Anxiety in Dogs - Treatments, Remedies - What Works, Might Work, Dosen’t Work

My German Shepherd x Malamute 'Jordie'
In this article...
  1. Loving Dog Owners - the Vulnerable Consumer Trained to Trust not to Question…
  2. A question that I am often asked - ‘Are you familiar with the Thundershirt?
  3. Understanding Limitations
  4. Setting Expectations
  5. Commercially Available Products - Can They, Do They Really Help
  6. Remedying Root Cause v.s the Band Aid Approach

Dogs acquire chronic anxiety for many reasons and with different outcomes. Anxiety may exhibit as localized to a specific situation or may be exhibited in multiple situations. Here are a few examples - 
There are a lot of products marketed to 'solve' anxiety but do they really work, and if the products don't work what does solve anxiety.

1.0 Loving Dog Owners - the Vulnerable Consumer  

Trained to Trust not to Question

In the pet-care industry there are so many products that are promoted as being the ‘solution’. But what if that product is not the solution? What if the person pushing the product is not truly educated in the limitations of the product? What if you purchase the product and it does not meet your expectations?

Products marketed for 'reducing' or 'solving' anxiety include a wide range of applications - for example:
The 'Thundershirt' a garment that apply pressure to your dog's body;
Pheromone and herbal spray collars, and;
Conventional medications
such as Reconcile.

At best you may be disappointed.

At worst, failure of that product to meet its advertised goal can seriously and adversely impact on yours’ and your dog’s psychological and  physical well being, and can even cause death.

In the case of a chronic issue such as anxiety, a strategic and comprehensive approach that addresses immediate symptoms and root cause creates a recipe for success.

However when a single product is promoted as a ‘proven solution’ to a complex condition you should be suspicious and you should question the validity of the claim. This is so even if the product is recommended by your favourite pet store employee, your trainer/behaviourist or your veterinarian. 

I have seen much damage done to dogs and their people when trust was assigned without question.

Some products have only negative value - meaning that due to the nature of the product only an adverse result can be and will be realized. 

Other products may contribute great value when used in the context that they are really intended for or may be applied to a new situation with success as part of an overall strategy to address the situation.

Lastly - some products that are designed to and actually do provide helpful support to ameliorate a temporary condition do not provide the same quality of result when applied to a chronic condition. Regardless of a not-so-perfect outcome the manufacturer may decide to aggressively market the product becasue it is a good business decision when the priority is to make money. If the product finds a niche it can become very popular - but popular does not necessarily equate with appropriate, good or safe.

Sometimes a product migrates from its intended use as a means to address an emergency situation, into mainstream use for ‘treating’ a chronic condition. When a product has attributes that can be used in emergency, temporary and chronic conditions, multi-application is truly justified. When use is not justified but pushed for the sole gain of the company, the consumer may be ill served.

2.0 A Question that I am Often Asked...
‘Karen are you Familiar with the Thundershirt?’

When it comes to the topic of anxiety and dogs, people often ask me ‘Are you familiar with the Thundershirt’.

I cringe every time I see the product for sale in a pet store with the product packaging promoting it as the, to quote “proven solution for dog anxiety”.

I cringe when I hear sales people - who know little to nothing about dog and human behaviour advising customers to purchase the product to resolve the issue of anxiety. Resolve? Wait a minute, you must mean aid in the resolution of? Surly you don't mean actually resolve? The disturbing thing is that I do know that the person having the conversation thinks that the product can actually resolve the problem.

I cringe when I have people - now desperate and coming to me as a last ditch effort to save their dog, retell their experience with using that or another product. How did they and their dog end-up in such a desperate state? Because product manufacturers, sales people, trainers and behavourists that don’t understand the cause and effect behind the development of unhealthy behaviours, nor the real solutions required to right the condition push the Thundershirt as a remedy.

While the Thundershirt may have some value in some circumstances to ameliorate some or a single symptom of anxiety it is not the panacea for cure that is evoked by the product’s labeling as a "proven solution for dog anxiety”.
My Beagle x Fox Hound 'Willow'
3.0 Understanding Limitations

The Thundershirt works on the theory that by applying pressure around the majority of the body a feeling of comfort will be triggered in the being wearing the shirt. An intervention that has been found to have varying degrees of success when dealing with a human that is in a state of psychological distress. While this may work for some individuals it has little to no effect on other individuals.

The Thundershirt was developed for use in slaughter houses with an end-goal of ‘comforting’ animals (i.e. cattle, horses) as they did their final walk to the slaughter room floor.

The Thundershirt was designed to treat a symptom in an emergency situation experienced by an individual animal once in his/her life span.

It is very important to understand that the act of applying pressure to the body does not alter the root cause of the distress - which is the fact that the animal is about to be slaughtered. If that animal were to experience the stressful situation on a daily basis the ravages of stress on the mind and body would not be completely of even partially eliminated in all or even in some of the animals.

The application of pressure to the body does not teach a being how to cope with the situation - the pressure simply triggers an auto-response by body and brain to relax to one degree or another in some individuals.

The Thundershirt was not designed for use as a remedy for a chronic condition experienced by an individual animal, nor was it designed to foster a permanent resolution of the root cause of the anxiety.

4.0 Setting Expectations

Understanding the logical reality of a product such as the Thundershirt means that you, the consumer and loving pet owner can set some reasonable expectations around the use of the product.

The company’s marketing strategy includes the following statements…
  • “The Thundershirt is the best solution for dog anxieties caused by thunderstorm, travel separation and more”
  • “Proven solution for dog anxiety”, and;
  • “Over 80% of dogs show improvement”.
So what do these claims really mean? I would say that the phrasing and words used in these claims should be scrutinized for their many permutations. "Over 80% of dogs show improvement" - does that mean that the issue of anxiety was resolved? I don't think so - in which case the product is not a solution. How do they define 80%? Do they get feedback from every customer that has ever purchased a Thundershirt? I don’t think so. Do they define the percentile from recording the results experienced by the dogs in the companies' ‘Training Center’? Do they define the percentile based on a group of dogs that they tested the product on during development of the product?

The statement also does not define what type of improvement was achieved - minor improvement? Major improvement? What percentage of dogs experienced what type of improvement?

These claims by the company are, in my opinion a good marketing strategy but a very unfair means of selling the product as the words used can create an expectation in the dog owner that the product may not be capable of delivering.

The claims all come down to semantics. 

How do you define ‘solution’?

Do you define a solution in the context of a big picture? Meaning that a solution provides a complete remedy to a condition? Or does ‘solution’ pertain to modifying an element of a condition? To attain ‘improvement’ in your dog so you just put the shirt on your dog and walk away, or do you need to sign up for the company’s training program or work with an affiliated trainer?

The answer to those questions requires contemplation, thought, comparison on the consumers part. Quite frankly when you are desperate for a solution you don’t always have the circumspection to read the fine print or compare and interpret the manufacturer’s use of a term (i.e. ‘solution’ or a phrase i.e. ‘over 80% of dogs show improvement’) against your understanding/interpretation of a term or phrase. You are more likely to buy into the desire to believe in the marketing and / or ‘advice’ being provided to you.

I have had many client’s that tried the Thundershirt first – for both separation anxiety, thunder anxiety, travel anxiety - to no avail which is why they end up coming to me to resolve the problem. Prior to trying the Thundershirt most of them have been to one or more trainers and behavourists who attempted to resolve the anxiety and some also recommended the thundershirt to the owner - which is why they tried to use it.  The trainers failed to remedy the anxiety because they did not understand the dog or the dog’s human companions. The same trainers and behavourists try other interventions such as pheromone and herbal spray collars, Bach remedies etc. Obviously if the approach had worked the people would not have had to seek me out and engage me to truly resolve the anxiety.

5.0 Commercially Available Products - Can They, Do They Really Help?

5.1 The Thundershirt

I think it would be fair to say that in some cases the Thundershirt is able to and may provide temporary relief of one or more of the symptoms of anxiety and if used consistently overtime the Thundershirt may change a dog’s association with events that lead to anxiety. Note the word some and may.

I would say that the Thundershirt - when it does work may do so in one or two of the following ways, depending n the circumstances:
One - via applying pressure to the body as discussed further above and;
Two - via a placebo effect.

It is my belief that the Thundershirt can have a placebo effect on some humans which then transfers to the dog. This is what I mean - the thought of using the Thundershirt calms the human because he/she thinks it will work. One of the fundaments of repairing anxiety in a dog is the ability to communicate a state of calm to the dog. By being that thing first you want your dog to be you set the example and provide the direction. I teach my client’s (the human client’s) how to achieve calm as in so doing they provide pure, logical direction to their dog to calm. For the most part dogs do exactly what their human’s communicate - the problem is that humans have become hasty and ineffectual communicators.

In a mild case of anxiety the Thundershirt may provide some positive impact on reducing symptoms. How much this product can achieve varies depending on the genetic and psychological make-up of those involved, dog and human, on the plan of treatment and on the knowledge and skill of the person - if any that teaches the dog’s owner how to implement a plan of treatment. Is the product going to be used alone or as part of a larger strategy?

5.2 Specialty Spray and Scent Collars, Bach flower essences, Rescue Remedies, etc.

Once again, I think it would be fair to say that in some cases these products may have some positive effect on mitigating some symptoms of anxiety in some dogs BUT these products will not normally cure the anxiety.

Once, again - how much these products can achieve varies depending on the genetic and psychological make-up of those involved, dog and human, on the plan of treatment and on the knowledge and skill of the person - if any that teaches the dog’s owner how to implement a plan of treatment. Is the product going to be used alone or as part of a larger strategy?

5.3 Veterinarian Prescribed Conventional Medications

These pharmaceutical products cause me the greatest concern of all. While products such as the Thundershirt and specialty collars may simple not create a looked for result that may lead to added frustration on the owners part - pharmaceuticals can do immediate and long-term damage to the health of a dog. Products such as Reconcile - (Prozac renamed for use by conventional veterinarians) can and do cause mild to serious to lethal harm. And when used long-term are known to cause an enlarged heart, seizures and an early death. You can read about Reconcile here. This is not a product that I ever recommend and if I am going to work with a client whose dog is on a conventional medication, I ask them to take the dog off of the medication prior to a session.

There are many natural nutraceuticals and herbs that can be used on a temporary and permanent basis along with a properly designed diet which will BETTER support the reduction of anxiety than any conventional medication. These natural items can also do double duty by supporting over-all health and the immune system. These natural items will NOT have the serious adverse consequences that conventional medication impose on the dog. 

There are many listed and unlisted ingredients in most pet foods that can - on their own, create anxiety in a dog. Another reason why I approach all matters in a comprehensive, holistic manner rather than relying on stop-gap measures that were never designed to use on a long-term basis and will not result in actual remedy.

In an emergency situation and when used for a very short time when access to alternative knowledge is not available, the use of conventional medication may in some cases have some value, however the side effects of the medication may far out-way benefit. 

It is interesting to note that Reconcile - in addition to exposing the dog to adverse and serious side effects also has side effects that create the same symptoms that the medication is supposed to 'treat' - anxiety. 

Once again, I think it would be fair to say that in some cases conventional medications may have some positive effect on mitigating some symptoms of anxiety in some dogs BUT these products will not cure the anxiety and the side effects of using the medication may have far worse consequences than the actual issue the medication is supposed to 'treat'.

6.0 Remedying Root Cause v.s the Band Aid Approach

In my opinion based on years of working with dogs and people - the real remedy to anxiety is comprised of multiple elements - you can read about those many facets here and how they interconnect and when accomplished properly result in a remedy for anxiety.

While there are commonalities amongst most cases of anxiety, including separation anxiety, there are also unique variables that exist in any single given case. These unique variables are a direct reflection of the reality that each person and each dog is a unique individual. When one or all of these key contributors is not understood and/or not addressed the root cause is not resolved. The issue remains.

Although I work with dogs and their humans who are experiencing truly extreme anxiety - the dog is chewing his/her way through metal crates, drywall, doors, electrical wire and sustaining severe physical damage (and yes I do mean both dog is anxious and dog’s human is anxious). I have never had a need to use products such as the Thundershirt, special spray collars etc. I am fortunate in that I have (and have the knowledge, understanding and skills to perceive root causes and effect solutions by working with the actual psychology and physiology of a dog and his/her human. This allows me to perceive what triggers behaviour (good and bad, human and canine), identify and apply methods that resolve the issue, which I then teach to the dog’s person.

My methods are based on leveraging a holistic strategy that addresses root cause and contributing factors including diet. These are all part of a kit of tools that can and should be used to create a successful resolution. The other tools I use and which I teach my client’s to use are tools that we all have within ourselves - which just happen to be the same tools that a dog has to use. These tools are also very portable as both the dog and the human carry the tools with them wherever they maybe. No fear of forgetting one of the tools behind. No need for treats, clickers, special shirts etc.

Some of the tools I use and teach my client’s to employ are -

  • The ability to perceive, understand and communicate using multiple senses - for this is how dogs communicate and should the dog’s person not learn in part to do the same the person will always be at a great disadvantage when seeking to provide support for their dog;
  • The development and deployment of self awareness, self discipline, patience, persistence, determination to lead by logical and true example;
  • The ability to read a dog’s face and body language,
  • The ability to learn from your dog.

These skills provide a remedy to canine anxiety and human anxiety they also create positive growth in the human and the dog. By making sure diet is also addressed a complete solution is provided.

I think it is safe to conclude that a Thundershirt or any other single product is no match for a real solution.

I think it is safe to conclude that no single product used in isolation of a larger strategy can be expected to remedy anxiety - the product may instead, simply help to create a band aid ‘solution’. And this may be better than no intervention.

Consumer beware and adjust your expectations to suit. If you are successful to any degree in your use of a product you will feel good about it rather than stressed. If you feel stressed your dog will too.

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Article and graphics by Karen Rosenfeld

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