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What's worrying the modern dog?

Today's dog is more anxious than ever. Here's what some experts suggest doing about it.

Wednesday December 2nd, 2009

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Monty after an ocean swim

The psychological unraveling of Monty, an eight-year-old McNab mix, began with a trip out of town. Eight months after San Francisco resident Anne Walzer adopted him from a shelter, she went on her first vacation without him, leaving him in a neighbor's care. Within a day, the affectionate and fastidiously housetrained dog had his first housesoiling accident and nipped a housecleaner.

Alarmed, Walzer cancelled her trip and rushed home. But things only got worse. Neighbors in her apartment building started pressuring her to get rid of the dog and Monty, she says, soaked up her considerable stress. Where before he'd been slightly jumpy around loud noises, he now went into full-fledged panic attacks.

Monty begins shutting down

He started refusing to walk in certain parts of what had been a favorite hiking spot after getting spooked by loud bangs. Eventually, he dug in his heels and refused to go at all. "I tried to fool him with new routes and treats," says Walzer. "Then I waited four months and tried again. Even then he just wouldn't get out of the car."

Walks around their neighborhood became increasingly short. Eventually, Monty's world was confined to the two blocks outside Walzer's apartment. When asked to step outside his safety zone, Monty went into what Walzer calls 'civil disobedience mode'--flopping down on the sidewalk and going limp. When scared by a noise, he would bolt or drag Walzer home.

"It's like being pulled by a team of draft horses," she says. "I eventually developed elbow problems."

Anxiety on the rise?

Monty would once have been considered a canine oddball, a furry freak, an unusually challenging dog. But talk to enough trainers and vets and you get a different picture. Although Monty's case is an extreme one, his psychological troubles are anything but rare.

No one tracks how many dogs suffer from canine anxiety, but experts peg the rate at somewhere around 30 percent and, many say, probably rising. In its wake, a whole new industry has sprung up to serve the owners of anxious Beagles, Chihuahas, and mutts, with everything from canine lullaby CDs to stress-relieving alternative remedies and pharmaceuticals.

"It's almost impossible to get a handle on whether canine anxiety is on the
rise--it wasn't tracked in the past, and people diagnose it differently," says well-known behaviorist Patricia McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash. "But it's reasonable to speculate that the problem is growing. These days, the conditions that make dogs anxious--not giving them enough stimulation or exercise, for instance--are very common."

Why Fido frets

A canine anxiety epidemic seems out of sync with a world that includes organic food, daycare centers, and memory foam beds for that special canine in your life. There are dating sites for people partial to spending their free time with dogs and travel agencies that can plan entire vacations around you and your dog.

In canine-obsessed times such as these, how bad could a dog's life be?

The truth is that most dogs aren't along for the ride. Even the ones lucky enough to be adopted by responsible people spend a good part of their lives inside and on their own. They're waiting for someone to come home, and they're lonely.

"With both parents working, dogs are left alone for much of the day," says veterinarian Nicolas Dodman, head of the Animal Behavior Department at Tufts University and co-founder of ThePetDocs.com. "And since dogs are social animals they don't do well in isolation."

Even when people are home, they're often distracted by everything they need to catch up on after a day away. And all that time on the phone, the Blackberry, or the computer takes time away from exercising, playing, and just plain hanging out with your dog.

Needless to say, it can all leave dogs feeling a little...anxious.

Sloppy breeding worsens problem

Here's another reason the modern dog is more anxious than ever: careless breeding. America's love affair with dogs has led to a higher demand for them, and the unhappy result is a thriving puppy mill industry.

These huge breeding operations churn out masses of purebred and designer hybrid dogs, with little concern for what a puppy's temperament or disposition could or should be. The vast majority of these unskilled breeders are aiming for a particular look instead. In the process, they're accidentally creating whole dynasties of nervous or neurotic dogs.

The conditions these pups are born into, crowded with dogs but thin on opportunities for human interaction, only exacerbate the problem. "Puppy mill puppies are around lots of other dogs but get no contact with people so they miss out on socialization completely," says Patricia McConnell. "Then they land in homes where they're by themselves all day without any other dogs."

Without being taught coping skills, these pups are prone to becoming nervous, which in turns leads to behavioral problems, such as destructive chewing, excessive barking, and separation anxiety.

What anxiety looks like

There are many ways a dog's anxiety can manifest itself. Monty's noise phobia is a common one, as is fear of certain types of people, often men, and travel. But separation anxiety is the biggest anxiety disorder by far, accounting for about half of all cases. Symptoms range from signs of unease, such as heavy drooling, to all-out panic that can leave the house, and the dog, in tatters.

Patricia McConnell remembers one such case vividly. "She was my first separation anxiety client--a Shar-Pei named Peaches," McConnell says. "When I arrived, her face looked like raw hamburger. She'd tried to chew her way out of her metal crate."

No holiday for Monty

After Monty nipped the housekeeper, Walzer knew she needed help fast, so she signed up for training sessions with acclaimed San Francisco-based trainer Donna Duford to work on getting Monty comfortable around strangers.

They quickly discovered that Monty loved to learn and perform tricks, and started bringing in strangers to watch. Slowly, Monty began to enjoy performing in front of spectators.

Still, the simplest bang--a street car backfiring, say, or something falling to the ground--sent Monty right back into his shell, and it took an awful lot of work to coax him out again. "After the Fourth of July, he refused to go out more than once a day until Thanksgiving," says Walzer. "Then the New Year's Eve fireworks came around. I'd leave the country with him during these holidays if I could."

Finally, Duford told Walzer what she didn't want to hear: there was something physically wrong with Monty, something that couldn't be fixed by training. Her dog needed medication.

This is your dog on Prozac

Monty's not alone. Although training is crucial in treating anxiety, as noted by New Jersey-based trainer Kathy Santo, who appears frequently on the Martha Stewart show, a dog too panicked to learn won't get very far. "I prefer to avoid drugs, but if you're at the point where your dog's quality of life is in the toilet," she says, "I'm absolutely for it."

There are two drugs marketed specifically for canine anxiety. In 1999, the FDA approved Novartis's Clomicalm, the first medication for canine separation anxiety, and in 2007 Eli Lilly's Reconcile became the second. Despite the doggie advertisements, packaging, and labeling, they're basically meat-flavored versions of human anti-depressants.

How well do they work for dogs? That depends on what you use them for, says Dodman. Ironically, Reconcile and Clomicalm do a much better job soothing a dog who's aggressive than the one hiding under the bed. Aggression that's fear-based gets slightly less impressive results, while about half of dogs with thunderstorm phobia get some relief. Dogs with obsessive behaviors, such as repetitive licking, sometimes improve, and sometimes do not.

As for separation anxiety, the disorder the drugs are actually marketed for, Nicholas Dodman says it's not the miracle pill owners are hoping for. "If you combine it with a behavior modification plan, which they recommend you do, the drugs may help you get where you're going sooner; it may take you two months instead of three," he says. "Still, it's a bit disappointing."

Unfortunately, chances are slim that better drugs are on the horizon. Because vets can prescribe any drug, whether for humans or animals, new canine drugs compete with generic forms of the human equivalent. This means pharmaceutical companies have little financial incentive to fork over the big bucks it takes to research new drugs and get FDA approval.

"Ultimately, it comes down to a financial decision," says Dodman. And most companies appear to be deciding against it.

No easy solutions

For Monty, medication certainly didn't turn out to be a miracle cure. Last year, Walzer started him on Zoloft; she added melatonin after the Fourth of July, and a few months later, Xanax, after Duford said she'd seen dogs improve on a cocktail of the three drugs. Throughout, she kept a close, hopeful eye on Monty for signs of improvement.

He has mellowed somewhat. "I haven't seen that tension around strangers for a long time," she says. "And about a month after I added the melatonin, I was able to get him to go out for two walks a day instead of just one."

She doesn't know how much of it is due to her continued training with Duford and how much to the drugs. She's prepared to tinker with the drugs and the dosages and the training until she's got something close to what she wants: a dog who's not afraid of the world outside their apartment.

"Nothing's gotten me to where I want to go," she says, and Monty continues to try her patience at times. "But I'm sticking with him," says Walzer. "If you met him, and know him the way I do, you'd see why."

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How do I know my dog has an anxiety problem?

The signs vary depending on the dog and what your dog's afraid of, but they can include:

  • Excessive licking (himself or furniture)
  • Heavy panting or drooling
  • Chasing his tail
  • Pacing
  • Fence running
  • Destroying surroundings or harming self

How do I treat it?

There are now two medications marketed for canine anxiety, but they're no replacement for training; at best, they can get you over the hump of a dog who's too terrified to be trained. As behaviorist Patricia McConnell points out: "Anxiety is not a disease, it's a psychological problem, and the best way to treat that is classical conditioning and desensitization."

1) Training

If you've got an anxious dog, you've got two training goals: first, to slowly get him used to what he's afraid of; and second, to help him form positive associations with what used to scare him.

For a dog with separation anxiety, for instance, McConnell suggests you find the trigger--it could be picking up your keys, combing your hair, or putting on your jacket. Then hand your dog a chewtoy stuffed with treats, and put down the keys (the comb, or the jacket).

Work up to longer separations very slowly: Pick up your keys and walk out of the room for five seconds, then 10 seconds. Then walk all the way down the hall for a few brief seconds, and so on.

For milder cases of anxiety, you may be able to work with your dog yourself. For more extreme cases, that is, when your dog is really suffering either physically or emotionally, find a good behaviorist to help you.

Either way, this process takes time. For full-blown cases of separation anxiety, for instance Santo warns it can take two to six months before you can leave your dog home alone. "It may sound drastic, but if you proceed too fast you can completely set the dog back," she says.

2) Medications

Clomicalm is FDA-approved to treat separation anxiety. It's similar to the human drug Anafranil, a tricyclic antidepressant.
Reconcile is also FDA-approved for separation anxiety, and is similar to Prozac, the SSRI antidepressant used for humans.

3) Lifestyle

Lack of exercise and boredom can fuel anxiety, so experts recommend giving a stressed out dog plenty of daily exercise and attention, and leaving him with brain-teaser toys when he's home alone. For separation anxiety, try leaving the TV or radio on when you leave, set to a station that plays something soothing, like public radio or classical music.

Also for separation anxiety, make coming and going a straightforward, drama-free affair. Leave without fanfare, and when you return, ignore your dog until he's calm. It may sound cruel, but if you make a big deal out of your departures, your dog will too.

Alternative remedies

Just as more people are turning to alternative medicine for their own ailments, many are reaching for natural remedies to help their dogs too. In some cases, they have their vet's full blessing.

"Many of my colleagues try to treat anxiety with holistic treatments before we resort to drugs," says Carvel Tiekert, director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Tiekert says that, because there's been little research on which remedies work for which kinds of anxiety, most holistic vets will choose a treatment that's worked for a similar case in the past and watch to see if the situation improves within two or three weeks. If not, they move on to a different remedy.

There are plenty of products to choose from, mostly homeopathic remedies, flower essences, herbs, and B complex vitamins. As always, it's wise to work with your veterinarian before dosing your dog, especially since some alternative remedies may cause side effects or interfere with other drugs your dog is taking.

Here are a few of the more popular choices:

Sergeant's Sentry Good Behavior Pheromone Collar mimics the pheromone mother dogs release to calm their pups. Dogs can recognize and become soothed by these scents throughout their lives.

Rescue remedy, a flower essence-based stress tamer for humans, is popular among pet owners. After noticing that many of their customers were buying the remedy for their animals, the manufacturer recently released a version especially for pets.

Relieve de stress is part of Kathy Santo's line of holistic pet care products, and combines St. John's Wort and Valerian--popular stress relievers for people--with flower essences.

Melatonin, a natural hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, seems to be particularly popular for thunderstorm anxiety (like Monty). Dosage varies with the dog's weight, so consult your vet. You can find it at any health food store or online.

Canine anxiety and stress formula is a mix of melatonin, B vitamins, and herbs thought to have calming properties.

Only Natural Pet Phero-Soothe continually diffuses the scent of a natural pheromone released by a mother dog nursing her puppies, which is thought to help the puppies feel relaxed. In theory, it can also help an anxious adult dog chill out.

Resources

I'll be home soon: How to prevent and treat separation anxiety, by Patricia McConnell
The cautious canine: How to help dogs conquer their fears, by Patricia McConnell

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