Preventing anxiety in dogs
I posted last week discussing how more and more suburban dogs are suffering anxiety and related problems. I looked at how the suburban environment now fosters these fears, but I didn’t discuss the developmental issues. Today I am focused on how the addition of a new pup or dog to the family can help or hinder the development of a happy animal.
There are a number of ways this process tends to go.
- Often people are very clear about the breed of dog they want so they find suitable breeders and organise to buy from an upcoming litter.
- My personal preference is to source a young adult dog from an adoption centre such as the RSPCA.
- However, all too many people still make emotional spur of the moment decisions in pet shops when faced with a litter of squirming adorable pups.
Statistics repeatedly show that the 3rd option is the most highly represented in providing dogs for the 2nd option. Why is this? Impulse purchases are obviously not preceded by research or planning and people haven’t prepared themselves with important knowledge of all the issues involved. An inappropriate breed for the home environment is often chosen. The pups are frequently sourced from puppy mills where human contact is at best non existent, health conditions are deplorable and removal from the mother has occurred far too early for appropriate dog social skills to develop. From this troubled start pups are torn from their litter mates – the only stability they’ve known so far – and flung into a household that isn’t prepared for them.
So assuming you are here reading this because you are not in the 3rd group what is the best way to do this? Ideally you should be taking home a puppy between 6 and 8 weeks of age. Younger than that and canine social skills will suffer. Older than that and there is an increasing risk of poor human social skills developing. However, if you intend to raise a human family, but haven’t started yet, it is a good idea to find a small breeder who has children with a range of ages and to organise to pick up the pup around 10-14 weeks of age. This is an important stage of growth and allows crucial social skills with younger people to develop.
From this stage onward the process is more straight forward. Whether you have an 8 week old chihuahua or an 8 month old bullmastiff rescue dog you have the same task ahead of you: Gently, repeatedly and compassionately expose this animal to everything it is ever likely to have to deal with in future.
Often with tiny pups people go to enormous initial effort to ensure the pup is never alone. They are carried everywhere, retrieved the moment they whimper, and allowed to spend every night in one of the family members beds. By six months of age these pups have finished most of their neurological development and have absolutely no coping skills for dealing with being alone!
Desensitisation is the key
A much happier dog develops from frequent safe exposure to everything – both good and bad. Let your puppy be around small children, power tools, cats, loud noises, cars (inside and out), men with beards and hats – and let your puppy be alone! Even if you organise to have some time off work while the puppy settles in (which is a wonderful thing to do) you should ensure there are repeated short periods where the pup is left in a pet crate (also a smart thing to use), left out in the back yard and left alone in parts of your house. Start with just a few minutes and make it positive with toys and/or treats but don’t terminate the exercise if the pup is vocalising – wait until it quiets and then retrieve it.
Play games with the dog while someone vacuums nearby. Take it to a fireworks display – ideally approach as these are going off – so you can monitor your pup’s reactions. If you are seeing signs of fear don’t go any closer until positive interaction, treats or simply patience and time has allowed the pup to relax.
Without question enrol in a puppy pre-school class. Most vet clinics run these and they are great information sessions but even greater socialisation sessions for the puppies. If your pup happens to be one of the strugglers – scared of the others or showing signs of increased reactivity and aggression – don ‘t give up, do more. A very powerful exercise, assuming your vet clinic is accommodating, is to simply sit in the waiting room as other customers and their animals come and go. Keep your pup on a lead, sitting by your feet. Calmly ignore any hyperactive or vocal behaviour and always reward calm quiet behaviour. Pats and reassuring words are fine but tasty treats are often needed to redirect attention with more reactive dogs. Sit there as long as you can and simply keep coming back daily until the dog is no longer reacting to any of the myriad of people and their pets. As well as desensitising a dog of any age to a broad spectrum of people and pets, this exercise consistently creates dogs that cope well with vet visits!
In my next post we will start to look at treating anxiety that has already developed.
- Hart et al. Canine and Feline Behaviour Therapy. 2006. 247-259
- Horwitz & Mills. BSAVA Manual of Canine & Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2012. 65-73
- Crowell-Davis. Canine Behavioural Disorders. Handbook of Small Animal Practice. 2008. 1157-1161