Thoughts of a Dog Therapist – Anxiety

I have to be honest I hate using the term anxiety when it comes to dogs because in my experience dogs don’t really suffer from anxiety as we understand it. We use the terms separation anxiety, former rescue dog anxiety, illness induced anxiety and my favourite, general anxiety. But here’s the thing…. these all stem from an emotion that the dog is feeling at the time that they are displaying the behaviour. The behaviour is their reaction to that emotion, so what we see as anxiety will usually be down to fear, frustration, anger, excitement or any other emotion that you can think of because they will feel them all.

I was once called to help a family whose dog suffered with what was described as severe separation anxiety. He would run up and down the stairs barking and stand on the windowsills as they left having what they described as a full on panic attack, he would throw himself at the windows, bark and wail and then when they didn’t come back he would destroy their belongings. They had called in various different types of trainers and spoken to the vet about the situation but nothing that they had been advised to do had worked and they were now at the point where they were never leaving him alone. They would try to arrange it so that at least one member of the family was at home with him at all times and if that ever wasn’t possible then they would call in friends or pet sitters to sit with him.

The first thing I did was communicate with him to find out why he was behaving the way he was and he instantly shared his anger with me. He wasn’t anxious when they went out, he was furious. When I dug a little deeper and questioned his anger he shared that they never feed him until they come home and because he never knows when they would be coming back, he never knew when he would be fed. Food was really important to him and when they were home he would bring them his bowl when he wanted food and they would feed him, he told me that you can’t live without food so how did he know he would still be alive when they finally came back to feed him (a bit extreme I know but dogs don’t always think practically).

I arranged with his family for them to change their feeding routine. They were no longer to leave his bowl for him to bring to them and he was no longer to be fed on demand, From that moment on they would feed him his food before they went out and if they were going out several times a day then they would split his food allowance into several meals and feed him a small one each time they walked out of the door. The behaviours that had been ruining everyone’s life ceased immediately and they can now come and go from their home whenever they please.

This is just one example of an anxiety case that I have helped with, others have included dogs that are displaying fear because of noises they heard or frustration from being shut in a single room. Then there have been the ones that are suffering because their parents are suffering.

I have been called to so many anxiety cases only to have the parent admit that they suffer with anxiety themselves half way through the session. This is something that will have a profound effect on the dog.

I know from personal experience how much dogs will mirror our emotions. They mirror our fears, anxieties and emotional predispositions meaning that anxious people tend to have anxious animals, this is known as emotional mirroring. I truly believe that our dogs do this to help us.

When I was at my lowest point with my anxiety and my depression I found that I didn’t care enough about myself to do anything that would actually help me, I had a martyr mentality. However I would do anything for my dogs and when my training and behaviour techniques weren’t working I had to look for something that did, otherwise I would have had to give up on them and that was never be an option for me.

While I was working with my dogs I found that I was also working on myself. I needed to align my mental and emotional vibrations in order for the techniques to work, and so in helping my dogs I actually helped myself.