Obsessive and Excessive Behaviors in Relation to Anxiety in Dogs
By: Brittney Frazier – Dog Trainer, CPDT-KA, APDT
There is probably a distinctive memory in everyone’s childhood of their mother reminding him or her not to chew their fingernails because it’s a “bad habit.” Sure, submitting to compulsion will most likely begin a habit you might not want to keep. But, in dogs, the danger of allowing excessive behaviors can be a serious cause for concern. These compulsions can sometimes manifest into a snowball effect of full-blown anxiety, one of the most difficult behavioral issues to train around.
In my work, I often see behaviors from dogs visiting the facility occurring out of anxiety from being in a new place that their owners will characterize as “endearing.” While spinning in circles or excessive vocalizations might seem like a cute behavior that is only part of a dog’s personality. They also may be blatant indications that the dog has surpassed his or her anxiety threshold and is looking for direction. And, if left without direction, the dog will continue to escalate in anxiety until even more undesirable behaviors begin to emerge, such as pulling on leash, reactivity to dogs or people, and aggression.
Because dogs live in a world of associations, it is how they learn about their world and how to behave in it. Wherever and whenever a dog is allowed to practice anxious behaviors, the person and place the behaviors are happening around will then become associated with that anxiety and will happen more often and with a greater intensity ever time a similar situation occurs for the dog. Problems in training often arise when a dog has become so anxious around his or her owner so many times that the dog is naturally in an extremely heightened state of anxiety when that person is present, causing a great deal of undue stress to the dog for no visible reason.
The prevention of such stressful situations is fairly simple, although recognizing signals of stress and anxiety are sometimes difficult. Additionally, it is also important to catch these signals quickly before they become an out of control habit. Look for key situations that create excitement in your dog, such as a doorbell ringing, feeding time, or your arrival home. Nuanced behaviors that could lead to high anxiety might include the following:
- Spinning in circles (including tail chasing/biting)
- Excessive barking and other loud vocalizations
- Bouncing up and down
- Making a lot of physical contact with you or their environment (jumping on you/walls/doors/guests)
- Licking body parts or things in the environment
- Sprinting/running/other excessive movements
While most of these behaviors fall into things people often discourage in raising a well-mannered pet, it will also stop the development of excess anxiety in the long run. If a dog suffers from anxiety as part of their psychological condition, or has developed it from his or her environment, the dog will require long term reconditioning to certain situations through interruption of the anxious behavior and redirection into a more positive, acceptable, and calmer outlet that teaches the dog how to react to a situation that has previously caused anxiety.
When interrupting anxious behaviors, one must be as unemotional and clear as possible. Choose a noise, touch, or command that stops the behavior and teach the dog whatever alternative you would like him or her to perform instead, such as laying down on a bed, chewing a bone, or simply sitting by your side. Make sure never to pet or reward an anxious dog, which includes any attention directed at the dog for something that may have previously been considered endearing. Remember that the dog has actually passed a point of self-control that is unhealthy for him or her and needs direction in obedience and consistency to calm down to a state that the dog will feel more comfortable in. While anxiety can be a difficult behavior to combat, contacting a trainer to assist you in recognizing the origin is the first step to a happier and healthier dog in any environment.
Found Chicago, NFP is a 501(c)3 no-kill, all-breed rescue that serves to rescue, rehabilitate and re-home the most medically and behaviorally challenged dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Found Chicago Boarding & Training Center is a subsidiary of Found Chicago, NFP that provides services to the public to give dog owners the knowledge they need to better handle their dogs and improve the quality of the dog-human relationship.
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