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Anxiety in Dogs: Is It Over-Diagnosed? The Irreverent Vet Speaks Out

It seems like more dogs are diagnosed with anxiety problems today than ever before. Even as recently as 10 years ago, separation or storm anxieties in dogs were only occasional concerns that the average vet might encounter once a week or two. Now it seems like every other client has questions about their dog’s nervous behavior.

I’m the Irreverent Veterinarian. I give my honest opinion about various controversial issues in the animal care world. I speak my mind and some might say I am honest to a fault. I tell it like it is. Some of what I say can be harsh but that doesn’t stop me-it can be hard to hear the truth.

What is going on with dogs these days? It feels like there are more and more dogs that seen excessively anxious and nervous. Can dogs have attention deficit hyperactivity disorders? I see these nervous nellies in exam rooms, in the waiting rooms and while driving around my neighborhood. Scared, anxious dogs not knowing if they are coming or going. Pulling on leashes, jumping on everyone, panting and looking very nervous. I am exhausted just watching them.

Some dogs get so wound up in exam rooms that they become aggressive and try to bite. They won’t sit down and health exams are nearly impossible. Unfortunately many owners of nervous anxious dogs…aren’t much help. They usually just sit and let the dog do whatever s/he wants in the waiting room and exam room.

It is so aggravating and frustrating for veterinarians.

I am not sure if you can tell by now but this topic brings out a lot of emotions for me.

Some people don’t even bother going to the vet. The dog is so out of control they take him/her to a shelter. These dogs are so stressed that the likelihood of them being adopted is very low and they are often euthanized.

Most of these dogs have behavioral issues that require time, patience and behavior modification on my part.

Many owners come into the clinic and ask for a magic pill.
In fact, last week I had 3 different calls in ONE DAY about anxiety…and every one of the owners asked me about prescribing medication for their dogs. What is going on here? Is anxiety really more common in dogs, or are we just better at recognizing it?

Come on people! There isn’t a pill to fix everything. Do you really want your dog sedated for the rest of his life – just to make your life better? Your dog’s nervousness and anxiety is primarily your fault!

For years veterinarians have been noticing an increase in the number of appointments for ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’. Dogs that are destroying furniture, scratching doors, jumping through windows, pacing the fence line, on and on.

The majority of vets try to counsel people and explain what they need to do but to no avail. People don’t want to spend the time. Some vets have just given up and prescribe human antidepressants or sedatives for ‘as needed’ situations. This is very sad and preventable.

I hope you are sitting down because the next thing I say may strike a nerve. The excessive nervousness and stress in dog’s lives is most likely due to the laziness and apathy of their owners – you! This includes vets as well. We are all susceptible to being a big part of the problem.

What Causes Anxiety and Stress in a Dog?

A dog’s life should be sleeping most of the day, taking walks, playing fetch, eating and spending some time in the potty. This is the life of a confident, well-adjusted dog.

To get that way, dogs need to know their place in the home, in the family and in the neighborhood. Dogs are not people and it doesn’t matter how much you talk (or scream) to them. They just don’t understand. They can sense you are angry or tense or sad but really don’t know why or what they can do to change it.

Dogs thrive in environments when there is a clear hierarchy. Alpha, omega and family members in the middle. There is nothing wrong with that. People seem to want everyone to be equal. No one superior and no one submissive. That may work in human society but wreaks havoc in canine society. Dogs need to either be the one in charge or know who is. If there isn’t a clear ‘king of the mountain’ the dog will feel like it is his/her responsibility.

If the dog isn’t a born leader, this can lead to a life of great anxiety. If there is no leader for guidance the dog will not know right from wrong (in the canine world). If someone approaches his ‘family’, he doesn’t know what to do. He is so happy when someone comes home he jumps and runs around. But, not even then can he calm down. He still must guard the castle 24/7. What a life of confusion!
Dogs desperately want and need discipline. Positive reinforcement is wonderful – there just needs to be reinforcement. No! is not a bad word.

Today, people just let dogs do whatever they want. They think it is cute when little dogs growl and try to bite. It isn’t cute. It is a sign that your dog needs help. You need to be the one in charge. Make sure the dog knows that. This should start as soon as the dog comes home with you. Ideally puppies are allowed to spend 12 weeks with their mothers. Stop adopting at 8 weeks. There is no advantage and it may result in dogs that don’t have appropriate social skills. The reason breeders encourage people to adopt dogs at 8 weeks is that it is illegal in most states to remove puppies or kittens less than 8 weeks away from their mothers. It isn’t the best time to bond – it is the way for the breeders to make the most money. Selling puppies at 8 weeks means they don’t have to pay to take care of them for any more time.

The one thing I want to make clear – dogs do NOT have ADD or ADHD.
Maybe dog anxiety is like ADHD where it is easy to misdiagnose. (Forty years ago “energetic” kids were told to go outside and play – and they would do that until they came in tired and hungry. Now it seems so many kids are diagnosed with a health condition e.g. ADHD and they sit all day in front of the computer or TV while medicated. Maybe the same thing is happening with dogs.)

Perhaps this has something to do with how we are less tolerant of dogs with behavioral problems and we as pet parents do give our dogs the exercise, attention and help them understand their role and rank in the family.

What is Society’s Responsibility to Dogs?

A big problem that contributes to this ever growing problem of dog anxiety is how we live our lives.

Technology is negatively impacting our pets!

With cell phones, tablets and other devices, we expect everything to be quick and easy. If the computer screen doesn’t come up in 2 seconds, we get frustrated. If our kids are crying for candy, we give up and give in. This extends to our lives. If our relationships aren’t easy, we find someone else. You get the idea. If this is the same way dog training is approached, you will end up with a confused or angry dog. Dogs need patience and lots of it. Repetition and consistency are key. You can’t give up and just stop. You need to devote time and effort – it will pay you back 1000 fold in years to come.

Another thing to consider, that is very important, is to choose the right breed for your family and lifestyle. I am very lazy. I have no problem admitting it. I would be setting myself, my life and my dog up for disaster if I adopted a border collie, Dalmatian or other high energy breed. I know I won’t take the dog on 1 to 2 hour walks twice a day. I need lazy, low energy dogs. That is why I love my bulldogs! French and English. The American version has a little too much energy for me. Another thing – I have been battling weight most of my life. Anyone that has the same struggle will understand this – don’t get a high energy dog to encourage you to get more active.

That is the same as buying an expensive very cool pair of jeans one size too small… I have so many jeans that are over 20 years old that I have never fit into. It doesn’t work in clothes and doesn’t work with dogs…

What Vets May Not Want to Tell You About Your Dogs Anxiety

It is very unlikely that your veterinarian will tell you the real reason your dog is this way. Since I don’t have to claim ownership of this article, I will be happy to tell you! It is all your fault.
Admit it. Most pet parents create the problems.

Pet parents give in, let them do what they want to get them to stop doing what they are doing. So much easier.

Or we see this. A well meaning pet parent carries their cute little puppy around everywhere, feeding him from their plate and sleeping with them. When he won’t eat dog food, you give him little bits of the family’s meal. He doesn’t want to sleep alone in a big, lonely crate (or so you think) and instead of letting him learn that the cage is good for him and a safe place you get up in the middle of the night and carry him to bed – just to get some sleep.

But what you are really doing is slowly creating a dog that cannot find his place in the family. Dogs don’t feel shame, fairness, anticipation, grudges. They respond to their environment and process things the way dogs do – not humans. If it makes it easier to understand, dogs come from a very different culture and they will never completely adapt and become a member of human society. You are not disciplining a human. You are disciplining a dog that expects this guidance and depends on it to lessen the chaos in his mind. Instinct is telling him one thing and you are doing something he doesn’t understand.

Everyone wants some kind of pill or device that will quickly change all their dog’s bad behaviors. It ain’t gonna happen. To be brutally honest, it is probably your fault. Now you want an easy way out. It isn’t the dog’s fault that you treated him like a child and not a dog. Now you have a very confused dog living in a chaotic world.

Some behaviors may be cute when your little puppy was trying to be imposing, growling, running and jumping. Now after adulthood those behaviors are more irritating and annoying than cute. These behaviors in dogs are even dangerous if your dog has decided to become overly attached and territorial to one member of the household.

Be Honest and Realistic

Before adopting a dog, consider going for a drive in the country. Take time to be honest and realistic with yourself.

Are you really going to be able to discipline a puppy, even if she is as cute as a beagle pup? Will you spend the time to research the needs of the breed and provide all of that to her?

Will you really, truly take the dog on a walk twice a day or pay for someone to do it for you? Will you really crate train the dog? On and on.

It is very easy to say ‘of course!’, ‘absolutely’. You can even convince yourself. But in those last few minutes of consciousness just after laying your head on the pillow at night, are you really being honest? Adopting a puppy is one of life’s greatest privileges.

With that privilege comes a lot of responsibility – to the dog, yourself, your family and the community. Ending up with a nervous, frightened or even aggressive adult dog is a result of your laziness. Do you really expect the dog to raise himself? It is your responsibility to care for your dog and provide a safe and nurturing environment. You’ve created the monster –now you have to create a good canine citizen.

No matter how much you desire and want, pray, beg – dogs will never think or live like a human. They need structure and order. There is no debating, or discussions or explanations in a dog’s mind. Someone is the boss, someone is in the middle and someone is at the end. Dogs don’t anticipate things they have never experienced. They desperately want to know their place in the family.

_Conclusion of Anxiety in Dogs: Is It Over-Diagnosed?

Anxiety in dogs is not over-diagnosed. More dogs are anxious.
If your dog suffers from anxiety, please don’t immediately assume that medication is the answer. Remember that the way dogs interact with their owner and the environment can play a huge role in how nervous they get. Do what you can to help them before trying anything drastic.

Anxious dogs may be a result of our society’s desire to get things now, our lack of patience and need to be politically correct to everyone and everything. But dogs need to be cared for ‘old school’.
It may be the same philosophy where parents won’t and can’t spank and discipline their kids (even ones that really need it) and those same pet parents are reluctant to being firm with training their dogs.

Find the patience and time your dog needs. Walk away when frustration is getting the best of you. Make sure you are consistent and your family is consistent. This will help the dog learn his rank in the family and live with confidence. He knows what is expected and will be happy and content.


The Irreverent Vet is a columnist that regularly contributes to The goal is to add a balanced and alternative view of some controversial pet issues. As happens with all of us, veterinarians can’t always say what they really think without offending some clients. This commentary allows vets to say what they think and give you, the pet owner, the opportunity to consider another point of view. All opinions are those of the Irreverent Vet and not the views of and are not endorsed by