The Main Causes of Doggy Depression, and What to Do About It

While depression is not recognized as a medical condition in dogs, that doesn’t mean that your dog cannot have depressive symptoms. In fact, symptoms of dog depression may indicate a larger medical condition, and therefore should be monitored carefully.

The main things that usually alerts owners to their dog being unhappy are changes in behavior. Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPDT-KA and member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, explains: “This could mean that the dog is not interacting the way she usually does, or not engaging the way she normally does. It might include not wanting to go for walks, or not eating meals.”

If these behaviors last more than a day or two, they can indicate a medical problem, and you should bring your dog to the veterinarian to run tests.

Many older dogs can exhibit symptoms that seem like depression but turn out to be something else. “A big concern is untreated pain, which can mirror depressive symptoms,” says Dr. Sinn.  “In our older dogs, for example, we worry a lot about untreated pain, such as arthritis. These symptoms could mirror ‘depressive’ symptoms, but actually point to a much greater and more dangerous condition.”

More information about depressive symptoms can be found here.

One symptom in particular that is often mistaken for a depressive symptom is an increase in lethargy. Before bringing your dog to the veterinarian, try to engage him in activities that he previously enjoyed, like fetch. Sometimes, one-on-one time with you might be all your pup needs to cheer up. If this doesn’t work, consult your vet to rule out medial problems.

It’s also important to monitor your dog’s appetite. “If the animal is feeling very poorly and refuses to eat for an extended period of time, that would put their decline ahead of schedule and is considered very harmful,” warns Dr. Sinn. “If a pet is refusing to eat for an extended period of time, this could be a serious problem.”

New stressors in a dog’s environment can bring on anxiety as well. “There are a number of things the owner can do to help lower stress, including keeping the dog away from crowded situations, decreasing chaos and unscheduled activities in the home, providing the pup with toys, walks and an increase in one-on-one interaction,” recommends Dr. Sinn. If these changes do not work on your dog, there are medications that your vet can give your dog to help with the anxiety.

The keys to stopping depressive symptoms in your dog, if there are no real medical problems, are very similar to what you would do for a person who is sad. Increasing positive interactions and decreasing chaos and stress will have your dog playing and running around in no time. 

How to Set Boundaries With Your Dog

Boundaries are not only important with the human members of our families that we love, but with the four-legged ones, too! Dogs need to be taught what they are allowed to do and what is off limits. Heather Loenser, DVM, an Emergency Veterinarian at Crown Veterinary Specialists in Lebanon, N.J., says that the most important key to maintaining boundaries is to be consistent.

When to Train
Starting out is always the hardest part. The best time to set boundaries for your dog is when he is introduced to a new environment, like when you bring home your new puppy.

Here is some other advice on making your home ready for your new puppy

Of course even if you’ve already set up some boundaries with your pup, any changes in your environment may confuse your dog, and you may need to set some new ones. Dr. Loenser recommends being consistent with correcting your dog as soon as he enters an area where he’s not meant to be, and being firm but not too frightening. Choose specific words, sounds or a tone of your voice that you only use to convey to your dog that you are serious about a command. Always praise the dog when he leaves the forbidden area.

Pick the right method
If you have a specific room in your home that you would prefer your dog not enter, baby gates are a good option. “Just like toddlers, dogs can be kept safe and confined behind baby gates to segment the house into dog-free zones,” said Dr. Loenser. Keep in mind that, also like smart toddlers, these barriers can be overcome by determined and athletic canines who are willing to climb or jump over them to get out. Be sure to securely attach gates, especially near stairs, as your dog’s safety is very important.

Another option to help teach your dog boundaries is an electronic barrier. This method uses a collar that sends slight electric signals to your dog if he attempts to enter an off-limits area of your home or yard. “If they venture too close, they are consistently given a warning ‘beep’ and then a static correction,” said Dr. Loenser. “Similarly, if they cross a boundary, like a predetermined spot in the yard, they will be corrected as well. In both scenarios, the dogs are trained to move away from the boundary and toward the owner to receive a reward.”

There’s no need to worry about harming your dog with an electric collar either, says Dr. Loenser. “With reputable products, the correction feels similar to the tingle you receive when you are exposed to static electricity, so it is a surprise to a dog, but it doesn’t cause any sort of serious harm,” she said. “Speak with your veterinarian to determine which type of product they would recommend specifically for your dog.”

Another simple way to discourage your dog from jumping up onto your furniture is to use an empty soup can, coins and duct tape. Fill the can with the coins and tape it closed. “When your dog jumps on your bed, throw the can near -- but not on -- him so that he is scared or shocked by the loud noise,” says Dr. Loenser. “The key to these measures is to be consistent so he feels like whenever he jumps on the couch, the couch always makes this scary noise. You want him to associate this sound with the couch, not you, so he does not begin to fear you.”

Repetition of the sound every time your dog attempts to get onto your couch or bed will teach him that it is off limits.

An alternative technique is to line the edge of your bed or couch with sticky tape. Your dog will not like the feeling of stickiness on his paws or fur, and will avoid the areas with the sticky surfaces.

At the end of the day, using these measures isn’t cruel, and they’re an easy way to ensure all members of your household -- both human and canine -- stay safe and happy.

Could a Veterinary Behaviorist Help Your Dog?

Trixie the greyhound lives surrounded by movie stars in her Southern California home, but for many years, she was hardly a talent agent’s dream. Fearful and aggressive toward strangers who came to visit, Trixie wouldn’t even go on walks without becoming skittish. Her owner tried just about everything and was at the end of his rope, until he found a dog savior.

Los Angeles-area veterinary behaviorist Karen Sueda, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), came to the canine’s rescue. After spending time with Trixie’s owner, Dr. Sueda started a behavior modification program where she slowly introduced new people to the anxious greyhound and conditioned Trixie to respond with behaviors other than growling or snapping. She encouraged the dog to sit or offer a paw and rewarded her with a treat for doing so. Dr. Sueda also prescribed a psychiatric medication, similar to human medications such as Prozac, for the stressed-out pooch to help her get accustomed to busy streets and loud noises.

“It’s really hard to predict the triggers, and you can’t prevent the anxiety,” Dr. Sueda says. “So we talked to the owner about teaching him another behavior the dog could do besides becoming startled or running away, such as sitting.” She adds, “The medication helped speed up the process. Rather than months, it only took a few weeks.”

This type of “dog whispering” is becoming more common for dealing with canine behavioral woes -- and for good reason.

Increasingly, pet owners, veterinarians and the research community have come to believe that many canine behavioral problems, such as aggressive behavior or biting, destructive chewing and elimination troubles, have their roots in the emotional health of dogs. When that emotional health is unwell, your dog may need the help of a human psychiatrist equivalent. That’s where veterinary behaviorists step in.

What Veterinary Behaviorists Do
Veterinary behaviorists are fully trained veterinarians who complete an additional specialized program in behavioral medicine. They then apply to be board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB). There are only 47 such certified veterinary behaviorists in the United States today. Ask your general veterinarian for a referral if you think your dog might benefit from this treatment, or look on the ACVBs Web site for a list of certified behaviorists and where they practice. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Web site may also be a good source. In addition to veterinary behaviorists, this site lists veterinarians who have a special interest in behavior, as well as members with a Ph.D. in animal behavior or a related field.

Dr. Sueda says that veterinary behaviorists are the dog world’s equivalent to psychiatrists for humans. But since our dogs can’t talk, it’s usually the pet owners who meet first with the “shrink” and provide a history of the dog’s behaviors. Veterinary behaviorists use this information, medical records, what they know of the animal’s behavior in the wild and how the species communicates with other animals or humans to make a diagnosis.

Once the diagnosis is made, the behaviorist lays out the options for treatment. “Every home situation is different. Every dog is different,” says veterinary behaviorist John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, who practices in Carol Stream, Ill. “What is done with one family isn’t necessarily done with another. You have to tailor your approach to situations and people. You have to get the whole family involved.”

Problems Behaviorists Treat
There are several common problems that cause dog owners to seek out a veterinary behaviorist. The referrals sometimes come from their dog's general veterinarian.

  • Aggression The most common issue veterinary behaviorists deal with is aggression in dogs, Dr. Ciribassi says. Some aggression in dogs is natural, such as territorial aggression in canines who are allowed the run of the house or the yard. But aggression that is fear- or anxiety-based is an individual temperament issue, usually caused by a flawed system of transmitting nerve impulses within the dog. “The messages don’t get from one to the other part of the brain,” Dr. Ciribassi says. In cases where fear and anxiety are the result of a chemical imbalance, medication may be part of the solution in addition to behavior modifications, he says.
  • Separation anxiety This tends to be the second most common issue veterinary behaviorists treat in dogs, Drs. Ciribassi and Sueda say. Separation anxiety is often a situation in which a dog becomes anxious or nervous in instances where they are separated from their primary attachment figure -- typically an owner. Separation anxiety often results in destructive behavior. Dogs will sometimes chew or scratch at furniture or doors, or may even destroy items left in the home. Dr. Ciribassi says behaviorists try to desensitize the dog to being left alone by decreasing how much the owner interacts with the dog in the house and teaching the owner to be low-key when they leave and return. Sometimes medication is needed.
  • Elimination disorders These include elimination of waste inside the house and territorial marking. Behaviorists have to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes it can be as simple as a bad habit that the dog has formed and needs to break. Other times, marking, in particular, can be caused by aggression between multiple dogs in a house.

FDA-approved Medications
Prescribing psychiatric meds for dogs is a last resort, Dr. Sueda says, and is only considered after other forms of behavior modification have failed. The behavior modification techniques often include desensitization of the dog to a certain trigger and then counter-conditioning the pet to react with different behavior. These methods are similar to teaching humans how to overcome their fears -- such as a fear of flying.

When medications are called for, veterinary behaviorists have three types of psychiatric medications approved for behavioral uses in dogs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These three medications are as follows:

  • Fluoxetine, a generic form of Prozac, has been approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
  • Clomicalm, aka clomipramine hydrochloride, has also been approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
  • Selegiline (sold as Anipryl for veterinary usage) has been approved for treating cognitive dysfunction in dogs -- akin to Alzheimer’s disease in older dogs.

Dr. Sueda says that early intervention is the key to solving your dog’s behavior problems. “Behavior problems are just like any other habit. The more we’re allowed to practice bad behavior, the better we get at it,” she says. “For the dog’s well-being -- as well as the owner’s -- you need to catch it early.”

Improve Your Dog's To-do List

It’s hard enough to keep up with your own to-do list, but do you ever stop to think about your dog’s daily schedule? If your best friend doesn’t receive plenty of mental and physical stimulation, your dog’s own to-do list could be a real yawner.  That’s because, just like people, your dog can get stuck in a dull rut. It might seem like bliss to have nothing to do all day long, but it soon grows old for both humans and their furry pals.

It won’t wreak havoc with your own schedule to improve your canine chum’s daily routine. Check out our schedule makeovers that could put the spark back into your dog’s daily life. Here’s a look at the common signs of a bored dog -- and the fixes:

Before
Doggie boredom surfaces in several behaviors. You might recognize your pal in one of these types:

  • The couch potato “Some dogs have a natural tendency to rest and sleep,” says Daphne Robert-Hamilton, a certified pet dog trainer in Morgan Hill, Calif. But if your dog’s routine involves little more than a good morning snooze on its bed or the sofa followed by a midday snack, then an afternoon nap and a sleepy, yawn-filled greeting when you arrive home, it’s probably time for a makeover.
  • The piner This dog spends its morning pining for your return, then waits longingly by the door all afternoon.
  • The digger Left to its own devices, the digger happily starts its day excavating your favorite rosebush, then spends the afternoon tunneling under the back fence.
  • The chewer That sock you dropped while carrying clothes from the dryer? It’s fair game for the chewer, which could spend much of its day gnawing on everything it shouldn’t.

“It’s not that we need to always supply our dogs with activities all the time,” says Robert-Hamilton. “A lot of it has to do with managing their environment, giving them plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation.”

After
If you’re ready to make over your dog’s daily routine, it helps to think like a dog, advises Laurie Luck, owner of the Maryland-based Smart Dog University and president of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Luck continually looks at everyday objects as potential entertainment and mental stimulation for her dogs. “Ask yourself, ‘How can my dog have fun with this?’” says Luck. Of course, she says, you’ll want to make sure that the objects you use are safe and that your dog won’t be able to create more of a mess than you can handle with good humor.

Acknowledging your dog’s basic nature helps, as well, when trying these makeovers:

  • Off the couch If your dog is a couch pup, you needn’t try to put it through Olympian feats each day. Simply add an interesting walk in the morning or evening, varying your route, says Luck. Try playing games with modest obstacles, having your dog jump over a downed tree branch if it’s able to, for example. “Add a walk guided by your dog,” advises Luck. “Go wherever he wants to sniff. I think they get a real kick out of that. It’s encouraging enough for couch potatoes.”
  • Lonesome no more You may be able to satisfy a couch potato with an intriguing evening walk, but how do you help a piner? Dogs with severe separation anxiety may need professional behavioral work, says Robert-Hamilton. If your dog is simply a bit lonely, think about having a friend, neighbor or dog walker come and take it for a stroll during your time away. Doggie daycare might be an alternative. Adopting another dog, if possible, could also help to ease your pet’s loneliness, along with your own.
  •  Entertained For piners, diggers and chewers looking for something to do during the day, both Luck and Robert-Hamilton suggest investing in a KongTime device. It releases Kongs -- little red toys -- stuffed with food or treats. With a timer, you control when the Kongs are dispensed. “Some dogs eat all their meals out of the bowl,” says Luck, who finds the KongTime a simple way to vary your dog’s routine. “With the stuffed Kongs, dogs have to actually work for their food. It gives your dog something to do in that eight-hour stretch when you’re gone, and it’s better than just 30 seconds of your dog inhaling its food.” Other suggestions include the Canine Genius Leo puzzle, which can also be stuffed with a treat, and the Gazillion Fetch a Bubble machine, which -- believe it or not -- blows bacon-scented bubbles.

Other enrichment ideas include hiding a treat in an empty tissue box or placing a stuffed Kong inside a paper lunch sack, then twisting it closed. These provide your dog with a puzzle to investigate and solve during the day. If you roll up balls of newspaper but only place a treat inside one ball, your dog will have to work to find the food reward. One word of caution: These ideas work best in a single-dog household. You don’t want your pups competing for treats.

Once you’re home, take the time to play similar games, say the experts. Have your dog guess which disposable cup hides a treat, or create a tunnel with blankets draped over kitchen chairs and encourage your dog to walk through it by offering a treat at one end. If your dog is a digger, block off a corner of your yard as a legal digging area, suggests Robert-Hamilton. Find an Earthdog event, designed for multiple breeds, such as dachshunds, that were originally bred as underground hunters. During such events, your pal can dig and wander through tunnels, Robert-Hamilton says. The American Kennel Club and other organizations post information online about upcoming Earthdog events.

Luck says, “If you can just change up your dog’s routine occasionally, it works.”

How Aggressive Is Your Canine?

When Aleta Watson’s 1-year-old grandson, Xavier, tried to crawl on Aggie, her golden retriever, during Watson’s recent visit to Portland, Ore., there were no worries. The large, imposing dog simply got up and walked away, says Watson. “We love golden retrievers because they tend to be so mellow,” says Watson, 62, a writer based in Ben Lomond, Calif. “Aggie is our fourth purebred golden, and she’s really easygoing. We’ve never seen any sign of aggression in her or our previous goldens.”

A recent study backs up Watson’s experiences with golden retrievers. Evaluating surveys of two groups of owners, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society rated dog breeds on their levels of aggression. The study, accepted for publication in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, indeed found that goldens rate among the least aggressive breeds. But the study also offers somewhat unexpected conclusions when it comes to canine feistiness. You might be surprised to find where your dog’s breed ranks.

Small Dogs, Big Attitudes
Using a survey called the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire), researchers collected results from both online respondents and a sampling of members of 11 breed clubs recognized by the American Kennel Club. Remember the saying “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog”? It turns out the surveys found two small dog breeds, Chihuahuas and dachshunds, rated high on aggression toward both humans and other animals.

“Initially, I was quite surprised by how aggressive these smaller breeds came out,” says Dr. James Serpell, study co-author and director of the Pennsylvania center. “In smaller dogs, I think we tolerate higher levels of aggressive behavior,” he says, adding, “the prospects of being seriously injured by a Chihuahua are small. Part of the problem with these little dogs is that they probably do live in terror a lot of the time because they are so small, and they are surrounded by giants -- both humans and dogs.”

How Other Breeds Rate
Akitas and pit bull terriers ranked high in aggressiveness toward other dogs, while Jack Russell terriers, Australian cattle dogs, American cocker spaniels and beagles were noted for aggression toward humans. Among the mellowest dogs were golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, basset hounds, Siberian huskies, Bernese mountain dogs, greyhounds, whippets and Brittany spaniels.

“Interdog aggression is scarily high in some breeds,” says Dr. Serpell. “Close to 30 percent of Akitas, for example, had shown serious aggression toward other dogs in the recent past,” says Dr. Serpell. Indeed, says co-author Dr. Deborah Duffy, the amount of dog-versus-dog aggression reported by owners was alarming.

“What surprised us most was the percentage of owners reporting that their dog had bitten or tried to bite other dogs,” says Dr. Duffy. “When we think of canine aggression from a public health perspective, aggression toward humans is typically what gets discussed. However, our study found that serious aggression among dogs is surprisingly common for some breeds, and this also presents a public health hazard because people can get bitten trying to separate dogs that are fighting.”

Genetics likely plays a role in the aggressiveness of breeds such as the Akita, says Dr. Serpell. However, the researchers point out that these aggressive traits are often balanced by positive attributes, such as loyalty. Aggressive dogs, even the tiniest ones, tend to make terrific watchdogs, letting us know when strangers are around.

Nature or Nurture
Nagja Bamji says that her dachshund, Ronny, is far from aggressive. Ronny gives other dogs a wide berth, loves kids and recently backed off when a squirrel hissed at him, says Bamji, 46, a homemaker in Fremont, Calif. You also might find that your dog doesn’t fit the profile developed in this study.

“We do have breed differences; there is no question,” says Dr. Gail Clark, a canine behavioral psychologist based in Fort Collins, Colo. “But there is a tremendous amount of factors in dog behavior.”

She explains that environment and training, as well as breed, help determine how your dog behaves. For example, she says, the owners of little dogs tend to pick them up frequently in threatening situations. Perched high in their owners’ arms, the little dogs feel mighty brave. When the dogs return to the ground, they might feel defensive and threatened. How you perceive your dog’s breed, regardless of size, might therefore influence the way you train or handle your pal, thus affecting your canine’s long-term behavior, says Dr. Serpell.

Where you obtain your puppy can be another significant factor, says Dr. Serpell, who recommends finding a reputable breeder, visiting the breeder and even meeting your pup’s parents, if possible. Dogs produced in puppy mills often have behavioral problems, he says. Puppies tend to be removed from their mothers and littermates too soon, and they don’t have enough positive human contact in their early weeks. Their mothers often are kept in highly stressful environments during their pregnancies, which likely has a longstanding impact on the puppies, says Dr. Serpell.

Individuality Can Overcome Statistics
Dr. Serpell believes that the next step for researchers is to understand the factors that contribute to individual dogs behaving aggressively. When it comes to this study, it’s important to not paint every dog with the same brush, he thinks. “The No. 1 thing we’d like you to take from the study is it’s based on breed averages,” says Dr. Serpell. “Branding a breed as dangerous or aggressive is inappropriate. Within any breed, you’re going to find many, many individuals that are really nice and well-tempered.”

If you’re interested in evaluating your dog’s behavior, you can still take the C-BARQ. The survey, which takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete, is located on the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine Web site.