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Anxiety: The Root of Most Evil?

Posted Jun 27 2013 7:00am
Dr. Coates is a veterinarian based in the other “Sunshine State” – that's Colorado to the rest of you – where she lives and plays with a varied range of animals. She shares her professional and personal experiences, Monday through Friday, here on petMD's blog, the Fully Vetted. Log in for your daily dose of her insight and wisdom. < Previous Post Jun 27, 2013 Anxiety: The Root of Most Evil? by Jennifer Coates, VMD     Share       Anxiety and its big brother, fear, are often overlooked causes of behavioral problems in dogs, cats, and other companion animals. In fact, whenever one of my clients mentions that a pet is behaving “poorly” the first thing I do is go on a search for a reason for that animal to be anxious (or bored, but that’s a topic for another day).
 
Owners often have trouble understanding my obsession with anxiety. After all, we might be talking about a dog that is acting aggressively or a cat that is urinating outside of the litter box. Surely, anxiety can’t be playing a role in cases like these, can it? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
 
Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as “painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind, usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” I like this definition. Think of it in the context of canine aggression. Doesn’t it make sense that a dog who is about to lash out in defense of his food or in response to a person or other dog has an “uneasy mind” and is “anticipating ill”? The same could be said of a cat who is avoiding her litter box because she previously had a bad experience while inside.
 
Determining whether or not fear is at the bottom of a problem behavior is vital. When animals are afraid and acting “badly,” we need modify their environments so their anxiety is lessened and/or build their self-confidence by  

showing them that they can handle watered down versions of what is causing them to become anxious

rewarding them for staying calm

gradually increasing the intensity of the anxiety-provoking stimulus so long as they remain calm

 
Punishment plays no role in treatment of behavioral problems that are rooted in anxiety. Any kind of aversive stimulus simply confirms that the animal has a right to be nervous in the first place and will reinforce the undesirable behavior rather than lead to its resolution.
 
Because punishment is so often the wrong response to a behavior problem, it is best to avoid it completely. Of course this is easier said than done. When faced with a “misbehaving” pet, it is so easy to become upset and lash out. I experienced this myself recently when my horse became difficult to handle after another horse had been added to the herd. I was attempting to groom him but he was so anxious at being separated from “his girls” he would not (could not) stand still. After nearly being stepped on for the umpteenth time, I snapped, yelled at him, and jerked his lead rope. Did this help him calm down? Of course not. He became even rowdier since I now appeared to be part of the problem. I apologized to him, and gave up on the grooming session for that day. Eventually it became clear that the only way to ease my horse’s anxiety was to move him out of this environment. Now that he lives at another facility, he is back to his normal, easy-going ways.
 
A veterinarian with expertise in behavior problems can help determine whether or not anxiety is playing a role in a pet’s behavior and design a treatment plan that takes into account that individual’s unique set of circumstances.
 
 

Dr. Jennifer Coates
 
 
Image: Thinkstock
 
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chienblanc4csi Brilliant! 06/27/2013 11:55am Excellent information, thank you. As a trainer, I totally agree with your views. When I was actively training other people and their dogs, I specialized in in-home training, which was often necessary because the dog in question was unable to participate in a basic obedience class because of reactive behavior. The problem was ALWAYS based in anxiety and fear.

The main thing I have noticed over the years is that the average dog owner wants a dog that "doesn't do stuff". Doesn't jump, run away, steal food, bite, bark, dig . . . all normal dog behaviors. The usual answer for people is to punish the dog for doing these things - shouting "NO!", spraying with water, hitting, yanking on the leash, shaking a can of pennies, slamming the door or gate into the dog's face to "prevent" door dashing . . . the list goes on, so common that people don't even realize the level of anxiety they are creating in their dog. Which, of course, makes behavior problems worse. The dog may momentarily stop whatever behavior was punished, but it learns nothing whatsoever. Like that tight pair of pants, the 'stuff' simply gets squeezed tight and pushed out somewhere else. Worst case - and most common - is that the dog shuts down almost all systems, and viola! problem solved. Or so the owner believes. Dogs 'trained' this way operate 24/7 avoiding punishment and even the most mild of 'corrections' creates what appears to be 'good' behavior. Cesar Millan's TV show is a perfect exhibition of this kind of behavior modification. The dog stops doing normal dog things out of fear, the anxiety becomes a kind of blood poisoning, daily floods of cortisol. My own anxiety level goes up when I watch this kind of training, doesn't yours?

I think it should all be fun and games. I train my dogs to "Do Stuff", lots and lots of stuff, doggy playtime every day. I teach behaviors that are incompatible with the problematic ones, usually it is a context issue. I train my dogs to bark on command so that I can train them the 'hush', I teach them to go in their crate, or to a mat, whenever I ask them to, with a great training program called Crate Games, from Susan Garrett. I teach dogs that "leave it" is fun, results in terrific reinforcements, games of fetch, for example. I teach "give" as a 'trade you for something better' game so that they will drop that delicious mouse in the office park where we walk, because that mouse was probably poisoned.

My dogs, and the other people's dogs that I have trained, all love to do stuff, try new things, happily comply with commands that sometimes can save their lives. Punishment based training creates constant anxiety, and depending on the breed, the compliance percentage can be very high. Independent breeds or individuals may not appear to be so well-behaved, and the results can sometimes be deadly for the dog. Bites happen with anxious dogs.

Years ago friends had a dog, and then they had a baby. When the baby was tiny, Mom and Dad "corrected" the dog for coming too close to the baby. By the time the baby was a toddler, she began to show interest in the dog, so the dog was shut behind a door or gate. By the time the toddler became more independent, she began to approach the dog with all those cute, jerky, fast movements of the normal toddler, and the dog's anxiety related to the baby . . . well, the results were predictable. The toddler was snapped at, because she let the dog out of the gate and tried to touch him. The dog went to the shelter and was immediately euthanized because the parents reported that the dog had snapped. They were devastated, because they really believed that the shelter would find another home, they loved the dog, he as almost 10 years old, and they had him from a puppy. He had never done anything 'bad' until he snapped at the child.

I hope that you can reach a lot of vets with this message. As a trainer, I find great resistance to this information, but I have the ability to show people a better way to train without insulting them, but it is hard for vets in a short visit, I would presume. I hope you can refer people to a good positive reinforcement trainer. Reply to this comment Report abuse 17 Geanie Boxers 06/27/2013 04:24pm Could you send me information on Boxer Breeds only? The only problems I have with these 2 babies are that they live with just thier Daddy, (my husband) and myself and when we have company they start out barking like they are going to eat someone up and when they get in the house they want to jump on them and lick them to death. I guess the UPS and Fed Ex guys wish they knew that all these dogs would do was lick them to death. lol But, maybe if someone tried to hurt me they just might do something, (or at least my oldest Cisco would). He loves his Daddy but is very clingy to me, especially if I am sick. They poor boy will not leave my side. He also loves our daughter and granddaughter. If I tell him Sissy and Kyleigh are coming he starts going from window to window looking for them and seeing how he is only a few months older than Kyleigh he has been taught since she was born to "protect Ky" and I have pictures of her getting ready to take a small step down and he ran over and stood in front of her in case she fell, she would fall on him. Guess I just wanted you to have a small history of our animals so you could try to help us with the jumping on people and licking. They calm down after a little while but it is quite annoying for about 5 to 7or 8 minutes. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for any advise you may be able to offer. Reply to this comment Report abuse 7 TheOldBroad Anxiety and Fear 06/27/2013 06:03pm Today's post makes perfect sense. After all, we humans tend to avoid situations and places that cause us anxiety and fear. (At least I do!)

Isn't it better for a critter to do something because it *wants* to as opposed to doing something because it's afraid anyway? Reply to this comment Report abuse 13
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