5 of the more uncommon signs of anxiety that you may not know about
This is a super vulnerable post about Westley’s anxiety and is so hard for me to post, but know it is important for others to see and not feel alone with their own dogs.
It took me 45 minutes to get Westley in the car yesterday after we went on an adventure to a new pet store.
To the untrained eye or someone who doesn't have an understanding of dog behavior and body language, it is easy to think that Westley is just refusing to get in the car to be difficult…. But that is NOT how dogs operate. He is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time on purpose.
Yesterday got me thinking about the signs that dogs show us everyday that they may be anxious that many people dismiss because they just don't know about dog body language.
Here are 5 of the more uncommon signs of anxiety that I see in this video that I think are important to highlight:
The “pull back” and refusing to move forward.
This happens when dogs are in a fight/ flight type of situation and they are afraid to keep moving forward so they “pull back” to get away from the stimulus. Do NOT force your dog to move forward in those situations (I was guilty of it yesterday trying to get him to move forward and I very quickly checked myself and reminded myself to be patient and understanding because that is what he needed in that moment). Go with them and allow them to feel safe.
Dog’s are not being stubborn when they don’t do what you are asking them to do. Believe it or not, dogs don’t speak English! You have to teach them what you want them to do. They may not understand what you are asking, you maybe haven’t taught them the cue properly or they may be afraid of the space/ person/ situation they are being put into. This was what was happening yesterday with Westley. He was afraid for whatever reason to get in the car (maybe he sees the car as a predictor that we go home and I leave so he thinks if he doesn’t get in the car that I will stay with him…) There are SO many reasons that swim around in my brain, but the reality is that I can’t ask him what is wrong because he can’t tell me. So, it is my job to make him feel as safe as possible, see if I can come up with any patterns or similarities for when this happens and work through it with him.
Although you don’t see much (or any) of it in the video, when Westley is feeling uncomfortable or unsure of a situation he barks. A lot. It is the way that he is expressing that in that moment, he is struggling to regulate himself. You may call me crazy, but just like a baby has different sounds they make in terms of crying, it is my experience that dogs do too when they are barking. Westley's anxiety bark is much different than his resource guarding bark and growl as well as when he is excited and barking. Barking, just like talking, crying or yelling for us, serves a purpose for our dogs. If you are willing to listen and understand what they are trying to communicate through those barks or growls versus trying to get them to be quiet, you will have a much better understanding of the "why" behind it. Never EVER punish those things. This will also help you to work on training and management for different situations that might occur.
Easily Startled/ Being Hyper- Vigilant
You can see a few times in this video that any little noise outside made Westley either jump, look to the side or he would stare into the distance. This all goes back to the fight, flight freeze response. The flight, fight freeze response is basically is your body's natural physiological reaction to stressful in the environment. I won't get into all the scientific mumbo jumbo to explain it, but when you are anxious to begin with and are already in a heightened state, your body can perceive things that aren't necessarily a threat as a threat. Imagine how exhausting it would be to be constantly in a state of hyper - vigilance.
Not wanting to eat/ take food (even high value items)
This again, believe it or not, has to do with the sympathetic nervous system and fight, flight, freeze. Your body has two main systems (parasympathetic and sympathetic). The Sympathetic nervous system is the one that is in control of your fight and flight whereas your parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of your rest and digest. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system takes over and diverts all of your body's reserves towards survival (which means things that the parasympathetic nervous system are responsible for like hunger and digestion aren't needed in that moment). It suppresses your dog's appetite and is the reason why many dog's who are anxious or reactive can struggle with taking treats as motivation (like to get into the car for Westley). They aren't being difficult, they simply are trying to survive in that moment and nothing else matters.
Westley is on medication and we are working with a veterinary behaviorist to help us find the right one for him, however, he still has bad days and that is okay!
What is most important to me is listening and understanding my dog as well as the dogs that I work with.
Sharing things like this to help remind myself of why I am working towards being a trainer (which is working with animals, not against them) and teaching their owners the signs they may miss so that they can help their pups thrive.
Hope this helps!