Helping a dog with mental health issues


Editor's Picks
07 October 2022
It's World Mental Health Awareness Day on Monday October 10, 2022. But did you know, dogs can suffer from mental health issues, too? Carol Price advises on how we can help them...

Increasingly, we are understanding that the mind of an animal can be a complex and fragile thing, more prone to harm or malfunction than has previously been realised. 

But while today we are much more aware of how different mental health issues, or disorders, can affect the behaviour of human beings, the same is not always the case with dogs.

Too often they can be viewed as actively choosing to indulge in challenging or disturbing behaviours, as opposed to being victims — much like us — of more complex mental impulses they find hard to control. Some of these mental impulses and issues will have a deep genetic root, others may be greatly exacerbated by a dog’s external environment.

Interestingly enough, many of the mental issues found in dogs can be similar in nature to those found in humans. These range from acute anxiety and agitated or compulsive behaviours (typically labelled ADHD or OCD in people), to a wide range of neuroses and sensory or social phobias,  poorer ability to control aggression (usually referred to as ‘anger issues’ in people), and even self-harm, where dogs will lick or chew their legs, paws, or tails raw to release some inner mental pressure or tension. Dogs can also suffer from depression and agoraphobia (where dogs show an acute reluctance to leave the familiar home environment).

It is also my belief that dogs can suffer from a more species-specific form of and what we may often view as many different behaviour issues in a dog are really all part and parcel of a wider mental condition.

The question then arises as to where all these mental problems originate in different dogs, and what — if anything — can be done to resolve or greatly improve them.

Early damage

One of the critical first steps to understanding what can go wrong in dogs is realising how utterly unique every dog mind is, and how easily and early on in life it can be damaged. Contrary to popular belief, a dog’s mind does not start off more or less blank in puppyhood, ready to be shaped to your will; it starts off at birth, already pre-programmed with some

genetic predispositions or vulnerabilities, any or all of which can begin the process of making your dog a more mentally fragile or troubled individual.

Many of these genetic vulnerabilities, including those involved in things like higher neurosis and anxiety or poorer social ability and impulse control, may not be so noticeable in a dog during early puppyhood, and only become a bigger problem as he gets older.

For in dogs, as in people, adolescence seems to be the time at which any underlying mental issue in an individual comes more strongly to the fore.

A more deprived or traumatic early background, like a puppy farm, or abusive home, also increases the chances of a dog suffering more mental and behavioural issues later in life.

In the case of puppy farms, this is not just due to the physical situation in which the dog was raised, but also the higher rates of cortisol, or stress hormone, he was exposed to in the womb, due to the ongoing mental and physical trauma experienced by his mother during pregnancy. Studies also show that stress and trauma experienced by animals in one generation can actually cause longer term damage to their DNA, including that involved in mental function. This damage will then be passed down to the next generation, which is why mental as well as physical health issues in dogs can so often appear to run in families.

The closer and more persistent inbreeding of dogs can also result in a marked deterioration in the temperament of their off spring and subsequent mental health.

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Genes versus environment

The extent to which any dog’s mental health issue is more to do with the genetic nature of his brain, as opposed to the external factors and influences he has been exposed to in life, is an important thing to establish when looking at the best possible treatment — not least because owners are too often blamed for many troubling behaviours in dogs that have a high genetic component.

And while every dog deserves the right to have his mental issues addressed, assessed, and worked on in the most thorough way, the stronger the genetic component behind them, the more likely it is that the dog’s symptoms can only be better handled and supported throughout his life rather than totally cured. In order to be more totally cured of his mental issues, the dog would need to have a completely different kind of brain to the one he has.

Dogs like these usually need their daily living environments painstakingly micro-managed by owners, in ways that keep their wider anxieties and neuroses under control. They often react badly to any changes in routine and their lives can be quite limited socially.

In dogs where the mental issues have a weaker genetic element, and the problems have been caused instead by external influences or events in the dog’s past, the prognosis is usually much brighter in terms of improvement.

The bigger picture

Mental health and mental health issues in dogs is a subject too vast and complex to cover in just one feature, and similarly all the different possible treatments for different problems. However, at the root of any of these issues lies the same question of how and why the dog’s mind came to operate more dysfunctionally, and in a way that gives both him and his owner a poorer quality of life.

A frighteningly high number of dogs with mental health issues also lose their lives as a result of the behaviour this produces, particularly in the case of more serious aggression.

Do we need to look much harder at the way we breed dogs, and ensure that a sounder genetic temperament is made a far higher priority, as well as one that is fundamentally more bombproof to the challenges of living a typical ‘pet’ life?

Dogs today are too often bred and born without this critical mental advantage. Perhaps we should also think harder about the lives we give dogs — lives that support their mental health rather than being just more convenient for us? Too often, when I am asked to look at a ‘behaviour problem’, I am looking at a dog who has been mentally struggling for a long, long time, without his owner ever being aware of it.

The telltale signs of mental health issues in dogs

Symptoms seen in dogs with mental health issues include:

  • The dog being more noticeably withdrawn or agitated/excitable.
  • More widespread social anxiety; the dog maintains a more constant state of hyper vigilance and anxiety when out, and may also be hyper-reactive to people or other dogs who approach (snapping, barking, lunging). Dogs like these may also show great reluctance to leave the home environment (agoraphobia) or excessive keenness to return to it again as soon as they go out.
  • The dog has more hyper-sensitive responses to sound and movement.
  • The dog has difficulty resting or settling and may indulge in more persistent activity like whining, barking, pacing up and down, or excess scratching, or more obsessive/compulsive habits like shadow chasing, tail chasing and biting, or paw licking and biting.
  • The dog may develop more worryingly unpredictable patterns of aggression.

Please note: some underlying physical health issues in dogs can cause some of the above behavioural symptoms, so if in any doubt rule these out with your vet first.

Externalisers and internalisers

It is important to understand that not all dogs will exhibit their experience of mental pressure or crisis in the same way. Some dogs, for instance, are externalisers, and thus will show their symptoms in more obvious outward physical behaviours like barking, whining or howling, aggression, or destructiveness.

Other dogs, however, are internalisers, meaning they will turn the same kind of mental or emotional disturbance inwards, to the point where they may become physically ill or depressed instead. Often owners may think that ‘internaliser’ dogs are coping fine with their lives, when they are not, simply because of these less obvious outward signs of inner mental pressure.

About Carol

Carol Price is a leading canine behaviourist, trainer, and writer, and a world-recognised specialist in the Border Collie breed. She was recently appointed an official ambassador for The Border Collie Trust GB, the largest collie welfare/rehoming organisation in the UK.