Category Archives: Behaviour

How Dogs Think – Part 3

In Part 1 and 2, we explored the way dogs perceive their world and what motivates their behaviours. We looked at how they learn and how to best communicate with them.  Now we will look at how the normal brain functions and what happens in the anxious dog’s brain.

In the normal brain, information about the environment is gathered through the senses and processed in part of the brain called the thalamus. From here the information travels at lightning speed to the amygdala or “danger brain” to enable rapid reactions to life threatening situations. The information travels to the cortex or “thinking brain” more slowly. We have all experienced this. For example, we jump away from a stick lying on the ground before our brain computes that it’s not really a snake.

Many behaviour issues in dogs stem from physical changes in the brain associated with anxiety. It is essential that we recognise when anxiety is causing a behaviour problem in order to seek the right help for our mate.

What happens in the anxious brain?

In the anxious dog, the danger brain hijacks the thinking brain and threats are perceived that are not real. Their amygdala is larger than normal and fires too readily and more strongly. There are also changes in the neurochemistry of the anxious brain.

So rather than being naughty, anxious dogs are physically unable to perceive situations logically and calmly with their thinking brain. Instead they react with fear behaviours and anticipate that unfamiliar situations will be frightening. They are unable to relax and cope calmly with their world.

It’s so important to understand that the brain of an anxious pet is abnormal. These are ‘special needs’ individuals with seriously compromised welfare. Not only is their experience of life negative and scary, anxiety also reduces the function of the immune system, makes pain seem worse, causes physical exhaustion and a shorter life. Importantly, it reduces the dog’s ability to think and learn better ways to cope.

How do I know that my dog is anxious?

First recognise what our dog’s body language is telling us.

There are four types of behaviours that communicate to us that a dog is frightened:

Flight response: Here your dog seeks to increase the distance from, avoid or hide from the threat.

Fight response: They may bark, growl, lunge and snap to make the threat go away.

Freeze response: They stay very still or walk as though in slow motion.

Fiddle responses: These are normal behaviours seen out of context, for example yawning when not tired, lip licking when not eating, stretching when not waking, shake off when not wet, scanning when not in danger.

It is important that we read the signs of anxiety in order to recognise and respond to fear behaviours in a way that helps our dogs cope. In time this helps them to adopt a more calm emotional state.

To understand how our dog is feeling, think about emotional states as three zones:

Green zone: This is where they are happy and relaxed. They can think, remember and learn. The behaviour is considered, ‘mature’ and predictable.

Orange zone: Here they are less able to think, remember and learn. Their behaviour is becoming more unpredictable and reactive. There is a risk of triggering quickly into the ‘red’ zone. This area is the most familiar for anxious dogs.

Red zone: ‘fight or flight’ behaviour. The behaviour is reactive and self-protective. It is more ‘immature’ and unpredictable. This emotional level can lead to aggression or desperate attempts to escape a yard to find an owner.

When your dog is in an anxious state, they are less able to respond to cues or learn new responses, as they are focused on self-preservation or what threats lurk elsewhere. Animals with anxiety live in a state of increased arousal (orange zone) and are quick to react and escalate to aggression when they feel threatened (red zone). This low threshold for reactivity, means that they are more likely to respond to innocuous triggers, for example another dog being walked past. They are less able to cope with people/children and dogs that also display reactive or confronting behaviour.

What can I do for my anxious dog?

Behaviour problems that stem from anxiety are not a training issue and should not be referred to trainers. These dogs are suffering from a medical problem and whilst training can help, they need a veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Your patience and commitment will be essential to manage their special needs and helping them learn calm ways.

Despite the fact that anxiety is a medical problem, there is a common misconception that anxious dogs just need discipline to show them who is boss to stop them behaving inappropriately. Punishment is particularly detrimental for anxious dogs and can make their behaviour worse in the long term.

Dogs – especially anxious dogs – need calm, kind and consistent handling to help them feel safe and secure in a stable environment. Consistency is the key as it minimises the stress associated with change.

We often attribute human emotions, thoughts and motivations to our pet’s behaviour and become very frustrated when they do not behave as expected or desired. Pets do not think in words and only know those few words that have been trained by association and reward. The way forward lies in no longer looking at what they should ‘stop’ doing but rather what the right behaviour would look like and how to teach him to do that. “Don’t do that, do this instead.”

Dogs have a very different view of the world than the one we assume. They are observers and live mainly in the moment. They don’t spend time plotting to do bad things or making grudges. They make decisions based on past events and learning. Their most pressing needs are finding and keeping food, staying in their safe social group, having some control over what happens to them and the ability to escape harm and fear. They quickly learn what works for them to reduce exposure to threats. Anxious aggression is not about being naughty or angry. It is fear behaviour, an attempt to avert perceived threats to keep themselves safe.

Where can I get help?

At Hall Veterinary surgery, we provide behaviour consultations for pets with behaviour problems. We recognise that these issues can have a huge impact on quality of life for both pet and owner.

Starting with a questionnaire, we discuss your observations at length and drill down for the underlying triggers and motivation for the behaviour. We then carefully craft a treatment plan that reduces opportunities to practice problem behaviours whilst teaching calm alternative responses through positive reinforcement.  In some cases, medication is helpful to reduce anxiety and lower arousal levels.

Anxious pets will always spend more time in the orange and red zones than a dog without anxiety. However, over time, their emotional responses will become more normal and both pet and owner can live a more calm and relaxed life and thrive in each other’s company.

When Harry’s Home Alone – managing separation anxiety

One would have thought that Harry, the adolescent Cocker spaniel had all he could want to be happy with life. His loving owner, Jill walked him twice a day, a definite highlight for Harry who exuberantly greeted every person and dog he saw. He enjoyed mental enrichment through fun training for treats daily and went to puppy day care for extra play time each week. At night he slept in his bed near Jill’s and she had set up a comfy spot in the main living area for him when she went out.

However, Jill became concerned that Harry was not as happy as he could be. With the upheaval of the house renovations, it became more noticeable that Harry was not coping when she went out. He had become destructive and barked when he was left alone. He would whine when Jill went out of sight inthe next room. Harry was constantly seeking attention by nudging Jill and jumping up. Jill tried not to reinforce this behaviour by ignoring it, however he would nag her more and mouth her to gain attention. Harry paced restlessly and only relaxed when he was in close contact with Jill. It got to the point that he was so anxious when alone that he would not touch his food or water until Jill came home.

When Jill brought Harry in for a behaviour consultation, it was no surprise when he was diagnosed with separation distress, a form of anxiety disorder. Harry was not being naughty. Rather his behaviour was a sign that he was anxious and distressed when alone. His pacing, barking and destructive behaviours were his efforts to find Jill and cope with the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Dogs suffering from separation distress can show a range of signs. Some may injure themselves or property in a desperate attempt to escape and find their owner whilst others suffer in inconspicuous silence, trembling and salivating until the owner returns. Sadly, many that vocalise their anxiety are labelled as nuisance barkers and fitted with aversive collars that trigger with each bark and increase anxiety.

As for humans who suffer from anxiety, our canine companions can experience ‘amygdala hijack’, when the danger-brain works overtime and perceives threats that are not real. Rather than functioning in a calm and logical way, Harry’s brain reacted fearfully whenever he was alone. Anxiety is a physical disease linked with an imbalance of certain neurochemicals in the brain and tends to become worse over time. Every time Harry reacted anxiously to a perceived threat or panicked about being left alone, the neural pathways for the fear reaction become strengthened.

Like any behaviour problem, genetics, past learning and the present situation all contribute to the cause.

Treatment is aimed at:

1. Managing the imbalance in Harry’s brain with anti-anxiety medication and calming pheromones.

2. Improving resilience and fostering a calm emotional state through behaviour modification exercises that positively reward calm.

3. Managing Harry’s environment to help him to feel safe when alone.

Video footage is often helpful to assess the response to treatment by revealing the pet’s body language when they are alone.

Jill embraced the treatment plan with a strong commitment to help dear Harry become a happier dog. It’s 16 months further on now and Jill is very happy with his progress.

Some comments from Jill

Harry is not the first dog to be a large part of my life but he is the first to display behavioural problems. He was destructive, continuous barking and unable to settle down or relax.

After Harry’s anxiety diagnosis, the plan included medication to help alleviate his stress and a job for me to modify his environment and my actions. This was and still is a trial and error arrangement with initially error being the main result. Over time I have come to understand Harry’s anxiety so that now his good days (less anxiety) far outweigh his bad days (anxiety driven).

I am still learning and will continue to learn what causes his anxiety. For example, yesterday I received a phone call which resulted in me immediately leaving him alone and being absent for about 4 hours. I returned to a very anxious Harry. I had previously learnt that Harry needs more notice before being left alone at home, unfortunately I didn’t consider this yesterday.

Harry is worth the commitment to make his life as happy as I can, he is definitely a ‘keeper’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Get off on the right paw with your new puppy!

So, you have an adorable new addition to your family. Here are some tips to help you raise a happy-go-lucky canine citizen.

Early positive socialisation is vital

Early and appropriate socialisation is key. This is the time puppies learn to accept the myriad of objects and creatures, including humans in their world. Missing out on positive exposure to novel situations when under 12 weeks can lead to shy or even aggressive dogs. However, if socialising your puppy is performed appropriately, then your pet will become a confident, friendly and well-rounded member of your family. Puppies usually go into their new homes at around six to eight weeks old, so it’s vital to introduce your puppy to as wide a variety of people, situations, and animals as soon as possible. Do not wait until 16 weeks to start socialising your puppy – this is too late.

Ensure socialisation encounters are varied and positive. Avoid overwhelming situations that could result in a fearful association at this sensitive age and be mindful of where you take your puppy and what animals it meets before its vaccinations are completed.

Socialising your puppy with people

Introduce your puppy to as wide a range of people as possible. This should include people of all shapes, sizes, ages and races. Gradually increase the number of interactions as the pup gets older and becomes more confident.

If you learn to read dog body language you will be able to judge how they are coping with novel interactions and situations. Is the tail on a happy plane or are they frightened – with ears back, tail low, cringing or looking away.

Passing your puppy to a stranger, or having a person bend over, hug or stare at your pup can be frightening to the pup. Instead, have people squat down to their level, turn slightly side on and give your puppy small treats to invite interaction rather than force it upon them.

Be proactive and try to anticipate potential bad encounters. Puppies are inquisitive and inexperienced and can get themselves into bother very easily. Keep a close eye on them during their socialisation period to help avoid potentially stressful situations.

Socialising with other dogs

It’s vital that your puppy socialises with other dogs as well as humans. Introduce your puppy to other dogs outdoors and on neutral territory. Ensure that both dogs are kept on their leads so they can easily be removed from any potentially uncomfortable circumstances. Avoid dog parks where an uncontrolled approach can frighten your little one.

Let the dogs see each other from a distance and allow them to approach each other at their own pace and keep a close eye on the body language of both pets. If it looks like either dog is uncomfortable, then simply remove your puppy from the situation and attempt to reintroduce them more slowly later.

If you are introducing your puppy to a new dog in your home then you should also start slowly and talk to our behaviour team about a plan to set up for success.

Puppies, as with humans, learn social behaviour from their elders. Older dogs may not like your puppy putting their teeth and paws all over them unless invited to do so, and will let your puppy know when they have crossed the line by ‘telling them off’. Let them do this, but make sure that it does not go too far. Stop your puppy from trying to go back for more when the older dog has had enough.

Bear in mind that puppies often won’t be fully vaccinated yet, so make sure you only introduce them to healthy vaccinated dogs. Current vaccines provide a high level of protection for your pup from 10 weeks of age, however care should be taken to minimise potential exposure to disease before the vaccine course is completed.

Socialisation classes

Finally, it is highly recommended to take your puppy to a well-managed socialisation class. They may be settling in just fine with family, however this is a great opportunity for you to learn about puppy behaviour and socialise your little one to their vet’s office as well as playing fun games. Ask us about our puppy preschool classes!

Calming the nerves of your anxious companion

Like people, many pets suffer from forms of anxiety. If your pet cannot settle during thunderstorms or fireworks or perhaps your pet cannot settle if you are not present, then talk with Dr Helen Purdam about some strategies to help the both of you cope.

It may be as simple as some crate training advice like setting up a safe den or fitting the pet with a thunder shirt. Having an Adaptil or Feliway diffuser near the pet’s den can also help them to settle.

For pets who need more support to become less anxious, we can provide a full behavioural consultation. Contact reception on 6230 2223 for more information.

Keeping your pets safe this Summer – The Benefits of Desexing your Dog

Desexing renders dogs and bitches unable to breed, and removes the sexual urge. Temporary or semi-permanent control can be effected by the use of certain drugs, however surgical desexing is permanent and has fewer side effects.

Desexing dogs is compulsory in the ACT unless you have a permit to keep your pet entire. If you do not intend to breed from your dog surgical desexing has undoubted advantages both in the male and the female. In the male dog it removes the sexual urge and lessens their urge to roam. Desexing the bitch means she will not come into heat and therefore will not have to be confined and deprived of her usual exercise and companionship. Heat usually occurs twice a year for at least 3 weeks each time.

Owners are often tempted to have at least one litter from a bitch as there appears to be a general misconception that having a litter will improve temperament. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory. It has however, been proven that neutering the bitch not only prevents uterine disease but also reduces the possibility of mammary cancer if desexing occurs before the first heat. Bitches on heat (oestrus) often surprise their owners with their determined and often successful attempts to escape to be mated. Once desexed the bitch will have no oestrus and will not have unwanted puppies or phantom pregnancies, which in some bitches causes as lot of distress.

Both female and male dogs are usually desexed between 6–12 months of age although the operation can be carried out at any time. In the male, desexing entails removal of the testicles. Occasionally one or both testicles have failed to descend into the scrotum, desexing these dogs is more complicated but well advised, as testicles retained within the abdomen are more vulnerable to tumour development later in life. The desexing of females is less complicated when they are not on heat, pregnant or overweight. We recommend bitches be desexed closer to six months of age, when the immaturity of the ovaries and uterus facilitates their easier removal.

The desexing procedure is done under general anesthesia so the dog must be fasted for 12 hours prior to surgery. General anaesthesia always carries a slight risk but with modern anaesthetic agents, careful monitoring by qualified nurses and intravenous fluids this risk is minimal. The dog will be examined by a veterinarian on admission to the hospital prior to receiving a premedication. This is the time to discuss any remaining questions and inform the veterinarian if your dog is not in peak health. The surgery is performed during the morning and your dog remains in hospital under observation for the afternoon. We will discuss after care and the use of post op pain relief with you at the time of discharge and call to check on your pet’s progress the following day.

It’s Polite Pets month!

It is Polite Pets Month, which focuses on how to recognise and treat anxiety, fear and phobias in our furred and feathered friends. Up to 20% of our pets suffer from anxiety and this can result in behaviours that are unacceptable like aggression, separation and noise phobias and toileting where you would rather they didn’t!

Finding out the true cause of these behaviours is essential to managing them effectively. Jumping on the punishment wagon can worsen anxiety driven problems.
Behaviour issues are best treated sooner rather than later so that you can maintain a happy family! Dr Helen is available for behaviour consults. Call reception to arrange a time.

Afraid of storms?

Everytime we have a wild storm – and we’ve had plenty this season – dogs come to us with injuries from escaping their yards, destroying the garden and getting involved in accidents. Some dogs panic as soon as the sky darkens and the wind picks up, others cower when the thunder, lightning or rain arrive.

Signs of storm phobia range from mild – pacing, shaking, drooling, hiding – to extreme – blind panic and hyperthermia, escape from the house yard, and destruction of garden or house items. While trying to escape the storm panicking dogs are hit by cars, attacked by other dogs, injured on fences and fallen trees, and lost many kilometers from home.

During the storm you can help your pet cope and minimize his distress.

Keep any medication prescribed by your veterinarian on hand. Event medications work best if given at least 30 minutes prior to the stressful situation. Some severely affected animals need daily medication during the storm season.

Pitfalls to avoid:

– Never use punishment as it will only increase your pet’s distress.

– Avoid petting and consoling your pet during the storm as he may interpret the your protection as a reward for his behavior.

– Try to remain calm as a model for your pet.

Useful interventions:

– If possible, don’t leave your pet alone during the storm.

– Create a safe and secure environment for your pet: a dark room screened from lightning flashes or a room where sound is muted.

– If your pet has found a hiding place, do not drag him out. He may become aggressive.

– Loud music, music with a strong beat or white noise such as an exhaust fan muffles distressing noises for some pets.

– Distract your pet with a favourite toy, a game or some obedience training.

– Every time there is a clap of thunder give your pet a treat. If he is too anxious to take a treat smear peanut butter or cheese spread on the gums. After many repetitions he will start to positively associate the noise with the treat.

– A head collar and leash calms some dogs and gives you control.

– Train your dog to relax on cue on a mat or bed using reward based techniques. Gradually delay the reward, until your dog can lie calmly on the mat for extended periods. Only bring the mat out for training sessions, so that it becomes associated with a relaxed down-stay. Bring the mat out during storms/fireworks or other times the dog is anxious.

– Alternatively create a positive association with a particular place. Feed him, give him treats, and play with him in this special area. Your dog will associate feeling safe and security with this place and may take themselves off to their safe area in a storm. This is helpful if you are not home during a storm. Never use the area for punishment or time-outs.

– Recordings of storms can be used for systematic desensitization, although many dogs do not respond fearfully to recordings. They only show fear of storms when associated cues like wind, rain, darkening skies, or changes in barometric pressure are present.

– Dog Appeasement Pheromone (DAP) mimics a natural pheromone that calms and relaxes dogs. It comes as a diffuser that plugs into a power outlet and is left on over the storm period.


Before starting on anxiety medication we do a full physical examination and blood tests to rule out any medical problems and to ensure that the liver and kidney are functioning normally.

Medication helps your dog to experience a storm without feeling anxious. He learns that the noise is not so scary and will respond better to the recommendations above. Once he is consistently relaxed during a storm the dose is gradually reduced until he is completely weaned off the drug.

Tips for training success

Use your pup’s name before every command to attract her attention.  She then knows that the commands are meant for her.

If she doesn’t obey, consider why not:

  • Have you got her attention? Do not shout. Try clapping, making a different noise or changing the tone of your voice.  You must be more exciting than the distraction.
  • Has the training session been too long? Pups have short attention spans. It is better to stop and start again later than to persist with a tired pup.
  • Does she understand the command and what you expect of her?

Training should be a positive experience.  Use rewards all the time to start with.[singlepic id=531 w=320 h=240 float=right]  Once you know that she understands the command vary the frequency and the size of the rewards.  Work on the poker machine principle “if she never knows how much the reward will be, or when it will come she will keep trying to win a reward.”

Train your puppy in lots of different places and at different times. You don’t want a dog who only comes and sits at 6pm – before dinner!

Make training part of every day’s routine.