My Shih Tzu has Anxiety, Help!

by Nikki
(Island Park, NY)

My Shih Tzu, Gizmo, is 12.5 years old. His anxiety issues are becoming out of control. When we first got him, we had another dog, a shepherd/collie mix.

Spike died when Gizmo was 5, and, of course, that's when we started noticing his anxieties. I guess Spike took care of that before. At first, it was just thunder and fireworks. He would scratch at things, try to climb the walls, and get himself stuck in hard to reach places.

The separation anxiety wasn't as bad then maybe because we both worked, but the house still was fuller because my kids were often home when not in school. However, my anxiety if there was a storm while I was at work was pretty out of control. I lost my job about a year or so ago, and now he's anxious almost every time I leave. While he still gets anxious over thunder & fireworks, it's become easier to comfort him if we're home just by acting like everything is normal.

But when we're not home, he gets destructive. We give him a Xanex every morning, but it wears off, and if we have to go somewhere at night, which we often do, he starts acting nuts. I really don't want to start giving it to him 2x a day.

He doesn't really get along with other dogs so it's hard to get people to watch him if we go away; so we pretty much don't. Getting another dog at this point is out of the question since my husband, though he loves our dog like crazy, is done!

Did I mention, that he shakes so hard he looks like he's going to have a heart attack? (Gizmo, not my husband!) Another thing, God forbid, the smoke detector goes off or just the battery indicator warning beeps, it takes a couple of hours to calm him down. If that happens when I'm not home....

Things we've tried besides Xanex...leaving an article of clothing, giving him a treat every time we leave, having play time before leaving, leaving a soothing music channel on, the Thundershirt....HELP!

Ed Answers:

It sounds like the little guy misses all the company. There is a nice product called a thunder shirt. Basicly it works like a compression garment but gently. It gives them a feeling of closeness.

Also at night there is an all natural sleep product for people called midnight. It is all natural and my vet says very safe. It is chewable and they like the taste, give him just one and while it may not put him right to sleep it will take the edge off.

Aside from that it’s the same old thing. Love heals the wounds no one can see. The more the better.
Also get him use to it for short periods alone first. Good luck with your angel I’m sure he is worth the effort.

Our Answer

It must be very frustrating to watch little Gizmo struggle with so many anxiety issues, especially when it sounds like you’re doing all the right things to help him. We want to encourage you and your husband to remain patient with your dog. Try to think of it this way: If a human in your family was suffering from the same type of fearful behavior you would not stop until you figured out how to help them. And that’s what canine anxiety is – pure fear.
According to the Humane Society, these are things that definitely will not help:

  • Punishment. Punishing your dog for being fearful will probably only make the problem worse. Gizmo isn’t “acting out,” he’s reacting to situations his mind interprets as frightening.

  • Crating. Unless he already enjoys using a crate, locking an anxiety-ridden dog in a crate will only add one more fear to the list.

  • Obedience Training. Formal or at-home training is always a good way to boost a dog’s confidence and strengthen the human-canine bond, but anxiety isn’t disobedience nor is it caused by a lack of training.

  • Lights/Noise. Leaving the television or some lights on won’t decrease a dog’s anxiety. In a dog’s world a quiet, dark space is most often a positive environment.

  • A Canine Companion. It seems like the company of another dog might be a solution. But separation anxiety in canines is caused from being separated from their human, not necessarily from being “alone.”

    It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Gizmo’s unwanted behaviors have increased over the years. In general, anxiety is caused by a traumatic (to him) experience, change in the family’s routine or being left alone for the first time. It sounds like he’s seen it all, including losing his first canine friend.

    Setting up a “safe place” in your home may be a partial solution to Gizmo’s problems. Use a baby gate to portion off part of a room, don’t isolate him in a bathroom or laundry room with a closed door. Place his favorite toys, an article of your clothing and a few edible treats in the space. Use a safety cue such as “get in” to encourage your dog to enter the safe zone whenever he’s feeling anxious. Never use the zone for punishment or negative reinforcement. Start with short sessions while you’re home, even 10 to 30 seconds is a good start, and build up to longer periods. Keep it positive, give him lots of verbal rewards, love and treats. Eventually the area may become Gizmo’s safe haven during storms and/or those times when you must leave the house.

    Because of his age, we also wonder if Gizmo’s progressive anxiety might be linked to canine dementia. Ask your vet about the signs and treatments of canine dementia And if you have your vet’s approval for giving Gizmo a second dose of prescribed medication at night, why not do it? We applaud your hesitation to keep your sweet doggie drugged day and night, but if it improves the quality of his life the tradeoff is a good one.

    Best of luck to you and Gizmo. He’s a fortunate dog to be in a family that loves and cares for him despite the challenges.

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