When we get stressed or worried we show little unconscious signs of anxiety. We may bite our nails or chew our hair, we may jiggle a leg or lick our lips, these are classic human self-soothing acts. Dogs self-soothe too, the tiny signs are easily noted by the careful eye, they show discomfort, anxiety or confusion. Take a look at the points below, commit them to memory, when you are around dogs watch carefully for self-soothing behaviours. You might be surprised.
The canine shake off is not only a behaviour that happens when a dog is wet, it’s also a natural way that a dog self-soothes to shake off a stressful experience. It often happens when a harness or collar is removed. If your dog finds walking outside a slightly stressful experience, then he will likely shake off when he gets home.
This is another thing a dog does to self-soothe. We often associate lip licking with communication, but dogs will do it when completely alone, as a way of settling anxiety. Dog's rarely lick their lips as part of normal relaxed behaviour, except perhaps when they have eaten or drank, so if you see a lick lip, scan the dog and the area, you will likely also see the trigger.
Looking away is a self-aversion. How often have you seen a dog stare off to the side and seem to ignore someone talking to him? From a human viewpoint, we think that the dog is not listening, the dog is often doing the equivalent of “if I can’t see it then it doesn’t exist”.
Scratching or sniffing can be because something interesting is happening or the dog has an itch. It can also be a displacement behaviour caused by confusion or anxiety. The dog is saying “I don’t really know what to do” so I’ll be busy doing this. This type of self-soothing is seen often in training sessions where the trainer is not teaching in a way that the dog truly understands. If you're teaching a dog something new and he does either of these things, his confidence is dropping and it's time to take two steps back in your training, because the dog is confused.
Extreme self-soothing can be chewing or licking oneself, to the point of damage or injury. There is also the chance of obsessive acts developing in certain breeds, a dog in kennels for example may spin or chase his tail, because the situation has led to stress and stress has causes brain chemistry changes. Visually driven under-stimulated dogs can learn to chase shadows and lights as a way to use their drive, this is where self-soothing becomes dangerous and moves into the realm of psychological health issues. This type of behaviour will need to be explored by the veterinarian first then a qualified behaviourist. The first to rule out health problems and the second to work out the trigger for the dog’s anxiety and make positive changes.
To learn more about canine anxiety, enrol on the Canine Principles, Canine Anxiety - Certificate Course. The course provides a detailed understanding for the nature, cause and treatment of anxiety in domestic dogs.