Anxiety in people is incredibly common: a racing heart and thoughts, shallow breathing, shakiness, light-headedness, butterflies in the stomach, needing the toilet, not being able to concentrate or make decisions, tension and headaches, IBS, fatigue, sleeplessness. They can be quick and very intense (as in a panic attack) or mild-moderate feelings (i.e. if we identify as being a ‘worrier’ or ‘overthinker’).
As a therapist, it’s a problem I assess and treat regularly. The biological processes are the same as with anxious dogs. However, unlike dogs we have the language to attach an articulate meaning and thought to an anxious emotion.
As a dog trainer, I meet many an owner who struggles with their own anxiety that then impacts on their dog. It’s not their fault, and many owners are completely unaware of this impact. The stressed and overwhelmed dog owner who rushes in, out and around the home is more likely to complain that their dog is also anxious and over-aroused.
The socially anxious owner is more likely to exhibit anxious behaviours – shortening the lead, tensing their arms, holding their breath – in anticipation of their dog reacting towards other people on walks. An owner that has panic attacks at home may find that their dog anxiously hurries over to them to make sure they are ok. Likewise, owners with long term health problems; diabetes, a heart condition; may notice that their dog’s behaviour around them changes. The dog may become more protective, reactive or clingy – causing its own problems. It is, therefore, only understandable for the dog and owner to inadvertently reinforce each other’s anxiety.
The owner-dog relationship is a close and complex one. As seen in therapy, our relationship with our dog acts as a microcosm of how we tend to relate to other people. This is particularly interesting when we consider those who prefer the company of their dog over that of people. Therefore, understanding the role of our own anxiety with that of our dog is imperative to understanding and modifying our dogs’ behaviours. There exists a volume of studies that have found a very close relationship between owner emotions, attitudes and behaviour and that of our dogs’. It’s worth considering that when our dogs show behavioural problems, it is understandably more likely to cause us anxiety as owners. Studies have shown that dogs with anxious owners are more likely to show displacement behaviours and over-arousal (aka too much adrenaline).
Another example is of separation anxiety in dogs: some owners experience separation owners themselves from their dog. In a few cases, I’ve come across people whose dog displays separation anxiety, when it turns out to be the owners with that form of anxiety and not their dog. Further, neuroticism as a personality trait in dog owners has been linked to insecure attachments with their dog, and dogs with reservations towards strangers.
Written by Emily Bright – Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, freelance writer and trainer at BRIGHT DOG TRAINING. Contact email@example.com or search @brightdogtraininguk on Facebook.