Anxiety ~ Dr. Audra Alley

This month’s blog is something I think we can all relate to right now and I would like to share my family’s personal experience with anxiety.

It is possible to have healthy anxiety but what I would like to talk about is unhealthy levels of anxiety. For this discussion, we will define anxiety as “the apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune”. Some signs associated with anxiety in dogs include: inability to settle, panting excessively, barking, whining, inappropriate urination or defecation, or destructive behavior like chewing when left alone. Factors that may increase the likelihood of anxiety may include history of rescue from shelters, long periods of time in kennels or cages, one owner households, or previous history of anxiety.

Our home consists of two standard poodles, a cat and 3 adults, so it is always a little chaotic. To my husband’s delight, Mercury (our younger poodle) remained attached to him like Velcro and followed him everywhere. Also, we considered Mercury our “high energy” dog. We grew accustomed to his episodes of barking and crazy behavior when we had guests visit or someone walked through the neighborhood.

Our perception of this changed when we sought professional help to teach us how to train Mercury to be a little more controlled and to maybe even enjoy life a bit without being so wound up.

For a little additional background, Mercury was adopted from an owner that kept him caged for multiple hours per day, and neighbors were complaining about his incessant barking when no one was home.

Even with all of this history, we did not appreciate the extent of Mercury’s challenges until we had the trainer begin to work with Mercury for leash walks. Mercury got so anxious that he could not stop jumping, barking and biting at the leash. He couldn’t even eat his favorite treats, and it didn’t really seem to matter how tired he was before we put the leash on.

Dr. Barbara Sherman had always patiently explained to me that when a dog is experiencing high anxiety, they truly cannot hear what we are trying to say and are not able to control their own behaviors. This is like telling someone having a full-blown panic attack to “chill out”, it is just not possible.

Following my preference for an integrated approach, I opted to go with a combination of nutritional supplements, additional daily exercise (both mental and physical) and a prescription anti-anxiety medication. The results have been eye-opening to say the least.

We still have a lot of work to do but now Mercury can accept treats when he is outside and can follow simple directions. Leash walking is a work in progress, but at least we are now “in progress”. Here’s what struck us the most – he can relax. Compared to what we have experienced, Mercury can now rest in a room separate from people. He can sit and enjoy being petted without constantly nudging, panting and trying to climb in our lap; and he can sit with us on the porch without needing to constantly bark at every noise he hears. At first, it seemed like he was sedated; but he is absolutely alert. In some ways, he is a different dog. However, he is able to enjoy his life. My husband said “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to think something is about to get me all the time, and I think that might be what Mercury felt like”. I feel a little bad that I did not reach for medications sooner.

I think sometimes it is hard for people to understand that the much calmer version of their medicated dog is not an indication that the dog is “dopey” or sleepy. It is actually their first introduction to their dog without the overwhelming anxiety that was ruling their pet’s life. Also combining medication with appropriate training methods is much more likely to create a healthy well-adjusted companion that we are all looking for.