Canine anxiety or phobia development is a common problem, and can seriously affect both dogs and their owners. In the USA it is estimated that nearly 23 million dogs suffer from anxiety or phobia issues. Anxiety is a nervousness of a situation or situations, either due to the situation being novel, or a bad experience in the past. If anxiety is allowed to develop it can become a phobia. Phobias are a disproportionate reaction to a perceived threat, and can be very difficult to manage. Both anxiety and phobias will not resolve without intervention and, in most cases, will worsen with time. Scarily, over a third of older dogs have some form of anxiety disorder.
There are three categories of common phobias in dogs:
- The most common phobia seen in the dog population is fear of loud or sudden noises. Nearly 50% of anxious dogs have some form of noise phobia, such as fear of thunder, vacuum cleaners or fireworks. Sadly, only a third of owners ever seek professional help for this issue.
- Separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is another common issue seen in dogs. As social creatures, being left alone can be a very stressful experience for a dog. This is especially true if a change in routine occurs suddenly, without giving the dog time to adjust to a new pattern of interaction with its owner. Separation anxiety can be especially difficult to manage because the unwanted behaviours occur when the owner is absent, meaning it is difficult to reinforce appropriate behaviour instead.
- Situational phobias are the final general class we see in our canine population. All of these situations can cause dogs to feel anxious or unsure, and in need of reassurance. These include:
- Vet visits
- Groomer visits
- Car travel
- New places
- New people or animals
Symptoms of anxiety or phobic reactions differ between different dogs. These reactions can range from mild trembling, hiding behaviours and clinginess, up to much more extreme behaviours. Extreme behaviour can include howling, destruction of furniture, inappropriate toileting and even aggression.
These symptoms can also manifest in overexcited dogs.
Canine anxiety is often managed with pharmaceuticals and behavioural modification programmes. Behaviour modification is certainly a key part of curing or reducing phobic or anxious reactions, but can be difficult to instigate in dogs which are already very highly strung. Calming your dog can help behavioural training progress more quickly, and is also useful to manage acute incidents whilst behaviour modification is underway.
Calming can be managed with pharmaceuticals, but these often take a long time to work, many not be licenced in dogs and come with a long list of side effects. Natural calming is a safe and effective method to promote positive behaviour in your dog.
Pressure and Weight Vests
Weight vests work to calm dogs in two ways:
Calming effect of pressure
Several studies, in both dogs and in food production animals, have shown the calming effect of moderate pressure on the torso. Putting dogs in garments that exert this pressure around the chest allows the dog to relax, reducing heart rates and the ‘fight or flight’ response associated with stress.
This effect has been shown to be beneficial in dogs with a range of issues, including both separation anxiety and generalised anxiety disorders.
Calming effect of exercise
Some dogs which require a lot of exercise can become very stressed when they do not receive it. This can contribute to or exacerbate anxiety disorders. Part of this issue is the pent-up energy, but exercise also promotes confidence and good mood, both of which are also critical for improving anxiety.
Weight vests increase the physical demand of exercise, allowing your dog to get more benefit from shorter exercise periods. By doing this you can boost the anxiolytic benefits of exercise and take home a quiet, tired dog.
Anxiety in dogs is an ever more common problem as we fit them into our human lifestyles. Being left alone, loud noises, kennels and car travel, to name but a few, are examples of experiences that can be intensely scary for an anxious or phobic dog.
Even with this hugely high prevalence, very few owners are seeking help for this issue. Perhaps this is due to the common misconception that there is very little that can be done, especially without pharmaceutical intervention or time intensive training. Although training certainly is a key part of management of anxious dogs, it is definitely possible to use simple aids to assist in short term management, and ease longer term behavioural planning.
Weight vests provide calming stimulus both from the pressure exerted around the chest when placed moderately tightly, and from the increased tiredness from exercise. They are a fantastic tool for management of anxiety, not just alone, but also in conjunction with any other therapies.
2011 Veterinary Anxiety Survey, Thundershirt
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Cottam, N., Dodman, N. H., 2009. Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 119, 78-84.
Cottam, N., Dodman, N. H., Ha, J., 2013. The effectiveness of the Anxiety Wrap® in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open-label trial J Vet Behaviour 8 154-161