Has a gray muzzle ever fooled you into thinking a dog was much older than his years?
Looking at my beautiful dog Pogs, one of the many things that makes me smile is her black muzzle on a tan face, as if she dipped her mouth in black paint. This led me to wonder if dogs go prematurely gray and, if so, why.
Well, guess what? Apparently, premature graying of the muzzle is indeed a “thing” in dogs who are 2–4 years old.
Scientists have looked into why some dogs develop gray hair in younger years. They photographed 250 young dogs and had them scored for “grayness.” Then the dogs’ caretakers filled in a detailed questionnaire about their furballs’ health, habits and personality.
The results? Premature graying was strongly linked to certain behavioral characteristics. It seems that just as stress can cause people to go gray early, the same applies to dogs.
The traits linked to early graying of the muzzle are:
Examples of markers of anxiety in the dog include:
- Destructive behavior when left alone
- Cringes when meeting new people or dogs
- Cowers at loud noises
- Excessive shedding when at the vet’s
And here’s what an impulsive dog may look like:
- Jumps up at people
- Easily excited
- Easily distracted
- Zoomies after exercise
An interesting aside is that the dog’s size, gender or neutered status had no influence on premature graying.
Anxiety ranges from a healthy fear of the unknown to paralyzing phobias where the response is out of all proportion to the threat. And anxiety has far-reaching consequences for both pet and caretaker.
Living with an anxious or fearful dog can mean:
- Destructive behavior: the dog who can’t cope when left alone
- Diarrhea: as a result of stress-related inflammatory bowel syndrome
- Compulsive behaviors: such as over-grooming, pacing or even excessive water drinking
- Aggression: a fearful dog who quickly learns snapping makes people keep their distance
- Antisocial actions: such as barking or digging
An anxious dog may be so as a result of poor socialization as a pup or a bad experience. But what can you do now to move forward and create a better-adjusted buddy?
First things first: The dog needs a thorough vet exam to rule out medical problems. For example, a dog who licks himself sore could have an allergy rather than anxiety, while a snappy dog may be in pain from arthritis or an ear infection rather than being fearful.
Once the dog has a clean bill of health, you can move forward and put some behavioral strategies in place to turn things around:
- Teach the dog self-control: This is about training the dog a rock-solid “sit” and “down” command. By making sure the dog sits before having the lead on or dinner put down, it teaches him control. This also gets the dog focused on you rather than the scary thing.
- Plan ahead: Have strategies in place for when you’re out and about. Teach the “look” command so as to distract the dog from something he dreads.
- Reward-based training: Learn reward-based training methods and reward the dog’s calm or correct behavior when faced with a challenge.
- Gradual exposure: Control the dog’s exposure to a scary thing and reward him for being calm. For example, play a CD of fireworks very quietly in the background, and when a noise phobic dog is calm, give him a treat.
- Your body language: Keep yourself relaxed so the dog doesn’t read your anxiety. Also, don’t fuss or soothe a fearful dog — this rewards his anxiety and perpetuates it. Instead, be matter-of-fact and dismissive of the thunderstorm or scary umbrella.
Thanks to the ThunderShirt, this dog goes from a zoomy “maniac” to a chill pup in no time:
When the Going Gets Tough
For debilitating anxiety, some medications can help. Ask your vet about whether a prescription product could ease the dog’s fear while you get to grips with behavioral retraining.
In the meantime, consider these options:
- Pheromones, such as a DAP collar
- Zylkene: a mild derivative with calming properties
- Skullcap and valerian tablets: an herbal calming remedy
- ThunderShirts: for swaddling, which reduces heart rate and blood pressure
Anxiety must be addressed for your dog’s mental well-being. But who knows? Helping him to be happy could also prevent premature graying — which still leaves Pogs and her impulsive behavior…
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed March 31, 2017.