Why It Develops & What To Do About It
Socialization Vs. Habituation
For dogs, the process of habituation starts with early socialization experiences. Specifically, socialization refers to introductions to people, other animals, and new environments and habituation to the gradual exposure to and acceptance of stimuli such as people, other animals, and new environments.
This early, positive exposure helps a dog accept the things it will encounter in everyday life as normal and non-threatening and is comparable to a coach planning plenty of practice games that are intended to help prepare the players for the real game.
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Sensitization: The Opposite Of Habituation
Sensitization is a scientific term describing the opposite of habituation. It refers to the sensitization effect produced by exposing dogs to stimuli that elicits a startle or surprise reaction, activating the Fight or Flight Response (FFR).
The FFR is a survival instinct that humans possess, too, and is responsible for such phenomena as people being able to lift cars off people trapped beneath, or being able to outrun attackers that would do them harm.
This inherent response is designed to keep both ourselves and our dogs alive, so anything out of the ordinary detected in the environment can prompt a feeling of insecurity and/or alarm in both you and your dog.
For humans, this can be as simple as having an uncomfortable feeling in our gut or as intense as screaming uncontrollably out of fear. For dogs, feeling unsafe is indicated by body language and vocalizations, from mild indicators such as a tucked tail and pinned back ears or more obvious ones like a combination of growling, barking, and lunging.
Survival Instincts Activated Despite No Threat
Dog anxiety escalates if the feeling of being unsafe goes unchecked on a regular basis during the course of everyday life. The constant prompting of the Fight or Flight Response (FFR) releases stress chemicals into their bloodstream that keeps a dog in a state of high alert, stimulating them to go into self-preservation mode more often than the circumstances actually warrant.
When this happens, if a dog owner does not intervene to change the way their dog feels about a trigger (trigger = any stimulus the prompts the reactivity) by actively calming them down when exposed to it, the rehearsal of the behavior becomes a default response to everyday occurrences--like flipping out every time the mailman comes to the door--because the dog is simply acting out what it's survival instincts are prompting them to do.
This is especially so if a dog’s guardian negatively reinforces the behavior via scolding or the use of physical punishment, which only serves to sensitize a dog further to the stimulus, often resulting in a dog trying even harder the next time to make the stimulus go away. This is why corporal punishment never works!
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Dog Anxiety & Nuisance Behaviors
Excessive Barking And Aggression
The result is nuisance behaviors like excessive barking, territorial displays of aggression towards guests or family members, or barking and lunging on daily walks. These outbursts of reactivity in situations that don’t warrant the response often snowball into a lower quality of life for both the dog and their caregiver if the caregiver responds by:
- excluding the dog from social interactions by putting the dog in another room when guests come over (which only serves to heighten a dog’s anxiety levels);
- a reduction in the number of daily walks the dogs gets or a stopping of daily walks altogether (which only serves to heighten a dog’s anxiety levels);
- constantly over-compensate for their dog’s behavior, possibly catering to the dog to the point of causing strained relationships with family members and even friends not wanting to be around the family dog.
Self-Preservation Instincts Gone Overboard
Unfortunately, if a dog gets to regularly practice FFR responses to normal, everyday activity with earshot - like barking to sound the alarm every time they hear a neighbor or family member come and go - without subsequently learning to calm down in response to this non-threatening stimulus, they then become sensitized to everyday life rather than habituated, living in a near constant state of over-arousal.
It’s the same for humans that suffer from various forms of anxiety and, thus, either have trouble relaxing in a variety of situations or fly off the handle in situations that don’t warrant it.
Unfortunately, when this stress-response, or FFR, becomes a dog’s default way of experiencing the world, they are in what could be called a constant state of “high alert”, living in a perpetual state of feeling unsafe and insecure. When this happens, your dog has developed an anxiety disorder that will only escalate, if left untreated, and the resulting array of nuisance behaviors can severely impact everyone involved.
When Nuisance Behaviors Get Out Of Control
If the Fight or Flight Response has become the norm, the subsequent over-reactivity is involuntary and indicates the autonomic nervous system is in overdrive, a sign a dog is in a near constant state of distress.
This a condition that is not only unhealthy for the dog, but also for its guardian, since the excessive displays of reactivity can cause a lot of stress and embarrassment. Familial and romantic relationships are often adversely affected, making the dog a point of contention that lowers the quality of life for everyone involved.
How To Calm An Anxious Dog
The keys to success: Prevention, Understanding Thresholds, & Creating Safety
Remarkably, because dogs are so adaptable, the antidote to his problem is actually quite straight-forward: you need to prevent the rehearsal of the unwanted behaviors while incrementally teaching your dog to settle down. This can be easily done using modern, science-based, positive dog training methods.
Find Your Dog’s Threshold
This means you need to determine your dog’s threshold, the tolerable intensity at which you can expose them to stimuli without having a full-blown reaction so that they can start the process of becoming habituated to it. This almost always means lowering the intensity of an experience by decreasing sensory stimulation in the following manners:
creating distance between your dog and a trigger (anything that prompts the unwanted response)
lowering volume levels
limiting exposure times
using high-value food rewards to create positive associations
Teaching your dog to self-soothe: Always start indoors first
A dog needs to feel safe in order to settle down, so you must always begin in the safety of your home environment. Inducing a calming response means you have to set the stage for making it likely to happen. Part of that process is limiting your dog's options for finding reinforcement elsewhere, making settling down the only option. Ways to do this include:
1) REMOVING ALL TOYS AND CHEWS FROM THE AREA AND WITHDRAWING YOUR ATTENTION FROM YOUR DOG BY:
instituting regular tether timeouts that reinforce calm states
using confinement areas to let them know when they need to entertain themselves and/or settle down
harness the power of food/desensitization and counter-conditioning (using recordings and controlled setups)
2) REINFORCE CALM AND QUIET BEHAVIORS:
manners training for dogs teaches them that polite behaviors get them what they want
reduce demand behaviors by removing reinforcement for the behavior
using strategic and regular tether timeouts to as a benign negative consequence that with repetition and consistency helps your dog to not choose the unwanted behaviors in the future
use of confinement areas to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behaviors when a dog cannot be supervised
using D&CC to help create new, more positive associations with triggers
3) UNDERSTANDING THRESHOLDS:
preventative measures to avoid the stimulus when not actively training (gating structures and exercise pens/new routines)
gradual introduction to new environments via short, repetitive exposures
always look for under-threshold responses
use food to lower heart rate and help return a dog to a calm state of mind when they go over threshold
understanding that if a dog can’t take food, they’re already over-threshold and the only way to proceed is to lower the intensity of the experience
Dog Anxiety Is An Autonomic Disorder
Seek help if your Dog anxiety
Something to keep in mind is that over-reactivity is an autonomic disorder and, therefore, involuntary. It can be tough to not get frustrated with your dog when they behave in an over-aroused, out-of-control manner.
That's why it's important to take a step back and look at your dog from a physiological perspective, so you can start to see that their survival instincts are in overdrive and that they can no longer distinguish between non-threatening and threatening stimuli. They have, in essence, lost their ability to self-soothe or take comfort from their environment. This is where you step in to design ways to safely calm them down.
Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner and lead trainer at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, a dog training company that specializes in positive dog training and solving problem dog behavior like dog separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and aggression. She is certified as Knowledge Assessed by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and is available for online dog training sessions via Skype.