How To Calm An Anxious Dogs In A Few Simple Steps
If you think your dog needs help with anxiety, you’re not alone. This is very common, and it can be difficult to detect and manage and as a result, it’s very common for pups to not receive any treatment at all, which ultimately results in poor emotional and physical well-being.
No worries, today’s article is all about how to calm an anxious dog, and what to do if your pup has anxiety.
Why Is My Dog stressed? Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs
If your pup is showing any distress signs, they’re probably feeling stressed or anxious. Statistically, dog anxiety tends to be associated with:
- Owner separation
- Noise aversions
- Confinement distress
However, pups can develop anxiety from any issue, and this can grow into a chronic problem.
How To Know If Your Dog Is Anxious
Anxious dogs will generally have erratic behaviour, feel insecure in novel environments and show important emotional reactions to seemingly small triggers. In general, dog owners only realize their dog suffers from anxiety if they start showing problematic behaviours, such as home destruction, self-harm, and depression. However, other signs might signal an anxiety issue.
Remember that anxiety can happen sporadically, or on a regular basis. The frequency will determine how you deal with it, and whether or not you need to call a specialist.
Signs of an anxious dog
There are two main types, passive or active signs. Passive signs mean your dog shows lower activity levels and seems to be on guard. On the other hand, active signs usually come up as excessive activity. Here’s what to look out for.
- Avoidance or hiding
- Flattened ears
- Defensive body language, including low tail
- escape attempts
- Hypervigilance, dominant or guarding behaviour
- Seeking consistent contact with humans and other animals
- Home wrecking, destruction
In some cases, your dog might show an acute anxiety attack. This usually has physical signs like panting, salivation, urination, dilated pupils and shaking. If you think your dog is having a crisis, call your vet immediately. These signs can also be caused by other medical conditions such as poisoning or shock, so it’s best to consult with a professional.
PRO TIP: Anxiety disorders, like other illnesses, respond best to treatment when identified early, but many dogs are never treated. Keep your eyes open and note any change in behaviour!
PRO TIP: Use video to record anxiety episodes. These will help your vet determine the best course of action.
PRO TIP: If your dog is particularly sensitive to thunderstorms, keep an eye on the forecast. If there’s a storm coming, offer medicine before the rain begins. It’s best to give medication and not need it than exposing your dog to further distress.
Helping An Anxious Dog - What To Do
First, keep a record.
If you believe your pup is going through a hard time mentally, take note of their behaviour first. make sure to watch and record, if at all possible, how they react to everyday situations. This is especially useful if your dog has changed behaviours, or they are showing new ways of demonstrating distress.
Try to recall the context and anything that happened around the time of the anxiety outburst. This includes new people or pets, specific times of the day, noises, food or anything else that might affect your dog.
Then, talk to your vet. If you have video or photos showing your dog’s behaviour, take them with you. Most of the time, your vet will propose a mix of medication and behavioural treatments. In general, a medical professional will be able to advise you and even refer you to a dog behaviouralist for in-depth treatment.
PRO TIP: Compression vests, also called thunder vests, work to relieve anxiety even for pups that aren’t afraid of noises. Getting your dog used to the vest in a calm situation is key for it to work, so try it while they are relaxed and happy.
How To Calm An Anxious Dog?
If you suspect your dog is feeling anxious, or is actually in the middle of an anxiety attack, there are a few strategies you can use. Depending on your dog’s personality, their needs and the severity of their anxiety, some of these will work better than others.
Option 1. Avoid triggers
If you’re wondering how to calm a stressed dog, avoiding their trigger might help. This one works by preventing your dog from encountering the source of their anxiety. Of course, this is only possible if you actually know the reason why your dog is anxious or stressed.
In general, you’ll want to act as naturally as possible to avoid alerting your dog, and redirecting their attention. Here are a few pointers:
- Try to stay with your dog at all times to help diffuse triggers
- Encourage your dog to stay inside, if their triggers are related to outdoor noise or events
- Stay calm and redirect behaviour, without praising their anxious reaction. This is better if you redirect even before they notice their trigger.
Of course, avoidance isn’t always possible and might even worsen your dog’s reaction if/when they’ll encounter the trigger. In general, we’d only recommend this as an initial measure while you work on changing your dog’s behaviour and helping them adapt to their trigger.
Related: Dogs & Fireworks - A Guide To Keep Them Calm.
Option 2. Change their environment
For this, you’ll be avoiding the trigger but also providing a calming space for your dog. Sometimes, anxiety is worsened by a lack of proper resting space where they feel safe.
In general, you’ll need to provide a comfortable area where your dog can relax. If your dog’s anxiety gets worse with noise, consider soundproofing the area, or even just using a white noise machine to help make it more comfortable. For dogs that are crate trained, their kennel can be a great option as their safe space, provided you place it in a quiet location where they feel happy.
Changing your dog’s environment might help lower anxiety levels on their everyday life, and decrease the impact of triggers on your dog’s mental state
Option 3. Change your reactions
It’s many common for owners to unknowingly worsen their dog’s heightened emotional state. This is particularly common for dogs with separation anxiety, and owners that overly compensate whenever they come back home. In general, you’ll want to lead by example and present a calm face, particularly in situations where you know your dog can get overly excited.
If you know the specific trigger, try to mellow out your pup and avoid direct activity -like play, training or walks- up to 30 minutes beforehand. Then, if they still get nervous, comfort them with a soothing tone of voice and light physical contact. So, for example, if your dog gets stressed whenever they see you getting ready for work, try ignoring their behaviour and speaking in an even tone to reassure them everything will be alright.
PRO TIP: Comforting your dog doesn’t mean coddling them. You should reassure them about their safety, but they shouldn’t feel you share their altered emotional state or they’ll believe there’s reason to worry. Comfort them without raising your voice or doing sudden movements, with enough repetition they’ll get the drill.
Option 4. Behavioural training
This is by far the most efficient way of calming an anxious dog, but it will take some time and patience on your part. Of course, for this to work you’ll have to figure out your dog triggers, and start using positive training techniques to redirect their behaviour. The basic principle is linking the trigger with a positive or neutral reward, but you need to be careful not to reward their heightened emotional state. Here are some pointers:
- Reward calm behaviour. This one is as simple as it sounds. Whenever you catch your dog relaxing on their bed -but not sleeping- offer a pet and a small treat. They’ll probably not understand at first, but slowly they’ll see that staying calm leads to good things.
- Associate triggers with treats. This is especially useful if your dog reacts to noises like fireworks, or the neighbours. Keep a stash of treats ready at all times, and whenever the disturbing noise appears, shove a treat on their mouth. This needs to be done before they have any kind of negative response, so very reactive dogs need the treat very fast. Slowly, they’ll associate the noise with a treat, and will look at you for treats instead of reacting negatively.´
- Offer distractions. The goal is to distract your dog with a high-value interactive toy so they forget about their trigger. Try a stuffed dog toy, a puzzle toy with tasty treats or anything that will keep your dog’s attention for at least 10 minutes.
Option 5. Pharmacological treatment
Of course, this should be done under a vet’s supervision and advice. In some cases, your dog might need more help to make behavioural re-training effective in the long term. In those cases, drugs can be used to help calm down your dog, while you work on positive reinforcement.
According to several studies, dogs that experience infrequent anxiety events may respond well to treatment with fast-acting anxiolytics offered before predicted events. However, dogs with frequent anxiety events that also show signs of panic or phobia, do better when put on antidepressants and fast-acting anxiolytics.
Either way, medication will only help your dog focus on their training better, and won’t help with the underlying cause of the anxiety.
My Final Thoughts
Anxiety in dogs may be associated with owner separation, confinement distress, and noise phobias. Despite their common occurrence, is possible that you may not recognize or report these issues, and many dogs go untreated. Vets should ask you about behavioural concerns at every visit to identify and address issues early.
According to experts, dog behavioural history and video can assist in an accurate diagnosis. Dog treatment of these conditions using a combination of psychopharmaceutical and behaviour modification is recommended to improve welfare as quickly as possible.
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- Kim, Y. M., et al (2010). Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 51(4), 380. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839826/
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- Michelazzi, M., et al (2015). Efficacy of L-Theanine in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results. Veterinaria Anno, 29(2), 53-59. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Greta-Berteselli/publication/248578258_Effectiveness_of_L-theanine_and_behavioral_therapy_in_the_treatment_of_noise_phobias_in_dogs/links/5a817bef0f7e9be137ca149e/Effectiveness-of-L-theanine-and-behavioral-therapy-in-the-treatment-of-noise-phobias-in-dogs.pdf