When Anxiety Attacks!
Most of the owners of the behavioural cases we see want both the problem behaviour to stop happening and their pet to be “happier”. They realise that their pet is rarely relaxed or comfortable and that this is affecting their pets’ behaviour.
Anxiety disorders are the most common cause of behavioural problems and usually present as phobias, aggression or attachment disorders. Neurologically these pets have sensitised fear circuits mediated by the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system which results in impaired learning and over arousal. The anxious brain is pessimistic, rigid and unable to learn its way out of trouble and the anxious pet is generally hyperactive, hypervigilant and unsettled.
Most of these patients require; environmental management to prevent ongoing exposure to triggers; medication to regulate brain activity and enable learning and retaining of new information; and behaviour modification to help them (re)learn how to be relaxed.
The Relaxation Response
Humans suffering from anxiety disorders are frequently asked to meditate, practice breathing exercises, perform yoga etc. Animal behaviourists try to achieve similar outcomes of lower blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate, relaxed muscles and calm brain activity by encouraging spontaneous relaxed behaviour and practicing daily relaxation exercises. These lower general arousal levels, quieten the fear circuits in the brain, develop coping mechanisms so that anxious pets can accurately differentiate between perceived and real threats.
The Whispered Reward
Whenever an anxious pet voluntarily chooses to be calm and relaxed they need to be rewarded consistently and reliably. However, traditional methods of positive reinforcement such as treats, vocal encouragement and pats can be arousing. Instead, we use a whispered reward of “good girl/boy on your bed” without making eye contact, touching or arousing.
The whispered reward is ideally used when an anxious pet is sleeping calmly and independently on their bed and should be as subtle as to only partially awaken them so that they may sleepily open one eye or flick an ear. The whispered reward can also be used to reward anxious pets on their way down a relaxation gradient when they are sitting rather than pacing, resting, playing quietly with a toy or chew or behaving in a calm way at any time.