Over 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety, which represents 18.1 percent of the population — the highest percentage anywhere in the world. It’s no surprise, then, our pets also suffer from anxiety. Anxiety has long been diagnosed by veterinarians as well as animal behaviorists and is stressing our relationship with our pets at an alarming rate.
Perhaps someone has suggested trying prescription medication to relieve your dog’s anxiety. Medication may lessen surface issues, such as barking, chewing, and whining. But medications for animals have similar chemical components to medications for humans. It’s well known that drugs, including Valium and Xanax, do not solve underlying issues in people. Instead, they allow people who take them to experience relief and comfort. In some situations (especially in cases of self-harm), this can be a life-saving option.
When you’re considering medication for yourself, you also consider side effects, long-term consequences, and changes to your quality of life. For humans, such side effects may include blurry vision, nausea, headaches, and more. Unfortunately, a dog can’t discuss her side effects with her doctor, so you must speak for her and consider whether there is a better alternative than medication.
I am an animal behaviorist with two dogs of my own. My approach is holistic. I once suffered from anxiety so severe that at 23, I developed shingles (a painful viral infection that is typically activated by stress). I knew my body needed relief. I began intensive cognitive therapy, which opened my eyes to my own behavior and healing and has given me insight into dog behavior and healing, too.
One of the most debilitating manifestations of anxiety in people is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For dogs, the manifestation is most often separation anxiety. Cognitive therapy for people begins with working to identify and understand underlying fears that can originate from trauma, such as being in a car accident or losing a loved one. If the trauma is severe enough, routines or rituals develop that initially serve to relieve anxiety by distracting the conscious brain from stress. But ultimately, these rituals and routines can become debilitating and limiting.
Medication may offer some relief, but it doesn’t resolve the underlying fear. Behavioral interruption for OCD patients, however, is the process of slowly removing the “crutch” of the ritual (turning a light switch on and off repeatedly or obsessive hand washing, for example) until a person learns slowly and safely to cope without the obsessive rituals at all.
After you work successfully with a person to remove the compulsive behavior, the person is first left with a chemical spike of adrenals in the body. The adrenal glands release adrenaline into the body as a built-in signal of danger. When this happens, a person experiences high levels of fear, stress, and sometimes panic.
But it is in exactly this moment when healing can begin. If one sits repeatedly with that adrenaline and other hormones caused by stress, such as cortisol, the body eventually regulates all its systems optimally for preservation. When executed in a controlled and safe process, the body and mind will face the fear and begin learning how to respond without panic and stress.
The brain is re-trained by accumulating multiple experiences in which an unhealthy trigger caused the brain to believe it may perish but it survives. The way someone gains control is related to being pushed outside of his or her comfort zone.
The approach for dogs too often is to medicate when behavioral intervention — essentially mirroring the work done with behavioral interruption for people with OCD — could be more effective. People worry they are hurting their dogs by saying no to certain behaviors. But giving in to barking, scratching, and crying by letting a dog out of the crate; staying home to work; and removing triggers don’t help a dog learn how to deal with stress. Would you do this with your children? No. You’d teach them that they won’t always sleep in bed with you; that someday, they’ll need and want to be independent. With children, expressing love through structure and boundaries in this way usually triggers protest before they eventually accept their ability to self-soothe. This does not mean you love them less. In fact, you do this because you love them.
If your dog suffers from anxiety, there are some quick fixes. “Thunder shirts” and calming remedies can sometimes help relieve a dog’s fear of storms or fireworks, and realistically you wouldn’t be able to expose a dog to these things in order to condition a healthier response. But not all anxiety is equal. If you have a dog with a more severe case of anxiety, I recommend consulting a behaviorist about your options. Research a trainer well equipped to take on your dog’s specific challenge and start by asking if medication is the only answer.
Theophainia Brassard opened Refined K-9 Dog Training & Psychological Rehabilitation 10 years ago after studying both human animal behavioral sciences throughout college in Boston. With a holistic forward-thinking approach, she and the exceptional trainers who work beside her, design effective, individualized behavior modification programs to address mild to severe anxiety and aggression in all breeds of dogs. Learn more at Refinedk9.com.
Main article photo by: Photo by Max Bailen-istock