I find myself in a strange home. Unfamiliar scents. Unfamiliar sights. I find comfort in her presence and get scared when she leaves. I know the signs. She’s putting on her shoes. Please don’t grab your coat. Won’t you stay a little longer? I can tell she’s in a hurry. I notice her brows are furrowed, and the outline of her lips are facing down, not up like they usually are. Is she scared too? I’m worried about her. My breathing gets heavier, so she looks into my scared eyes and comforts me. She tells me she’ll be back soon, but I’m afraid. She turns the TV on, so I won’t feel so alone. She grabs her key — a surefire sign she’ll soon be walking out the door. First, she puts me in my crate which is somewhere I feel safe. Her T-shirt she left with me gives me comfort as I await her return. What’s that? The door unlocks, and a familiar sight unfolds. There she is. My person. I’m safe now.
There it is. It’s loud and thunderous like a battlefield. It echoes like a child screaming into a cave. Echo, echo, echo. It looms high, bright, and beautiful in the sky for just a moment. Boom. There goes another one. They light up the night sky. I run and hide into my safe place under the bed. I shake. My breathing gets heavier as I await another inevitable boom. The boom of each firework shakes me to my core. When will it end?
This is anxiety. More specifically, this is anxiety through the eyes of Pinella. Throughout her days as a service-dog-in-training, Pinella underwent observations which ultimately deemed her too anxious for service dog work. Some of my very first recollections of life with Pinella involved preparing her for situations, wherein we had to be separated. As a young puppy, goodbyes were often accompanied by fear and distress. My heart ached to witness her feeling emotionally uneasy. We practiced goodbyes, slowly increasing the duration of time spent away from one another. First, it was a few seconds. We very gradually moved from minutes to hours. Reunions were coupled with praise and positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors she displayed upon being separated and while apart (i.e., no destructive chewing, urinating, defecating, barking, et cetera). It is often suggested that the root origin of separation anxiety in dogs is linked to fear of abandonment. It took many test runs of leaving and returning, leaving and returning, and leaving and returning for Pinella to understand that separation was temporary. Together, we mitigated her anxiety by creating an exciting, enjoyable goodbye ritual. She learned that, while goodbyes are necessary, they aren’t to occur without the accompaniment of a peanut butter snack or, more recently, treats in her tricky treat ball.
Separation anxiety is suggested to affect 14 percent of our nation’s pets (Kriss, 2019). It is my personal speculation, however, that this number is highly underestimated as separation anxiety is often overlooked and ascribed to a dog who “misbehaves” or “has bad manners.” It is not the dog’s responsibility to “wise up” and “fix” their problematic behaviors. Rather, it begins with responsible dog owners whose duty it is to become familiar with their pet’s body language, cues, and signals. Kriss (2019) suggests that signs of anxiety in dogs include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Tense body posture
- Lip smacking
- Hypersensitivity to sights or sounds (i.e., alertness to the possible sound of their owner’s return)
- Barking, growling, howling
- Defecation, urination
- Destructive chewing
- Pacing and restlessness
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
Familiarity with your pet’s body language, cues, and signals begins with first understanding the context in which their problematic behaviors occur. As such, examine whether or not your dog displays any of the aforementioned signs upon your departure from the home. For example, does the dog begin pacing and panting when you go to the closet and grab your coat and shoes? If so, this may be an indication of separation anxiety. If these kinds of behaviors occur across many different contexts, there may be a larger issue at hand aside from separation anxiety.
While some anxiety is healthy and normal, it can become problematic when the dog’s response is disproportionate to that which is average. The latter has been repeatedly exemplified with Pinella’s fear of fireworks. This specific fear, also referred to as a phobia, developed while on a walk one evening. Neighbors were setting off fireworks, and we inconveniently found ourselves in the crossfire. She froze, unable to move. Shaken to the core, she looked at me with fear in her eyes. There existed no amount of praise or treats that would have enticed her and reassured her that she was safe to keep walking.
Since that incident, I have done extensive desensitization training and counterconditioning work with Pinella to help mitigate her symptomology. While she has demonstrated decreased anxiety symptoms, holidays, such as Independence Day and Memorial Day, continue to be most challenging. What is most frustrating, however, is the unpredictable nature of firework displays. I fully support pre-planned displays at previously determined locations. I think it’s wonderful that we, as a society, can come together and celebrate our nation, its freedom, and the veterans who fought for it. What I find problematic, however, are the displays we see in neighborhoods — those that are unpredictable, unplanned, and unbeknownst to all until it’s essentially too late. We owe it to our nation’s veterans, anxious pets, and all individuals with exaggerated startle responses to be mindful of how unpredictable firework displays can worsen psychological symptomology.
When Pinella developed a fear of fireworks, we immediately began working together to create an environment where she would feel safe, comfortable, and confident. As holidays, such as the aforementioned, approach I find myself with a freezer filled with peanut butter Kongs and marrow bones filled with organic pumpkin. At the sound of the first firework, she will retreat to her safe space under my bed where she has free access to her treats. The curtains are drawn. The television and fans are turned on to provide ambient background noise. Through studying and assessing her body language, I have learned that, while she enjoys my company, constant comfort and too much invasion on her personal space results in increased anxiety. For that reason, I often find myself staying in the same room as her while allowing her to check-in with me when she needs to. When you have an anxious pet, it’s important to know what triggers them as well as what comforts them. Here are some tips to help you in developing a plan to care for and comfort your beloved fur friend:
The aforementioned information highlights the debilitating and unnerving experiences that are commonplace to many of our four-legged companions. The prevalence of anxiety-related issues in pets is alarming. As responsible pet owners, it is our duty and moral obligation to understand what our pets are communicating to us and, in turn, identify sensible solutions to make them more calm, confident, and comfortable!
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Until next time,
Casey, R. (n.d.). How common is separation anxiety? Retrieved from https://www.dogstrustdogschool.org.uk/behaviour/separation-anxiety/how-common-is-separation-anxiety/.
Kriss, R. (2019). Understanding, preventing, and treating dog anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/treating-dog-anxiety/.