefore, susceptible to modification.
Domestic descendants of the wolf, dogs are inherently social animals, and become anxious when separated from their pack. Your dog’s pack may include humans, dogs and other companion pets. Anxious dogs often exhibit symptoms of fears, such as eliminating, chewing, barking or crying. Other symptoms your dog may exhibit include the flattening of the ears, cowering, tucking of the tail or trembling. Some dogs cling to their owner when anxious, but others become aggressive – even attempting to bite the hand that feeds them.
Proper socializing is crucial for a young dog’s long-term well-being. Dogs raised in isolation for more than three months often exhibit causeless fear throughout their lives. According to an article in “Psychology Today,” by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., dogs may also develop long-term anxiety between five and eight months of age, without ample social interactions. Frequently, dogs that become anxious during this time direct their anxiety at a given object or category of people, for example men or children.
Separation anxiety often perpetuates an unfortunate cycle. Sometimes, the stress of moving to a new home and meeting a new family causes behavioral problems in rescued dogs. Frustrated by their new dog’s destructive behaviors, the pup’s adoptive family may give up and return him back to the shelter. This additional change causes even more stress and anxiety, potentially exacerbating the behavioral problems, which will cause difficulties for any new family that adopts him.
Many dog breeds exhibit a predisposition to anxiety and other fear-based behaviors. Among others, standard poodles, German short-haired pointers, Siberian huskies and border collies, often display extreme withdrawal behaviors without any obvious cause. As this trait tends to occur in families, it likely has a genetic basis.
Reduce your pet’s separation anxiety by surrounding him with a loving, consistent pack including family members or other pets. When you must leave him alone, provide numerous distractions and toys to help alleviate boredom and provide some exercise. For dogs that have targeted anxiety, Coren suggests avoiding petting or soothing your anxious dog, as it may reinforce the fear. Instead, as leader of the pack, you should model calm, confident behavior. Distracting your dog with play, obedience training or tricks may help them to relax during stressful events, such as thunderstorms or fireworks.
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