Anxiety seems to be becoming more prevalent — or more spoken about — in societies around the world. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), 18% of the U.S. population is affected by anxiety.
Pets also feel anxiety. For them, there are few medications and certainly no counselors to talk to. Animals with anxiety are entirely dependent upon the humans around them to recognize that they’re not OK and help alleviate stress.
It’s critically important that you understand your dog’s body language, and if you’re a pet sitter like I am, it’s important to educate yourself on how anxiety manifests in pets and what you can do to help those you might only see infrequently.
Encountering Anxiety in Pet Sitting
While all pets express anxiety occasionally, there are some for whom anxiety is easily triggered and more intense. I’d like to share 2 stories with you about dogs who expressed their anxiety entirely differently.
Bobbie was adopted and has been in a loving home for 3 years. Bobbie has a difficult time with new people, and her anxiety manifests in barking.
When I first started pet sitting for Bobbie, her humans warned me that she was a “talker” — and, boy, was she. When a new person arrived, Bobbie would bark the entire time. On my first visit, she “talked” all day and well into the night.
Fast forward about 6 months and a lot of visits, and Bobbie is almost a different dog. She barks when I get there, but that’s just her “Hello!” — she stops barking and comes for patting until it’s time to play fetch.
This dog is a new client: a terrier named Mandy. When I first met Mandy at her home with her humans, she was fantastic. Friendly, outgoing, bouncy and energetic. But when I first arrived to take her outside and feed her while her humans were away, it was like night and day.
Mandy was sullen, depressed and wanted absolutely nothing to do with me. She was extremely fearful to the point of aggression. When I attempted to put her leash on her, she made to bite. And this was no warning snap — she meant business.
Initially, it was OK to not press the issue because she had been out that morning with her humans before they’d left. But as the day wore on, she continued to aggressively refuse to be touched.
There were 2 options available to me:
- I restrain her to get the leash on and then force her outside, knowing that she desperately needs to urinate.
- I find another solution.
The first option is a no-go — a good pet sitter should never force an animal to do anything. Restraining Mandy and forcing her would do nothing to foster trust — it would simply make her more fearful.
That evening, I put down pee pads so she could urinate alone. The next morning, I bribed her with a lot of praise and a little treat, and was able to get her leash on (although she was still quite fearful). Throughout the rest of the week, Mandy gradually came to trust me, and by the last day, I could get her leash on with no difficulty — and she was actually crawling into my lap for cuddles.
Here are some additional tips for helping a dog get through separation anxiety:
How I Did It
Because we have no way of explaining things to dogs, they don’t know that their people are coming back. They don’t know that we’re there to help. All they know is that there is a stranger trying to do for them what regularly only their families do.
For some dogs, this is overwhelming, and they need time to process. While Bobbie and Mandy manifested anxiety differently, the response from the pet sitter (myself) needed to be similar:
- Recognize that there is an issue and don’t take it personally.
- Read each dog’s body language and respond accordingly. Bobbie and Mandy both needed space to adjust. Bobbie responded well to verbalizations from me (praise-motivated), but Mandy was less interested in talk and more interested in food (food-motivated).
- Have patience — this is not a short process.
- Think outside the box for solutions.
Pet sitters out there, I know it can be discouraging when you’re faced with an anxious dog. Rise above the situation and examine it — and see it as a challenge to yourself to learn and grow. There is no better feeling in the world than to see a formerly fearful dog come racing up to you in joyous welcome.