Understanding Anxiety In Dogs

Written by

Kevin Miller

Written by

Kevin Miller

In 2019, Kevin decided to pursue his dream of understanding dog behavior / training and joined Canine Revolution to further his education and dedicate himself to coaching others through their training process.

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Anxiety in dogs is more common than people think and when the dogs are expressing anxious behaviors they are often misinterpreted by humans.  The most common one I have seen, basically on every viral video of dogs being adopted, is “smiling”.  Smiling to a dog or baring their teeth is not the same as humans smiling. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of a situation where you would smile.  When a dog “smiles” it’s actually anxiety and is common to be associated with panting at the same time.  However, we as humans interpret it to be something that we do, instead of understanding it on the dog level. 

Think about when you go to new places, are starting a new job, meeting new people, etc.  You may initially be a bit anxious. Of course there are people who will reassure you and say everything is ok but that feeling potentially doesn’t go away until we are exposed long enough to the scenario. 

In the dog world, and I see this quite often, whether it’s insecure or anxious behaviors, owners tend to reinforce these mindsets by telling their dog in baby talk that it’s ok and start petting them.  I get from a human standpoint where you could see this as being effective. However, our dogs don’t speak English and at that point we are building upon undesirable behaviors and are always shocked when these escalate.  We need to be aware of what we are doing and how our dog understands it.

The Top 3 Signs of Anxiety In Dogs:

1 – Smiling (Baring their teeth)

Some common signs of anxiety are easy to spot, the aforementioned smile being a big one but there are others. 

2 – Pacing

Pacing, if your dog is walking to one place and then back multiple times this is a typical sign of anxiety.  I’ve personally seen where dogs will go to where they normally feed and back over and over again and the owner assumes they are just hungry.  Giving them food in that mindset again reinforces it because we are essentially rewarding the behavior. 

3 – Panting

Panting is a big one, outside of normal exercise of course.  Say I put a dog in a kennel that potentially has barely been exposed to it before – oftentimes they will begin to excessively pant.  Keep in mind again, dogs don’t understand what’s happening.  Imagine going to a foreign country, meeting someone and the first thing they do is guide you to a room, escort you in, and then lock the door and leave.  How would you feel?  This is why we do proper kennel conditioning but a valid scenario nonetheless.  

How To Fix Anxiety In Dogs

So what do we do?  How do we address it? 

If I have a trained dog in an anxious state of mind I’m going to manage his mind and give him familiar things to do in order to redirect that mindset and ultimately make them comfortable.  This is why when we properly socialize a dog to new environments we like to practice obedience and make it fun and interactive for the dog. 

I may mix in focus drills, practice engagement, whatever the case may be but at the core what I am doing is generalizing all environments to the dog through these practices.  This is a huge part of training.

Again look at it from the dog’s perspective.  It may just be a trip to home depot for us but the dog has never been there likely.  There are cars moving, foot traffic, forklifts, smells, noises, even the slick floors play a factor.  So it’s no wonder why some dogs become anxious, it’s a mental overload to them.  

So how do we address it in your normal untrained day to day dog?  There are a few ways, we could continue to expose them to whatever is triggering the anxiety, starting with short sessions and eventually increasing duration.  We can also work in close proximity to the trigger, finding our threshold of reactivity and eventually moving toward it.  So let’s say it’s home depot, my dog is freaking out in the parking lot.  I may go to the field next to the parking lot and just walk around with my dog, allowing them to sniff, mark, adapt to the environment but overall allowing them to become comfortable with the trigger.

I can’t stress this enough but do not accidentally reinforce these negative mindsets.  I’m sure there will be a future podcast on body language but those ones we spoke about earlier pacing, panting excessively, smiling, even whining and barking are all things that we need to avoid reinforcing and work through. 

Anxiety causes a lot of stuff to go on in the brain at one time, it eventually “leaks” out resulting in these behaviors occurring. 

Along with these though we also commonly get destructive behaviors.  For instance, your dog tearing up your couch, clothes, chewing your baseboards, breaking out of their kennel, etc.  These types of behaviors usually indicate 1 of 2 things.  Anxiety or under-stimulation, they do go hand in hand of course however it’s not always both.  Think about how much energy is created by that mindset as they dive deeper and deeper into it, all of that energy has to and will come out somewhere.

Proper Training Leads To Less Anxious Dogs

This is why we recommend training, of course, because you have the opportunity (with proper training) to manage your dog on a mental and physical instinctual basis every day which over time provides a calm, confident, relaxed demeanor.  If I notice undesirable behaviors I can simply redirect that negative energy and that negative mindset into something positive for them to do.  This not only manages them mentally but also communicates to them that they can rely on me to control the environment and ultimately respect me as their pack leader.

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