Keeping calm with your anxious dog


29 September 2014

Keep calm, stay cool

The Your Dog team visits a local Yorkie suffering from anxiety issues. 

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The problem 

Whenever Val gets a visitor, Yorkshire Terrier Holly constantly barks and gets herself into such a state that she won't listen to her frantic owner.

Unsure how to handle the situation, Val shuts Holly behind a stairgate in the kitchen until she quietens down.

Very often, however, the barking will continue, making it hard for Val to have a conversation with visitors. When she eventually stops barking and calms down, Holly sometimes likes to sit with guests. The two-year-old Yorkie also has a habit of barking when she hears a noise or sees movement outside.

Val is desperate to help Holly become more calm and relaxed.

"When she's like this she takes absolutely no notice of me," said Val.

"I am a retired widow so it's just Holly and me at home most of the time. I have arthritis which makes it hard sometimes to get about.

"When someone rings the door bell she goes loopy. If it's someone who wants to talk I have to shut the door as I can't hear what they are saying.

"When my Tesco delivery arrives I have to put Holly in her crate and she just barks the whole time they are here.

"She's becoming better with a couple of my friends when they visit but I can't bring her into the living area until much later to stop her jumping up.

"I'm on edge all the time. It makes it really miserable when anybody visits."

Keep calm stay coolAnxiety troubles 

When the Your Dog team, accompanied by Steve Goward, deputy head of training and behaviour at Dogs Trust, arrived at Val's house, she told us Holly had known that she would be receiving visitors.

Val was waiting for us at the front door with Holly in her arms; the little dog was barking madly as the three strangers approached the house.

"She reads me and knows when someone is coming," said Val.

"She knew the Your Dog team were coming as I was on the lookout and put her lead on her."

Once inside, Steve said: "From what I can see from her body language and behaviour there is a combination of emotions behind it.

"There is some anxiety as she's quite an anxious dog, and there is a bit of frustration because she loves people. It's these emotions that drive the behaviour. She's anxious and barking is a coping strategy for that anxiousness.

"I am sure she wouldn't bite anyone but you never know. That's why it's important to have a strategy to reduce the anxiety and keep her under control."

Steve said Val needed to remember what Yorkshire Terriers were bred for.

"They are companion dogs and quite reactive and alert, so you will often get barking problems with these types of terriers," he explained.

"What you should look to do is try and make the situation as predictable as possible to reduce anxiety. If you have a predictable routine in place and the dog knows what's going to happen the anxiety will calm down.

"Then you need to reduce the excitement and frustration. We want her to be able to be with the visitors, not excluded."

Val explained that her canine companion loved tuggy and soft toys, as well as her old socks.

She said she asked Holly to fetch a sock at times when she went mad at something at the window.

"Occasionally she will look for the sock and it will stop her for a little while," said Val.

Steve praised Val for already implementing a strategy for this but said she needed to work on it when there were no distractions around.

"When something goes past the window it's very difficult for her to take on the information and remember it," he said. "The ability to take on new information goes down when adrenalin goes up.

"Practise it at quiet times when there's nothing going on. Ask Holly to get her sock, she gets it, and then you play a tug game with her. The game is a reward. Then you can work on self control by asking her to leave it then re-engage with the game.

"Build up that self control and the amount of time you can be involved in the game. This builds up her focus on you and the ability to control her excitement levels.

"If you get her to get a sock or a toy she forgets about the stuff that's going on outside. They can become predictors of fun stuff. The aim is that there can be three or four pigeons on the gravel outside and she thinks this game is more fun than barking at them."

Keen to see how Holly interacted with people off the lead, Steve asked Val to bring Holly into the living room.

She immediately jumped on to the sofa where Your Dog feature writer Kelly and photographer Peter were sitting.

She then bounded over to Steve and jumped up at him as he showed her a selection of new activity toys.

When Val pointed out that Holly sometimes shook a little bit, Steve said: "Very often you will find that dogs shake after a stressful situation such as meeting a new person or dog, or if they've been handled by someone they're not sure about. It can be a release of the stress."

Holly sat at Steve's feet while he got some treats out before jumping up at him. When she sat patiently he gave her a treat.

"There's some body language present that shows her anxiety," commented Steve.

"The little paw lift is often a sign of anxiety or that a dog is unsure of the situation. As my hands go towards her, her ears go back. That's her saying she's anxious about the situation."

Routine mattersKeep calm stay cool

Holly barks because she's unsure what's happening and doesn't know what to do.

"If you pick her up or talk to her that's giving her attention," explained Steve.

"It's a common situation with small dogs; if they are anxious, fearful, or reactive, picking them up stops it.

"It becomes a learned behaviour and it's like a vicious circle. You need to be careful not to reward the barking behaviour. Every time she's quiet reward her with a treat or a game."

Steve explained to Val it was important that she had a routine in place every time someone came to the house.

He suggested getting a selection of fun activity toys which could be filled with tasty treats, such as cream cheese or peanut butter, which Val should prepare ready in advance.

Val could continue to put Holly in the kitchen, asking her to go into the kitchen and play with the activity toys.

Steve pointed out that it was vital Val practised her routine when there was no one around.

"It's going to take some time because she's learning a new routine," he continued.

"It needs to be practised when no one's around to start with. You need to practise it when her adrenalin is lower as she will be able to focus more and be able to learn.

"It's important to do it in small stages. The reason for this is it strengthens the learning and when you add things that are more difficult, such as talking to a person, it becomes predictable.

"Stage one might be getting out the activity toy from the kitchen cupboard and asking Holly to sit or go on to her bed, putting in a command such as ‘Relax' or ‘Chill out'. Then give her the toy and stand behind the stairgate. Wait a few seconds and go back into the kitchen.

"The next stage might be you going into the living room and then going back into the kitchen.

"Stage three might be going into the living room and moving some stuff around before going back to the kitchen. As long as she's quiet you can go on to the next stage.

"Then you can move on to touching the door handle and opening the front door. Include things like knocking on the door and talking to an imaginary person."

Val was advised to practise her new routine as often as possible over a few weeks.

"Holly will start to learn that good things happen when you say ‘Relax' or ‘Chill out', whereas at the moment all she is practising is going into the kitchen and barking a lot.

"You want to get people in the house and sat down before Holly comes in, and then you can give her a chew such as a rawhide."

Val also needed to use the routine in reverse when visitors left.

The process of getting up to leave should be slowed down so that everybody didn't get up at once.

"Explain to your visitors what's going to happen and that you have to get a toy or chew and pop Holly into the kitchen," said Steve.

"One of the ways of letting people leave is for you to stay with her and do the relaxation programme."

Keep calm stay coolAnd relax...

With dogs who struggle to relax it's important to teach them how to relax, Steve said.

One good way of doing this is using a relaxation programme developed by the University of Pennsylvania in America.

"Use something like a mat and teach her to sit on it, then reward her," explained Steve.

"Practise getting her to sit and reward. All she has to do is sit on the mat and wait for me to do something. I might run on the spot, do star jumps, or put my hands in the air, but as long as she remains sitting and calm she gets a reward.

"You could even do things like moving away from the mat and moving back.

"It helps to focus dogs as it brings the heart rate and their adrenalin down.

"It's really helpful for dogs who are reactive and those worried about movement."

Val should practise the programme six times a day for two minutes at a time, rather than doing one long session.

"I think Holly will pick up the programme and routine quickly," said Steve.

"Once she picks everything up and her anxiety comes down the barking will cease.

"She's already improved amazingly."

Using a ThundershirtKeep calm stay cool

Val said various calming products didn't have any effect on Holly, but that a Thundershirt — a coat that applies gentle pressure to calm a dog — did help.

"I put the Thundershirt on her when my friends come to the door and she is like a different dog; she is a bit calmer and will lay down," she explained.

"However, she doesn't like it. She's like a statue when I put it on her."

Steve asked Val to put the garment on Holly so he could determine whether she was worried by it or not.

He advised that Holly needed to get introduced to things like a Thundershirt gradually, ensuring she was used to the sound of Velcro by undoing it and then rewarding her.

As Val put the shirt on Holly, Steve rewarded her with treats. He then watched Holly's body language while wearing the jacket.

Holly definitely appeared much more relaxed and calmer; Steve advised that the Yorkie should wear the shirt as often as needed.

"She's generally calmer and her body language doesn't change too much, so you could use it more often," he said.

"I think it's helping her a little bit. Even the reactivity is a bit slower; Holly does have a noise reactivity so the chances are it's having an impact.

"I would use the shirt when people come to the house and at times when things are likely to be busy."

Establishing a routine 

  1. Val should practise giving Holly an exciting stuffed activity toy in the kitchen while there are no visitors.
  2. Move on to leaving the kitchen for a few seconds, closing the gate. Build up the time away from the kitchen, going into the living room.
  3. Steve said it was important to let Holly out before she started barking so she didn't dictate when she got out.

Keep calm stay cool