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  • Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker

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    We’re thrilled to welcome back well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker on our blog today! She’s talking separation anxiety in our pets… Take it away, Mikkel!

    Countless canines become anxious when left alone. Stress upon separation spans from mild anxiety to an extreme state of panic. Whenever a dog is anxious at separation, it’s important to address the issue immediately, starting with a visit to your veterinarian. Stress upon separation rarely goes away without intervention, but more often, escalates over time. Caretakers of dogs who are anxious when left alone, find that normal tasks, like going to work or going out on a date, are difficult to impossible. The situation can become so severe the dog causes serious harm to themselves or to the home. Even for dogs who internalize stress, the state they are in emotionally is damaging long term to their health and affects their ability to cope with everyday stressors.

    There are numerous indicators of a dog nervous with separation. Signs can include excess salivation, panting, hyper vigilance, whining, barking, acute anorexia, pacing and inability to settle. Anxiety can amplify to the point of self-injury where the dog causes themselves serious harm as they attempt to claw, bite and jump out of exit points. The household also suffers devastation. Doors, crates and windows can be damaged as the dog attempts to flee, while household items like couches can be ravaged from anxious chewing. Dogs become so nervous they may even lose control of bodily functions and have accidents in the home.

    Dogs in this panicked state are literally helpless at their own behavior. Dogs don’t do these destructive behaviors out of spite as a way to teach their person a lesson for leaving them. Instead, their behavior stems from a root emotion of fear. To change the behavior, the root emotion must be changed.

    In my profession as an animal trainer working in conjunction with numerous veterinarians, including my father, Dr. Marty Becker, I help address separation anxiety on a regular basis. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems in dogs, with 20-40% of dogs reported as having the condition.

    Thankfully, with the right combination of training, environmental modification and veterinary intervention, separation anxiety can be decreased or eliminated. Whether a dog is only moderately nervous or in an all-out panic, it’s important to take the necessary steps to help a dog overcome their distress when left alone.

    Keep in mind, before training begins, it’s important to train under the supervision of a veterinarian who can rule out any medical conditions contributing to behavior and properly diagnose separation anxiety if needed.

    As an animal trainer, I want to share with you several of my top tips for addressing separation anxiety. The training is also helpful as a preventive tool against the development of separation anxiety.

     

    1. Use a ThunderShirt. One of my favorite tools in my training arsenal is the ThunderShirt. Regardless of the size or breed of the dog, the ThunderShirt works on about 80% of dogs. Even without any training, the ThunderShirt drastically reduces anxiety with near immediate results. The ThunderShirt works to non-invasively calm dogs in a similar manner to swaddling a baby.

    2. Many dogs dislike being crated, and some of their panic may stem from being shut in an enclosed area. If your dog dislikes the containment aspect of separation, find a more open area of the home to leave your pooch in that’s doggy proofed. The area of the home should have windows, as dogs feel less enclosed when windows are present. If you have a secure fence and your canine is not an escape artist or incessant barker when separated, consider allowing access the outdoors. By opening up the dog’s area, canines are less likely to feel trapped, and may relax as a result.

    3. When you leave and when you come back, keep attention on the dog as minimal as possible. A simple, non-emotional goodbye or greeting will do, rather than hugs, kisses and emotional words. The more calm and nonchalant the greetings, the less worked up the dog will get. When you return, wait five minutes or until the dog calmly settles into a relaxed sit or down, before acknowledging.

    4. Reduce departure cues. Throughout the day, even on weekends, randomly put on your shoes, pick up the keys, turn on the car, open the garage and do other cues that may signal you’re leaving. Often dogs become anxious even upon the perception of these cues, because they signal you’re leaving. However, if you do these cues with the end result being you still stay home, the cue loses its meaning.

    5. Train your dog to enjoy time alone in their own area. Put the dog in a certain area of the home, like an xpen, or tether the dog with a leash and harness next to a comfortable area, like a dog bed. Place food puzzles or long lasting chews in these areas for the dog to nibble on. To begin with, sit a few feet away and get the dog comfortable with just a short distance separation. The training can be made more challenging later by giving the food item and leaving to go into another room or going outside. Return to the dog before they finish eating their food reward. The idea is to have separation happen with associated pleasurable rewards and at a pace the dog can remain relaxed at. Play classical music during separation, proven to calm pets, to further promote relaxation.

    6. Protect your pet. During training, management techniques like sending the dog to doggy daycare or a dog sitter during inevitable long departures is helpful. In some cases, medication from your veterinarian added in combination with training, will provide especially anxious pets with the best chance of recovery.

  • Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker!

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    We’re thrilled to have well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker back on our blog today! She’s talking summer storm season and pet anxiety. Take it away, Mikkel!

    Thunderstorm phobia is a common fear I address in dog training. Countless canines suffer every year when summer storm season hits. Symptoms of fear include panting, pacing, increased salivation, whining, shaking, hyper vigilance, looking overly sleepy, lip licking, furrowed brows, the whites of their eyes showing and shadowing their owner or attempting to hide or flee. Although the external signs of fear vary amongst individual dogs, the internal state of distress the dog experiences cannot be ignored.

    While logically there’s little danger involved for a dog kept indoors during a lightning storm, there’s no reasoning a canine out of their fear. The fear is very real to that dog, and without intervention, the fear not only remains for most dogs, but grows stronger with time. Fear is a motivator in the natural survival response for the animal to move themselves away from a perceived threat and into a safe place. Dogs are wired to avoid dangerous situations and flee danger for self-preservation. Loud booms and flashes of light are two such stimulus’ that dogs are wired to flee from, rather than run to, for survival. There is also the likelihood of a genetic influence, as studies have shown that certain tendencies, such as fear of numerous noises and separation anxiety, are linked to the fear of thunderstorms.

    Ongoing fear decreases a dog’s quality of life and impacts even internal functions, like debilitating their body’s immune system. Dogs are also at risk for injury or worse when they panic, as they may hurt themselves when attempting to escape or when running in a blind panic. It’s not only traumatic for a dog to experience ongoing fear, but it’s stressful to the pet parent who feels helpless to calm their pet.

    Though our dogs can’t help the fearful state they’re naturally in with thunderstorms, as loving pet parents, we have the ability to help our pets. Dogs don’t need to suffer needlessly. With just a few changes, a dog’s fear of thunderstorms can be drastically decreased or taken away all together.

    Here are the top recommendations I offer to pet parents when training their dog to relax during storms.

    The first tool I recommend to owners is the ThunderShirt. The ThunderShirt is essential, as it instantly calms the dog in a non-invasive manner. The gentle pressure of the ThunderShirt increases feel good endorphins and is similar to the comfort a baby experiences when swaddled. Pressure has a calming effect on animals, as made famous by Temple Grahndin in her work of transferring the calming effects of pressure on cattle to other uses, such as decreasing anxiety for people with autism. The effects of pressure have likewise been shown to calm dogs.

    The ThunderShirt is essential, because the wrap has immediate results for calming the dog with no prior training needed. The ThunderShirt works in about 80% of canines, thus it’s the most effective and natural tool to decrease anxiety in dogs. If the dog is in an overly panicked state, other methods may be used to no avail when a storm hits, because the dog is already so over threshold, they are not receptive to reinforcement. When dogs are panicked, even activities they would normally do without hesitation, such as eating a treat or playing with a ball are denied, because the dog is too fearful to respond. Fear also inhibits learning; with animals most receptive to learning when they are in a relaxed state. The ThunderShirt is my go-to tool as it calms a dog and brings them to an emotional state where they are receptive to learning and can receive rewards to help build a positive association with the storm.

    Once the dog’s emotional state has been brought to a better baseline, there are additional tactics I use. One of my favorite solutions is to create a thunder room in the house. A thunder room should have the feeling of a hide-away where the dog can escape to and should be somewhat insulated from outside noise. A roomy closet or bathroom is ideal. Static electricity may build up in a dog’s coat during a storm, thus keeping the dog on hard floors rather than carpet and using dryer sheets to rub over the dog’s fur is helpful. Music can be calming for dogs and drowns out noise. For best results, play music loud enough to drown out some of the booms from the thunder, with classical music shown to have the greatest relaxation effect. The blinds should also be kept closed in the house, as flashes of light can be frightening for canines if they happen to catch a glimpse.

    Your dog should also be given training to associate the storm with good things happening to change their emotional baseline. For a play focused dog that enjoys fetch or structured tug, start a game as soon as the storm hits and continue throughout. Keep in mind you may want to play these games inside while sheltered from the elements and the loud noise. For other dogs, the storm should be associated with delectable treats. Each time the thunder hits, immediately deliver a piece of high value reward, such as boiled chicken or turkey hotdog. You can also use the storm to refocus your dog on another activity they deeply enjoy, such as trick training or giving them a stuffed food puzzle. Another less thought of but effective tool is to get a dog into a different state by triggering a behavior that’s innate in a dog. Use a chase toy, such as a fishing pole with a toy on the end to get your dog involved in a game of chase, or even race off a few steps yourself and reward your dog with a treat for following. You can also howl or bark, potentially triggering other dogs in your household if present, and starting a group howl. The chase or howl may break the cycle of fear even for a moment as a different area of the brain is engaged, where at that point the dog can be refocused onto another activity, such as eating their tasty treats.

    In addition, consider daily exercise for your dog as it boosts serotonin levels, a regulator of mood, and releases other feel good endorphins that build a dog’s resiliency. Exercise also provides a productive outlet for pent up energy that will help a dog relax more during the rest of their day. During the summer, dogs should be exercised regularly during the cool parts of the day with the amount of exercise needed depending upon the dog’s age, breed and energy level. Dogs should be exercised preemptively before a storm hits.

     

  • Guest Blogger: Mikkel Becker!

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    We’re thrilled that well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker is here to share her advice on how to best prevent and treat pet anxiety related to the upcoming 4th of July festivities! Take it away, Mikkel!

    Fireworks are exciting to many people, but our dogs see them differently. The sight and sound of the patriotic displays we love terrify our dogs. They seem like an attack, an experience so frightful that days around the Fourth of July are the ones most likely to lose a dog, as they run away in terror.

    It makes sense from a survival standpoint for a dog to react fearfully to fireworks, because in the natural world, loud bangs and flashes of light may signal a life-threatening situation animals need to avert in order to stay alive.  The fear they experience is obvious:  Our dogs will be shaking, trembling, panting, pacing, drooling, hiding, running away, attempting to escape, whining and vocalizing.

    When dogs are afraid, they can injure themselves when attempting to escape. The people around a terrified dog are also at risk, because a scared dog is more likely to bite defensively.

    Stress and the body’s reaction to it has damaging effects when experienced over prolonged periods of time, damaging the immune system and making the body more susceptible to disease.  Stress also decreases reproductive hormones, increasing a dog’s risk of cardiovascular disease. (http://www.livescience.com/2967-animals-stressed.html)

    I know firsthand how horrific fear can be.  When I was a young girl I was afraid of air travel, so much so that I would have panic attacks both in the days leading up to travel and during plane trips. Family and friends would attempt to get me to understand that my fear had little basis, but their words didn’t help.  At the time I had flown to more than 48 countries safely, but I was still afraid.  That fear is similar to what many dogs go through: They experience fireworks displays with no real harm done, but the fear remains. Although we may believe that our pets’ fear of fireworks lacks reason, to the dog, the situation is very real.

    These dogs are in a state of distress.

    To overcome my fear of airplanes and get to the confident state I’m in now as a frequent flyer, I worked to change the way I viewed plane trips, as well as incorporating calming techniques to relax myself during flights. Today as a dog trainer, I help dogs overcome the fear that feels very real to them by changing their perspective and using calming techniques.

    If your pet experiences fear around the Fourth of July, there are some practical ways you can decrease your pet’s panic and help him or her relax. The right training will not only keep your pet safe during the days around the holiday, but will also boost your pet’s quality of life and promote the bonding between you and your pet.

    The top recommendation I give to clients with anxious pets is to use the ThunderShirt, a pressure wrap that’s a non-invasive, natural way to calm pets.  The ThunderShirt is the top anxiety-reducer recommended to pets at the North Idaho Animal Hospital, where I teach training classes. I’ve seen the dramatic difference in dogs and cats on many occasions. Pressure wraps are calming to pets. Just as swaddling a baby or giving a tight hug to a close friend is comforting, pets are similarly comforted by pressure hugs. Dogs respond amazingly well to the gentle pressure the ThunderShirt provides. The ThunderShirt works on 80 percent of dogs. (And if it doesn’t work, as I remind my clients, there’s no harm done to your dog or your wallet, since ThunderShirt offers a money-back guarantee.)

    The ThunderShirt provides immediate relief. I’ve watched time and time again as dog’s whole body relaxes and outward symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and panting, decrease shortly after the ThunderShirt is on. For best results, I have clients use the ThunderShirt at the onset of stress, such as when the pet first hears fireworks in the distance. The faster fear is addressed and comfort is applied, the less panic a pet will face. But even if the pet is already in a full blown anxiety response when an unforeseeable event occurs, such as when a surprise crackling and bangs when fireworks next door suddenly set off, the ThunderShirt will still do its job and calm the pet at whatever stage of anxiety they are in. The ThunderShirt also works for other stress evoking situations, such as trips to the veterinarian, car rides and thunderstorms.

    In addition to the ThunderShirt, there are training tactics that can help pets remain stress-free during the season of fireworks and thunderstorms. One of the best tactics is to prove your pet with a comforting den-like hideout they can retreat to when fireworks are being set off. When pets are in a panic, many seek out a place of refuge to hide in. Closets and bathrooms make ideal hiding areas, because they’re smaller in size and usually dark. Make these areas as comfortable as possible; giving the pet blankets and even hiding areas inside, such as their regular crate or a chair with a blanket draped over the top for them to hide under. Keep the windows of the area and surrounding rooms closed to prevent the pet from catching the flashes of light that accompanies the sounds of fireworks or storms.

    Drowning out the sound of fireworks is another helpful tactic. Classical music has been shown to be naturally calming for dogs. Play it loud enough to make the crashes of fireworks less abrupt and to drown out some of the background noise.

    You can also change your pet’s perception of the fireworks to make the noise symbolic of the onset of something pleasurable happening. Depending upon the dog, a food puzzle, a trick training session, fetch or a structured game of tug are all ways to change your pet’s association of the fireworks. Changing your pets focus, such as getting them to work towards getting food or engaging in play, changes their focus from fear to food acquisition and food. One trick I’ve used with my parent’s dog, Quixote, is to howl with him. The act of getting your dog to vocalize in a socially facilitated situation of howling along with a person immediately changes a pet’s focus. The more the pet associates fireworks with something they enjoy, the more relaxed the pet will be.

    Pets should never be left in an area where they can escape or injure themselves when the fireworks are happening. Unattended canines must be left in a doggy proofed area, such as a crate or enclosed area in their hideaway den when left alone. For dogs with a history of escape or panic when left alone, use constant supervision during fireworks season or leave them with a professional, such as a pet sitter, who can provide the comforting techniques to calm your pet while you’re away.

    When taking your pet outside to potty or when going out on walks on the days surrounding Independence Day, keep your pet on a leash or a long line to prevent escape and subsequent harm. Pets can be walked and taken outside with their ThunderShirt to make outings less frightening even with fireworks around. Exercise provides an outlet to channel excess energy in dogs; it also releases calming endorphins. If you use a regular flat collar, you may opt for a martingale type instead that tightens on the neck without choking the dog to prevent the animal from backing out of the collar on walks if startled. For pets who react to the sight of fireworks, consider using a  ThunderCap, which reduces the visual stimuli, making it less frightening.

    The Fourth of July doesn’t have to be a frightening experience for your pet. You can keep them safe and calm by using training tips, providing a safe and secure hideaway, and using the natural action of the ThunderShirt to calm your pet.

    -Mikkel Becker

    Mikkel Becker Low-Res

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