Treat Your Anxious Dog Like an Anxious Person

Instead of scolding pets, consider exposure therapy and antidepressants.

A black-and-white photo of a dog lying sideways on a bed, looking sad
Daily Mirror / Getty

This article was originally published by Undark Magazine.

A couple of weeks after I adopted my dog, Halle, I realized she had a problem. When alone, she would pace, bark incessantly, and ignore any treats I left for her in favor of chewing on my belongings. I’d return to find my border-collie mix panting heavily, with wide, fearful eyes. As frustrated as I was, though, I restrained the urge to scold her, because I realized that her destruction was born out of panic.

Halle’s behavior was a textbook illustration of separation anxiety. Distressed over being left alone, an otherwise perfectly mannered pup might chomp the couch, scratch doors, or relieve itself on the floor. Problem behaviors such as these tend to be interpreted as acts of willful defiance, but they often stem from intense emotions. Dogs, like humans, can act out of character when they are distressed. And, as with people, some dogs may be neurologically more prone to anxiety.

So concluded a recent brain-imaging study, published in PLOS One, in which researchers performed resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging on 25 canines that were deemed behaviorally “normal,” and 13 that had been diagnosed with anxiety, based on a behavioral evaluation. The scans revealed that anxious dogs had stronger connections among several of five brain regions that the researchers called the “anxiety circuit”: the amygdala, the frontal lobe, the hippocampus, the mesencephalon, and the thalamus. The team also saw weaker connections between the hippocampus and midbrain in anxious dogs, which can signal difficulties in learning and might explain why the owners reported decreased trainability in these dogs.

That the neurological architecture of anxious dogs seems similar to the signatures of human anxiety comes as little surprise to many animal-behavior experts. “There is no reason to suspect that the basic neuroanatomy of dog psychopathology is any different from humans,” Karen Overall, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Prince Edward Island, told me in an email. Indeed, dogs have been found to exhibit several mental conditions similar to those in humans, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Alzheimer’s-like cognitive dysfunction.

Yet pet owners will still use punishment to try to bring a misbehaving dog to heel—perhaps yelling at them, jerking them with a leash, or strapping a shock collar around their neck. Trainers, who are not always subjected to regulation or licensure requirements, can be seen in YouTube videos yanking dogs on slip leads to quiet their barking. If evidence suggests that many dogs, like many humans, misbehave because they are struggling with emotions and anxiety, why do so many pet owners and trainers look to punishment as the solution, rather than addressing the emotions directly?

Part of the problem might be that recognizing our pets’ feelings can be difficult. Emotions manifest in our mannerisms. And so, as Overall describes it, the same anxieties and pathologies we see in humans will likely show up differently in a species that walks on four feet, uses their mouth as a hand, and lacks verbal language. Early signs of canine anxiety can be as subtle as lip licking, yawning, or staring into the distance. It’s no wonder that many pet owners don’t notice their dogs’ distress until it takes on more problematic forms, such as peeing indoors and excessive barking. Even aggressive reactions such as growling and snapping at other dogs or people are likely rooted in fear.

Although punishment can sometimes stop these behaviors, it can also backfire. Research has documented a link between punishing training methods and increased aggression in dogs. Scolding a dog might stop it from growling, for instance, but it won’t assuage the underlying anxiety, and it doesn’t give the dog information about what to do instead. The dog might go silent but then bite a person with no apparent warning, or act out in other ways. If anything, forceful punishment may deepen the animal’s anxiety, Overall said. A dog that may have merely felt threatened before the punishment knows, afterward, that a threat really exists.

Experts such as Overall argue that what anxious dogs really need is basically the same thing that anxious people need: help managing and reducing their distress.

The foundation of this approach is changing the dog’s environment to set them up for success, Vanessa Spano, a veterinarian with Behavior Vets in New York City, told me. If a dog is barking at people or other dogs during walks, for example, it might help to walk them at less busy times or locations. Often, vet behaviorists will supplement training and environment-management techniques with antidepressants, especially when a dog is consistently stressed. Otherwise, Spano said, it’s like trying to administer psychotherapy to a person who’s having a panic attack: “All that advice, just like all that training, is going in one ear and out the other.”

Many dogs, once their distress is under control, can learn to overcome their anxieties through methods such as systematic desensitization. Just as someone with arachnophobia might pet a plush-toy tarantula as a first step to overcoming their fear, incremental exposure—reinforced with treats and games—can help pets build positive associations with the stimuli that cause them anxiety. For dogs with separation anxiety, studies suggest that a gradual process of acclimating them to increasing periods of separation, complemented with strategic snack offerings, can help them learn to cope with alone time. The use of antidepressants to calm anxiety might also increase success rates.

After recognizing that Halle had separation anxiety, I embarked on a version of this process. For four months, I avoided leaving her alone at all, which meant frequently using dog sitters and day care. (Although many cases of canine separation anxiety can be eased in six weeks or so, I had some early setbacks.) Then, I worked on desensitizing her to my departures: I started by simply opening and closing the front door while she gnawed at a bone; once she was able to handle me stepping out the door, I began to leave for gradually longer times. Now she comfortably naps on the couch when I’m away.

In the future, pet owners who seek to treat their dog’s anxiety might have even more options. Yangfeng Xu, the lead author of the PLOS One study and a dog neurobiologist at Ghent University, is now working with colleagues to study how dogs respond to magnetic brain stimulation, a technique that has been used to treat depression in humans. The treatment showed promise in one early case study, seemingly calming anxious-aggressive behaviors in a male Belgian Malinois, and Xu says he is still behaving well three years later.

To some people, extending this type of care to animals might seem excessive. But some vet behaviorists argue that by being more attentive to pet mental health, we humans can improve our own well-being. “If we treat nonhumans, we’ll increase our capacity for compassion for all animals,” Overall told me—humans included. Personally, I found that as I became more attuned to Halle’s emotions, I also grew gentler toward my own anxieties. I stopped beating myself up over feeling burnout in my writing career, for example, and I have instead grown more curious about my emotional responses to stress.

For that, I have a nervous border-collie mix to thank.