Anxious Dog. Systematic Desensitisation. No More Flooding
Another anxious dog.
When I arrived he was very frightened though, unusually when someone new comes to his house, he didn’t bark at me. I had choreographed my entrance carefully.
These first two photos show his anxiety. One with the lifted leg. The other in the way he is lying, kind of hugging himself.
Little Jack Russell Jasper, age two, has been in his new home for six months. One half of the couple he lives with is off work just now but goes back in a month.
Being left alone terrifies Jasper. Even though he’s not working just now, the young man still has to go out. At the very first hint of him getting ready to leave, the anxious dog begins to shake. Their vet has put him on Trazadone.
In addition to being left alone, Jasper panics in busy places. Lots of things including the ironing board, the steam hissing from the iron and the vacuum cleaner terrify him. New people scare him.
They have tried to work on their anxious dog’s fears of all sorts of things in the best way they know.
The couple’s approach has been to try to expose him as much as possible to these things. Like many people, they believe that pushing him often enough into situations that scare him will get him used to them over time.
It is the very opposite to what they should do.
To make progress they need a different approach.
In very general terms, they have actively exposed Jasper to things that scare him, believing that this would eventually kind of immunise him.
Flooding usually either makes matters worse or else the dog shuts down – goes into a kind of helplessness. They need to do the very opposite. This takes time and patience – patience is something they have already proved they are good at.
Anxious dog and thresholds
I believe they will see some progress now. They will avoid pushing him over his comfort threshold in every way they can.
There are some things, for now, that they can simply avoid altogether. They can do the ironing upstairs for instance and install an outside letter box.
Other things they won’t avoid altogether, but will expose their anxious dog at a distance or intensity that he can cope with – and work from there.
It’s a long, slow business usually.
For example, forcing Jasper close to other dogs is the opposite to what they should do in order to build up his confidence and his trust in them. He can be so scared he either barks ferociously, or if it’s a big dog, he will run behind their legs, shaking and screaming.
Avoiding dogs altogether would be better than that. Best of all is to find a comfortable distance, however far that might be, and then make good things happen.
The separation problem is harder because they have to leave him sometimes. In effect, this is flooding. They will have no choice but to interrupt the slow, systematic work they will be doing to get him okay with departures. Longer absences will push him back over threshold.
However, if they plug away at our systematic plan I’m sure they will make some progress. Getting all the other confidence-boosting things in place should help him to better handle being left.
They have recently moved and the new vet wants to change his medication. I suggest keeping him on the same medication for now. This will allow us to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the anxious dog, good or bad. If they swap meds, we won’t know whether any differences are as a result of our work or the drug.
I have done quite a thorough ‘behaviour health’ check and found a number of things they can do which will give their very anxious dog the very best chance of becoming more confident and less fearful.