What Causes Anxiety in Dogs?

Just like humans, dogs can experience anxiety, often manifesting in the form of vocalizations, obsessive behaviors or destructive chewing. While virtually anything can cause anxiety, the most common causes include separation from companions, inadequate socialization when young, loud noises and traumatic experiences. While some breeds appear to be prone to anxiety, most often, the behavior is learned and therefore, susceptible to modification.

Basic Symptoms

Anxious dogs often exhibit symptoms of fears, such as eliminating, chewing, barking or crying. Other symptoms your dog may exhibit include the flattening of the ears, cowering, tucking of the tail or trembling. Some dogs cling to their owner when anxious, but others become aggressive – even attempting to bite the hand that feeds them.

Common Causes

•  Improper Socialization - Socializing is crucial for a young dog’s long-term well-being. Dogs raised in isolation for more than three months often exhibit causeless fear throughout their lives. According to an article in “Psychology Today,” by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., dogs may also develop long-term anxiety between five and eight months of age, without ample social interactions. Frequently, dogs that become anxious during this time direct their anxiety at a given object or category of people, for example men or children.

•  Separation anxiety. Domestic descendants of the wolf, dogs are inherently social animals, and become anxious when separated from their pack. Your dog’s pack may include humans, dogs and other companion pets. Dogs are likely to experience separation anxiety until they realize that when you leave them alone, they won't be left alone forever. Some dogs, however, have a far more difficult time understanding this than others.

•  Stressful Changes - Sometimes, major changes like moving to a new home and meeting a new family causes behavioral problems -- especially in rescued dogs who have had no stability in their lives.

•  Traumatic Event - A painful injury, the loss of a loved one, or some other traumatic event can be the cause of your dog's anxiety. It can also cause a dog to become fearful of a specific object, place, sound, or person.

•  Genetic Anxiety - Some dog breeds exhibit a predisposition to anxiety and other fear-based behaviors. For example, standard poodles, German short-haired pointers, Siberian huskies and border collies (more often than other breeds) display extreme withdrawal behaviors without any obvious cause. As this trait tends to occur within canine family members, it likely has a genetic basis. Consult your vet for options on how you can best help your pooch, either through mental conditioning or perhaps with the use of medication.

Treating the Trauma

Reduce your pet’s separation anxiety by surrounding him with a loving, consistent pack including family members or other pets. When you must leave him alone, provide numerous distractions and toys to help alleviate boredom. For dogs that have targeted anxiety, Coren suggests avoiding cajoling your dog in the middle of his anxiety attack, as this may reinforce the fear. Instead, you should model calm, confident behavior and distract your dog with play or treats. If the anxiety remains pronounced, you may need to consult your vet or animal behavior specialist.

By Ben Team

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References:

Pet MD: Extreme Fear and Anxiety in Dogs
Cesar's Way: Aggressive Dog Separation Anxiety
ASPCA: Separation Anxiety
The Humane Society of the United States: Separation Anxiety
Psychology Today: Why Are Some Dogs So Anxious and Fearful?

About the Author
As a lifelong environmental educator and ISA-certified arborist with more than 17 years of animal care experience, Ben Team writes about pets, environmental issues and outdoor recreation. Team has authored, co-authored and ghost written more than 1,000 articles, blog entries, educational References:: and books, in both print and digital formats.