Anxiety is a situation many dog owners are familiar with. Some dogs shake, drool, whine, excessively pant, bark, urinate or defecate in the house, destroy things, and look plain "stung out." Seeing anxious dogs is very uncomfortable for humans because we feel sorry for them and what they are experiencing; we long to do something to make them feel better. Did you know that the best thing you can do for your dogs is not to feel sorry and sweet-talk them, but to take a stand and make a change to improve their state of mind? If we give affection (like petting and holding) during a dog's anxiety, we are rewarding that state of mind--saying "good boy, keep shaking and drooling. Keep this up and keep staying stressed." Is this what we intended to do? Absolutely not! However, these are dogs we are trying to help, not humans, and they don't rationalize the same way that we do. Instead of trying to verbally and physically talk our dogs out of being anxious, we need to challenge their mind and get them thinking and focusing on our energy. The leadership role we represent to our dogs allows them to understand that "my owner is in control of this situation. I do not have to be nervous." We reinforce this message by being calm and relaxed, and having a working relationship with our dogs. Give them something to do during anxious times--make all of their decisions for them. Don't allow them to feel like they've got to figure out what to do--like they are out on a ledge by themselves--about this anxiety-ridden situation. Work on your commands, give them a job, make them put their focus into a task--not just sit with their anxiety riddled thoughts and behaviors.
Ramses, my greyhound, has a bad case of thunderstorm anxiety. In Florida we get them every afternoon during the spring and summer months. The other day he was pacing around frantically during a storm and took a huge pee in the middle of my living room, right in front of me. I couldn't believe it--he had never done that before! He used to just go lay down in our dark hallway and wait it out until the storm blew over. Now, he is pacing around and peeing- OH NO! His anxiety has gotten worse!
Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head--I was allowing him to make his own decisions when it came to something that makes him scared. How could I allow myself to put that pressure on him? He is in a terrified, frantic state-of-mind, and his pack leader is just watching TV and waiting for him to go lay down in his normal spot--giving him no guidance during the time he is most vulnerable and needs it the most. In Ramses' mind, I am implying that he just needs to "figure it out." No wonder he came and took a giant leak in front of me- he was sending a huge message: "HELP ME, JEEZE! I AM FREAKING OUT HERE!"
After I soaked up a gallon of pee from my floor, I decided to put Ramses in the "place" command. Immediately he settled down and relaxed. This whole time he had been waiting for me to give him something to do--some guidance--so that he could focus on that and relax. Sure, a thunderclap would make him jump up and nearly make a run for it, but I would correct him if he broke command and he would go back to place. A second thunderclap would happen, he would stand up and check in with me, remember he needed to stay in command and lay back down. By now he understood that I was in control, and was not going to let him jump right back into his frantic pacing behavior. His new options are to stay in command and settle down. It was amazing to see his anxiousness fade as he stayed in place during the duration of he storm.
His frantic pacing was an extremely anxiety feeding behavior--heart-racing, mind-racing, can't settle down, can't focus--and he was going to stay in that state of "OMG" until something changed. Putting him in the place command gave him guidance, made the choices for him, left him with only one option: to decompress from that anxiety and relax. The physical effects from "place" (not moving, not getting his blood pumping) help the change, but the mental effect of "place" is where the magic is. He knows what the command means, he knows that I put him there, and he knows that he is not out on a ledge by himself. He's got guidance and support from his pack leader. Now that is something that we can share with our anxious dogs and feel great about!!