Anxiety is a common emotion in dogs that is described as a feeling of unease or stress. Anxiety can be a normal and healthy response, for instance when it leads to the avoidance of a potentially dangerous situation. But what happens when your dog’s anxiety becomes out of control or is affecting his daily activities? To be able to help your dog, it is important to both recognize the symptoms of anxiety and determine the cause.
What can cause anxiety in dogs?
There are several reasons that a dog may experience anxiety. They tend to be grouped into different categories:
- Fear anxiety – there can be various triggers such as loud noises, strange people, sudden movements, or new situations.
- Separation anxiety – some dogs become stressed when they’re left alone.
- Social anxiety – occurs when a dog is fearful of meeting new dogs or people. This is often a result of a lack of appropriate socialization in early life. It may also occur after a negative experience with another dog or person.
- Disturbance of usual routine – examples include the addition of a new baby or pet to a household, builders, or moving house.
- Aging anxiety – several changes may occur as your dog ages including loss of sight or hearing, pain from arthritis, or dementia.
What anxiety symptoms do dogs show?
Different dogs will demonstrate anxiety in different ways. Sometimes they may be subtle and sometimes they may be more obvious. The better you are at recognizing normal behavior in your dog, the easier you will be able to spot when he is feeling anxious. Dogs may show one or more of the following symptoms:
- Vocalization such as whining, whimpering, or barking
- Tail tucked under the body
- Dilated pupils
- Ears flat against the head
- Displacement behaviors such as licking, yawning, or rolling over
- Inappropriate urination/defecation
- Destructive behavior
- Aggressive behavior
Remember that the same dog might show different symptoms depending on the type of anxiety they are experiencing. For example, a fearful dog may hide or shake, a dog with separation anxiety may become destructive or vocal, and a dog with social anxiety may show signs of aggression.
How can I help my dog cope in stressful situations?
There are many things you can do to help alleviate your dog’s anxiety. The first and perhaps most obvious is to remove the source if feasible to do so. However, there are many circumstances where this just isn’t possible, so for these, there are two main ways to help your dog: desensitization and counterconditioning.
This involves introducing the anxiety stimulus slowly, in increasing amounts until your dog is more comfortable when he next experiences the stimulus. For example, for dogs that are scared of loud bangs, this might involve playing the sound of bangs at a very low volume, and once your dog is comfortable, gradually increasing the volume. Desensitization can be a slow process that takes days, weeks, or even months to achieve. However, it can be highly effective in helping to minimize your dog’s anxiety.
This method is a way of changing how your dog responds to the anxiety-inducing stimulus. It can be done in several different ways but for example might involve distraction with the use of food, or teaching your dog to focus on you. Just like desensitization, counterconditioning requires commitment and can take a long time to achieve. However, the results can be well worth it!
There are lots of other things you can do to help your canine companion in times of stress. It may seem counterintuitive but try to avoid comforting him excessively. A reassuring word or pat on the head is fine but if you are overly fussy towards him, you are inadvertently confirming to him that there is a need to be anxious.
Make sure your dog has a safe space that he can escape to if he wants. This could be a “den” such as a blanket-covered crate or a bed under a table in a quiet corner of the house. Consider using a specially designed dog bed that’s built to soothe. When your dog is in his space, ensure that he is left alone and not disturbed by anyone, particularly small children.
Ensuring that your dog receives regular and adequate exercise will help him to cope better with stressful situations. It is important to ensure that your dog receives plenty of mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. Mental stimulation might involve teaching him a new trick or playing scent work games with him.
Dog anxiety vest
You could also try using a dog anxiety vest. These are designed to fit snuggly around your dog’s body and have been shown to lower stress levels, in much the same way that swaddling an infant can soothe them. The ThunderShirt is probably the best-known example and can be used for all types of anxiety.
When to speak to your vet
If your dog’s anxiety is affecting his or your quality of life, then speak to your veterinarian who will be able to help. They might refer you to a qualified behaviorist who will tailor a behavior modification plan that is specific to your dog. Some dogs may also require prescription medication to help achieve good results while putting a behavior modification plan in place.
Are there any over-the-counter medications I can give my dog for anxiety?
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes that will cure your dog’s anxiety but there are several over-the-counter calming supplements available that have been shown to help. They come in different formulations from oral tablets or liquids to household diffusers, or pheromone collars. Speak to your veterinarian about the best option for your dog.
Dog anxiety can come in many different forms, but it’s a common and serious condition. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on with you pet may take professional help, so don’t be embarrassed to reach out to your vet or a positive, rewards-based dog behaviorist.