When we witness a sudden change of behaviour in our dogs, or they become anxious for no apparent reason, it can be really concerning. We can feel quite helpless when we don’t understand why something has changed, and aren’t sure where to even begin to help them. Many will turn to friends, relatives or the internet for advice, and while there are some excellent sources of information out there, a lack of regulation in the industry means that finding the right help is risky business! Empathy and education can be in short supply, with poor advice leading to punishment and suppression, making the situation a lot worse. In this blog, I explore some steps you can take to ensure that your dog receives the best help possible when their behaviour deteriorates and you need reliable information.
A Visit to The Vet
Routine veterinary check-ups are a great way to keep our dogs in tiptop shape, both physically and mentally. However, if we observe a sudden change in behaviour at any point, this always warrants a thorough veterinary examination in order to rule out any underlying pain, discomfort, or previously undetected health conditions. The importance of this is highlighted in the recent study carried out, entitled “Pain and Problem Behaviour in Cats and Dogs.” Doctor Daniel Mills et al. found that, of 100 recent referral cases of several authors, around a third of those involved some form of painful condition, although this figure is a rather conservative estimate; the actual figure is thought to be as much as eighty per cent, which is a whopping great number! You can read about the study here: Animals | Free Full-Text | Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs (mdpi.com)
Ensure That Appropriate Medications Are in Place
The impact of anxiety can be underestimated when it comes to our dogs, but looking after their mental well-being is just as essential as caring for their physical health. Stress impacts heavily on the body, affecting both the digestive system and the immune system; if left untreated, appetite will diminish, and regression with toileting often occurs. Fearful and anxious behaviours should not be ignored and left to deteriorate further because, potentially, the lifespan of the dog will be shortened, and he will have a poor quality of life.
Mental health needs to be properly and promptly addressed, which might require the use of anxiolytic medications alongside training. It may be tempting to try to manage these behaviours with non-prescription, unproven supplements and remedies before resorting to medication but, in many cases, this only prolongs the dog’s suffering; it is far more humane to seek professional help as a first line of defence, so that the dog receives the necessary level of support at the earliest opportunity.
Developing sensitivities to sound or becoming noise phobic are further indicators that a dog may well be in pain and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, veterinary behaviourists consider noise phobia to be a medical emergency. There is a strong correlation between pain and noise phobia, and it has also been suggested that there is a higher occurrence of separation anxiety alongside pain and sound sensitivity. You can read more about this in the studies linked below:
Enlist The Help of a Qualified Professional
Following a thorough vet check and allowing time for any medications to take effect, seeking help from a qualified, accredited professional is always an advisable next step when tackling behaviour challenges. Someone who is well-versed in counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation will be able to help you change the way your dog perceives the things which worry him, by focusing on emotional responses, rather than only tackling the observable behaviour. As I mentioned before, the industry is a bit of a minefield when it comes to finding a professional to work with; you can read more about how to find the right person to help you here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/buyer-beware-selecting-a-good-qualified-professional
Tackle The Root Cause of The Problem
Counterconditioning combined with systematic desensitisation is a wonderful way to make long term and effective change using positive reinforcement, always working at a neutral level of exposure and at the dog’s pace. By consistently pairing the trigger with something the dog really enjoys, such as roast chicken, a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) will replace their negative feelings and, over time, the dog will spot the trigger and automatically look for his treats, indicating that he has made the connection that the trigger makes the good stuff appear. From this point, distance can be reduced gradually, waiting until a CER+ is well established at each distance before decreasing further. It is always worthwhile having some lessons with a qualified professional who can show you the ropes, because it is pretty tricky to time everything correctly, manage the environment, as well as your dog, and juggle everything in your hands!
You can read more about counterconditioning and desensitisation here:
Read up on potential mistakes which can occur and how to avoid them in this blog:
Learn to Read Your Dog’s Body Language
Being able to spot the often subtle, earliest signs of stress is an essential skill if we are to help our dogs feel safe and manage their behaviour. Displacement behaviours, which are those little, out of context things our dogs do to relieve pressure and “change the subject,” are often the first signs that they are feeling uncomfortable. We may see our dog busy himself with some sniffing if he is feeling conflicted, or we may see him make small gestures known as calming signals, such as a look away, a lick of the lips or nose, or a yawn: these are all clues that our dog needs something to change to provide relief. The key to learning to read our dogs and keep them feeling safe is observation. What do they look like when relaxed? What do we notice about their ears, mouth, eyes, tail, posture? What changes when they start to look worried? If we learn to identify the earliest signs of stress in our dogs, we can monitor them and take action to help them feel safer. You can read more about body language here:
Be Aware of The Impact of Trigger Stacking
Trigger stacking is often at play when our dogs appear to behave in an unpredictable way. Stressful events and encounters affect dogs and people in the same way; it can take time to recover and feel more able to cope.
Sometimes it seems as if our dog has reacted to something completely out of the blue. On your dog walk, a bicycle might pass you at speed, then you meet a friend with their dog, so you let the two have a play together. On the way home, you pass a gate with barking dogs behind it, and a few minutes later, your dog reacts to something fairly innocuous which isn't normally a problem. In this case, arousal levels will have built with each event and, although your dog may seem to have been coping, that small child dragging a noisy toy along behind them may just be too much, and your dog fizzes over like a shaken can of coke. This is trigger stacking at play, or the proverbial straw which broke the camel's back.
You can read more about trigger stacking here:
Minimise Exposure to Triggers While Not Actively Training
Managing our dogs and their environment so that they are not over-exposed to stressors will go a long way towards helping them feel better, which in turn will improve their behaviour. Rest days are often necessary because dogs who are prone to stress and anxiety need time to relax to allow their cortisol level to lower. It might even be recommended that your dog has a complete break of several weeks before embarking on a behaviour modification plan, to help them reach a baseline where they can cope with training, are able to think clearly, and learn new responses. If your dog struggles on walks, a balance between exercise outside of the home and staying in to play, train, and enjoy plenty of quiet nap time will be really beneficial. Enrichment activities which include sniffing, licking and chewing are all great ways to keep your dog stimulated and are great stress-busters!
Jack enjoying some scentwork activities
Manage The Home Environment
Managing your dog’s stress levels will require some adaptation of the home environment to ensure that your dog feels as safe as possible. There are lots of options to help you do this, such as:
*Providing your dog with several safe spaces around the home. This will allow them to retreat from other pets, and will also offer them respite from children.
*If your dog is worried by people coming into the home, plan ahead and have management strategies in place to protect all parties concerned. This may be in the form of using barriers and safety gates to prevent access to the door and to visitors, or having a safe space set up in a quieter part of the house.
*You can use television, radio, fans, white noise, etc to mask sounds if your dog is at all worried by noise. If he is triggered by the doorbell or knocking, it isn’t unreasonable to ask visitors to call or text ahead so that you can remove your dog to their safe place before a visit.
*In terms of reducing visual triggers, window film can work brilliantly to prevent your dog from watching at glass doors and windows. Patrolling behaviours can really ramp up arousal and stress levels, which will also increase the possibility of trigger stacking. There are some really pretty window films available and they still allow the light through; I like the non-adhesive type which is applied using water, as it can easily be peeled back and replaced to allow for counterconditioning.
This is not in any way a comprehensive guide to solving behaviour challenges, but I hope that you will find it helpful in the event that you find yourself needing to seek advice and would like to know where to start. It's good to be prepared, just in case! As always, this blog is not intended to be a replacement for professional, in-person care; the earlier you seek help, the better, as behaviour which is rehearsed becomes stronger, and as discussed at the beginning, we need to be aware of the part that pain can play in behaviour. Our dogs can be in a lot of discomfort before we even become aware that there is a problem, so if in doubt, always get them checked out!
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