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Understanding and Addressing Dog Anxiety

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Pet parents around the world agree that life with a dog is more fun, meaningful, and richer in just about every way. That said, sharing your heart and home with a dog isn’t always the smoothest of sailing. Pups are more prone to anxiety than people, but they can’t always communicate it clearly. That’s why it’s essential to monitor your dog’s mental and emotional well-being and to take action when something is awry.

Related: Understanding the Causes of Anxiety in Your Dog

The Signs of an Anxious Dog

Naturally, you know your dog better than anyone else, so it’s quite possible that you’ll be able to ascertain the signs of their anxiety without going down a checklist. Yet some canines hold their cards close to their metaphorical chests, so here’s the checklist anyway. Take note of symptoms such as:

  • A tucked tail
  • Hiding, particularly in places that are hard to find or access
  • Avoiding eye contact or interaction in general
  • Trembling 
  • Chewing, digging, and other destructive behaviors
  • Excessive barking
  • Whining or whimpering
  • Urinating or defecating (in housebroken dogs)
  • Pacing or restlessness
  • Licking or sniffing much more than usual
  • Aggressive acts such as biting, growling, or barking at people 

Single instances of these behaviors aren’t usually enough to merit a diagnosis of anxiety. Many are common, and even the rarer ones could have an alternate, benign explanation. 

“One very common indicator of anxiety is when the dog stops eating, especially high-value treats. They might even take the high-value treat but then spit it out,” says certified dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer, who owns The Inquisitive Canine. “They also might avoid their usual activities, curl up in quiet areas, or hide.” 

If your pup demonstrates an uptick in any symptoms, repeats them regularly, or just doesn’t seem like herself, anxiety could be at play.

How Can I Help My Anxious Dog?

There is no surefire solution to anxiety — in dogs or in people — but there are plenty of techniques to try. It may take a trial-and-error period before you hit upon the best approach for your family; in the meantime, be patient with everyone involved (including yourself!).

Remove the Anxiety Trigger

Chances are you have a deep bond with your doggo. If so, comforting them when they are scared and shaky probably comes naturally to you. Your first instinct is to do whatever’s possible to separate your pooch from whatever is making him anxious. That’s just as it should be, says Mayer.

“The best way to help a dog who is displaying [anxious] behaviors is to first remove the dog from the scary trigger, or remove the scary trigger in its entirety,” she explains.  

As a longer-term approach, owners should also take steps to ensure their dog’s day-to-day is predictable and consistent. As much as possible, keep surprises, sudden schedule changes, and highly stimulating events to a minimum. When your

Related: So Hard to Say Goodbye: Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Distract Your Dog When Feeling Anxious

When your dog’s anxiety rears its head, distractions can be helpful. Distractions could include a brand-new toy or an old favorite, a puzzle that hides a healthy treat like pumpkin, a quick tug-of-war session or game of fetch, getting some fresh air, or even just a quick cuddle. Don’t overdo it, and be sure to give your pup plenty of attention at other times, or she may learn to feign fear simply to receive the reward.

How to Calm Your Anxious Dog

Two behavioral techniques are often used to quell a dog’s distress when it’s an ongoing issue. The first is counterconditioning. Start pairing anything that’s anxiety-inducing with a desirable object or event. Over time, the dog’s association with the trigger will hopefully flip from negative to positive. 

Desensitization is another tool to try. Getting your pup accustomed to whatever makes him nervous or unsettled will lessen its effect. Let’s say your rescue is apprehensive around big, boisterous men and goes into panic mode whenever your new boyfriend comes around. At first, let them spend just a minute or two together on opposite sides of the same room. When your furry friend can handle that level of intensity, add on a few more minutes or have your man start inching closer. 

Comfort your canine companion while she experiences a scary situation by speaking softly and reassuringly, keeping her close, and giving lots of gentle pets. A couple of treats to reward her bravery will go a long way, as well. 

Desensitizing can work for car rides, meeting new people or other animals, loud noises like alarms, and many other disquieting experiences. Make sure your dog receives lots of positive reinforcement like praise, ear scratches or belly rubs, or just being close to you. 

Again, patience is the watchword with both of these techniques, but your efforts will pay off with the best possible dividends: a dog who’s calm, chill, and confident. If the canine in question has severe anxiety, however, consider calling in the pros. Anxious dogs are sometimes more difficult to train than their average counterparts, so it’s smart to recruit a dog behavioral expert or experienced trainer.

Other Things You Can Do to Help Your Anxious Dog

Pet moms and dads who turn to complementary therapies to treat their own physical or emotional problems might consider similar modalities for their dogs. Acupressure, massage, and even reiki can be beneficial. Other solutions that could help (and won’t do any harm to try), are aromatherapy, pheromone therapy, and music therapy.

Crates can also provide a safe haven for dogs who are already acclimated to them. If your dog doesn’t typically enjoy staying in a crate, though, confining them can do more harm than good. Instead, use a calming garment or weighted blanket to give the sensation of being held tightly. Just like babies feel comforted when they are swaddled, these calming t-shirts or coats for dogs have the potential to really help.

Related: Senior Dog Suffering From Separation Anxiety Finds Comfort in a Mannequin

When to Consider Medications

Dogs can also be given anti-anxiety drugs, particularly before a traumatic experience — Independence Day fireworks, a big thunderstorm, a flight, or long road trip — or after an unpleasant encounter at the dog park or other stressful incident.

In some cases, vets will address a mood disorder in dogs by prescribing Reconcile, an antidepressant for dogs that contains the same active ingredient as Prozac formulated as a beef-flavored chewable. That said, prescription medication should be tried only after exhausting the other methods, and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. 

What Not to Do With an Anxious Dog

It probably goes without saying, but the worst possible way to deal with an anxious dog is to inflict negative consequences on them. It won’t help in the moment to yell at them, swat them, isolate them from the rest of the family, or force them to face their fears right then and there. What’s more, this style of pet parenting is setting everyone up for even more problems down the line.

“Ignoring, scolding, or punishing a dog who is exhibiting fear and anxiety should be avoided at all costs,” emphasizes Mayer. “The dog might develop a stronger negative conditioned response to whatever he or she is fearful of, as well as develop new fears.”

Anxiety is common in dogs. Just remember to be calm, patient, and persistent. And when in doubt, reach out to a professional.

Related: 7 Tips to Prepare for Your Puppy’s First Night at Home

By Nicole Shein

Nicole Shein has been a wordsmith and an animal lover ever since age 5, when she penned a book about the courtship and marriage of two rabbits named Charlie and Lila — but needed her mother to spell most of the words for her. Nowadays, she works solo as a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in or on This Old House magazine, HowStuffWorks.com, and Match.com. Nicole lives in Rochester, NY with her partner and two children, but dreams of one day owning a rambling, rustic old farmhouse with plenty of land to accommodate all the animals she would love to rescue.

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