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Local Woof: Anxiety and Arousal

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The Local Woof is a column that’s sponsored and written by the staff of Woofs! Dog Training Center. Woofs! has full-service dog training, boarding, and daycare facilities, near Shirlington and Ballston.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about their dogs getting into trouble. Not little trouble like chewing up a shoe or stealing a sandwich. That’s easy stuff.  I’m talking about big trouble. Like biting the neighbor’s dog while on a walk or biting a friend who is over for a visit.

The thing that most of these incidents had in common is a very high level of anxiety and arousal that precipitated the bites. So how does anxiety and arousal affect our dogs and what can we do about it?

We all know what anxiety feels like. It can range from uncomfortable to debilitating. If you have an anxious dog, you probably already know it. Just like in people, there is a spectrum of doggie personalities. Some dog are more anxious than others and some dogs aren’t bothered by anything. Anxious dogs tend to hate thunder storms and fireworks. Perhaps they are wary of strangers or other dogs. But just like in people, anxiety can cause to dogs to react out of proportion to the threat or environmental change they are experiencing.

Arousal is similar. Arousal is simply a state of excitement. The excitement can be good or bad, but in either case it is usually accompanied by a spike in adrenalin. Dogs who are wrestling or running in a dog park are aroused. Dog who are riding in a crowded elevator might be aroused. Dog who are on leash and see each other across the street might become aroused. They might be happy to see each other and want to play or they might want to fight. In either case, the dogs are in a state of arousal.

What owners need to know is that anxiety and arousal both have the effect of shortening a dog’s fuse. A dog who is normally tolerant of being pet is more likely to bite when anxious or aroused.  Your normally easy going dog might be on edge if you have guests at the house for a week.

The first thing to do is to recognize that your dog is anxious or aroused. The second thing to do is to provide your dog with the ability to either get away from the things that are causing anxiety, or time to calm down from a state of arousal. 

One of the best tools is to teach your dog to take a break.  I am a big fan of crate training for this reason. Crate training is most often used to help house train very young pups and to keep them out of trouble.   But crating is often a left behind tool as dogs become adults. Properly maintained crate training can be extraordinarily helpful in these situations. . A marrow bone in a crate in an upstairs bedroom is often much appreciated by the over whelmed dog.  It provides a space to get away from whatever is stressing them out and time to calm down.  Older dogs who were crated as puppies can be introduced to crating again in a positive manner if needed, or perhaps they don’t even need a crate, just a quiet place to settle down.

On leash arousal control exercises are another great tool to add to your toolbox. These take time and commitment but can be well worth the effort in the long run. 

The bottom line is keep an eye on your pup. They can’t easily tell us when they need a break so it is up to us to be their advocate and make sure we are not placing them in situations that they can’t handle. Every dog is different and even man’s best friend needs some dogs some personal time.

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