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Learning About Anxiety from Your Dog

By Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., ABPP


You can learn a lot about how to manage anxiety from a dog. I'll be writing about human anxiety and how to manage it in another post. This one is about dogs and their anxieties. Any dog older than ten or twelve weeks adopted from a shelter is very likely to arrive with his or her share of anxieties. The most common are fears of being enclosed (from being confined in a crate) and fears of being abandoned (sometimes called separation anxiety). There is a lot that you, as the new person in this dog's life, can do to help reduce these fears.


By the time I adopted Sasha, she had been in two shelters. The first euthanized dogs who had not been adopted within a set time period. The second shelter, a "no-kill" shelter, rescued her from that shelter and took care of her until I came along. So in the first nine or ten months of her life, she had been abandoned by her first human family, kept in a cage in a shelter in the city, then moved and kept in an (admittedly large) cage in a second shelter in the country. To say that she was anxious about being caged would have been an understatement. To say that she was anxious about being abandoned would have been an even greater understatement. 


I was determined to help Sasha recover from the traumatic start of her life and determined to help her be less panicked about being left alone. The techniques I used to help Sasha were simple: I kept her with me almost constantly for the first months of our life together; I whispered reassuring things in her ear. The goal, and the net effect, was to show Sasha that what had happened before was not going to happen again, not while I was around. I was in effect saying, "I know that some scary things happened to you during puppyhood and that people were not reliable, but the past need not determine the present or the future." Sasha gradually learned that she could trust me in ways that she could not trust her earlier attachment objects.

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