Healthy Obsession: Redirecting anxiety to a more productive alternative
By: Brittney Frazier
At Found Chicago, we ask owners to visit before any training advice is given in order to understand to best approach the situation. Over the years I have observed dogs and their owners, it is easy to pinpoint some of the major underlying issues of behavioral issues when first observed in a dog. Traces of anxiety are amongst the easiest behavioral issues to detect, but most difficult to eradicate in a dog’s brain due to extremely ingrained behaviors and a very strong association with the environment the dog shares with its owner. However, as difficult as anxiety might be to work with, it has become somewhat of an old friend to our Training Department; as we have begun to find a rhythm and method to working with these seemingly panicky and over exuberant dogs.
The main factor in determining how to approach an anxiety case is what causes the dog’s anxiety. Whether that anxiety is caused by separation from its “pack,” a specific event, or the dog is anxious in general, the main goal is to focus on what we imagine the dog would be doing instead. This kind of thought process will sometimes cause us to observe other more balanced dogs in similar situations to help us come to an answer. However, it is important we are not just looking to cut out one behavior without replacing it in the dog’s mind with another more acceptable behavior.
Take a walk, for example. If you can imagine the millions of smells and sounds our dogs are overloaded with on a simple walk to the park, you can understand why some might be a bit anxious. What some fail to recognize is that the “bad” behavior observed on a walk, such as pulling on leash or reacting to surrounding animals with so-called “aggression,” could possibly be a symptom of anxiety. While some may choose to medicate a dog with anxious behavior on a walk, there is another solution I have come across in my background as a cross country and track athlete. That’s right: it’s running.
It sounds like such a simple solution to such daunting behavioral issues like reactivity or even severe aggression while out on a walk, but to an anxious dog, it’s something to do. Rather than walk a painfully slow and boring pace when the dog’s mind is racing a million miles a minute, running creates an outlet for all that anxiety we often ask a dog to bottle up. The other solution running a dog provides for an anxious and stressful situation is that it gives a frustrated owner a task to focus on as well.
Oftentimes, I recommend the owner of a dog operates a bike, scooter, or pair of rollerblades while their dog runs beside them. Being that the owner is practicing in a safe place like an empty parking lot, focusing on the skill at hand teaches the owner to stop focusing on all the stresses walking the dog would bring, which can easily cause the anxiety to flare up in their canine companion.
There are anxious dogs I have worked with that are truly obsessed with running. Since I tend to be one of the most willing to exercise the dogs in this fashion amongst our staff, the dogs I have worked with will anticipate a run and bark almost neurotically when they sense a run is in their near future. But what I have found is that would much rather the dog be obsessed with a productive activity like running while outside than all the anxiety previously felt when walking. And when that anxiety turned into aggression, it can be a dangerous situation for everyone involved. Running and exercise has exponentially enriched the lives of many dog and owner partnerships I have had the pleasure of witnessing.
Another behavioral issue I have witnessed greatly improved by redirecting obsession is separation anxiety. Dogs who are unnaturally attached to their owners have a difficult time coping with a strong obsession of simply being in the presence of their owners. Like a teddy bear for a baby, it’s important that a dog learns how to cope with that kind of anxiety by replacing it with something healthier than the behavior they may want to exhibit instead. By coupling a command such as “go lay down” with a bed or chew toy associated with the event of leaving and their owner at the same time, re-associating a usually painful event is just a matter of consistency.
I will usually ask a client to spend more time asking their anxious dog to spend time away from them and on a bed when they are present, just to create the association, than actually working and praising the dog. But, in no time, the dog will usually become connected with their surroundings in an effort to cope. As long as the owner doesn’t provide extra emotion and stays firm, a dog can then understand the bed or crate they are being asked to lay in just as comfortable as their owner’s lap, which will transfer the obsession. This kind of transfer of anxiety will allow the dog and owner a much healthier foundation of behavior should things ever spiral out of control again.
Time and time again I have witnessed redirecting obsession proving more effective than medication. Medication can take weeks to cycle through a dog’s system and will often become a revolving door of what works best for each individual dog. Try finding something your dog would enjoy doing more than being anxious, and you may find that all the drive the dog has used for anxiety creates a more productive and happier member of your family when used effectively.