Calming An Anxious Dog

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Fear, anxiety, phobia. No matter what you call it, it’s distressing when your beloved dog whimpers, howls or tries to hide behind the couch to escape a thunderstorm, the vacuum or Independence Day fireworks. No matter the cause, it’s hard to reassure your dog that everything is fine when he perceives his world is ending.   Although fear, anxiety and phobias aren’t all the same thing, they are all related to a dog’s need for safety. Fear is a response to a perceived threat. A dog’s autonomic nervous system responds to the perceived threat by triggering a physical response throughout the body. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the anticipation of a fearful event based on past experiences. A phobia is an irrational fear that leads to anxiety and fearful symptoms. All three types of dog anxiety can be managed by a caring owner. It’s important to understand your limitations when working with your dog and to seek help from your dog’s veterinarian, a professional dog trainer or an animal behavior expert if fear and anxiety make your dog aggressive. Most dog anxiety disorders can be managed by pet owners if they have a basic understanding of how anxiety, phobias and fears work in dogs, what they look like and how to communicate to the dog that everything will be all right.

Dog Anxiety Symptoms

Dog anxiety symptoms are easy to spot once you understand how dogs communicate their feelings. Despite what we might hope, dogs really don’t really “talk” to us. They do, however, communicate volumes with their body language and actions, including tipping us off about anxiety.   Dog anxiety symptoms include:

  • Sounds: Dogs can moan, whine, whimper, bark excessively or howl when they’re anxious or afraid. These sounds may differ from their regular sounds. A dog’s whimper for a treat or a happy bark at hearing you come through the door may sound different than a noise made out of fear. Owners know when their dogs react differently to stimuli. The more time you spend with your dog, the easier it will be to spot fear-based reactions.
  • Pacing: Fearful dogs may pace the house and be unable to settle down in their favorite spots. They may lie down for a few minutes and then jump up to find a new spot. Sometimes they act as if they’re looking for something — perhaps a place where they feel safe.
  • Destruction: Some pet owners blame their dog’s destructive tendencies on boredom, unaware that anxious and fearful dogs also become destructive dogs. Dogs chew, dig or scratch at doors and other objects in attempts to escape what they fear. The anxiety and fear centers of the brain trigger the fight or flight response — and destruction resulting from fear is usually an attempt to flee whatever triggered their fear reaction.
  • Shaking: Fear makes dogs shake or tremble. You may feel it when you put your hands on your dog’s sides or see ripples moving down your dog’s flanks. Cowering often accompanies shaking.
  • Drooling: Drooling and panting are part of the fear response, too. Excessive salivation is another autonomic nervous system reaction when the fight or flight instinct is triggered in dogs.
  • Potty Mistakes: Scared dogs often forget their potty training and soil carpets, rugs or other forbidden areas.
  • Yawning: It may sound odd that yawning excessively is a dog anxiety symptom, but the same internal mechanism that triggers all the other reactions can make your dog yawn, too.

Dog anxiety symptoms can often be mistaken for other problems. A nervous dog who paces through the house, whimpers and soils the carpet may be scolded for being a “bad dog” when he’s simply afraid of something or feeling anxious. It’s also important to rule out other causes, such as an upset stomach.  

Types of Dog Anxiety

There are several types of dog anxiety. Identifying the type can help you learn what triggers your dog’s anxiety attacks and reduce, eliminate or block the stimulus, if possible, or help your dog manage the anxiety.   Dogs don’t wake up one morning having decided to be anxious or fearful. Most dogs who exhibit anxiety symptoms have had some event in their past that triggered the anxiety. Dogs develop phobias and fears between the ages of 12 and 36 months or when they reach social maturity. If, during this time, something triggers a strong fearful reaction, they may develop a consistent fear pattern. For example, a dog who has been in a car accident with his owner may develop a fear of traveling in cars. Just going near cars or a highway may make the dog tremble, whine, pace, vomit or shake. The dog connects the smells, sights and sounds of cars and highways with the pain and fear of being in the car accident. Other dogs may develop separation anxiety, fear of thunder or other phobias during that time. Effectively calming an anxious dog means first understanding the types of dog anxiety:

Separation Anxiety

Many dogs are surrendered at the pound due to separation anxiety. The whining, barking and destruction that accompanies this type of dog anxiety can be distressing — not just for you and your pet but also for the neighbors who hear your dog’s howling for hours every day.   Separation anxiety occurs when a sensitive dog becomes deeply attached to its pack — and in this case that’s you and your family. Some people inadvertently create situations favorable to the development of canine separation anxiety by making a fuss over their dog when they leave for the day or return at night. The dog begins to sense that something important is going to happen and displays anxiety symptoms in anticipation of its pack leaving for the day.  

Separation anxiety in dogs can begin as early as puppyhood. Many new dog owners, distressed when they hear their puppy crying at night, pick him up, cuddle him and generally fuss over him. The puppy is experiencing his first time alone and away from its mom and littermates, and it learns quickly that whimpering, crying or barking gets it attention. The puppy trains its owners to respond — not the other way around.   As the puppy grows into a dog, he also experiences less interaction with his owners. Puppies require a lot of time and training. Housebreaking, walking on a leash and basic commands take time to learn. Gradually, however, as a dog grows older, his owners may spend less time working on exercises like this and simply expect the dog to behave. The dog still craves companionship and may act out to get it. Crate training in puppyhood is an excellent way to prevent separation anxiety. Puppies learn quickly to self-soothe and settle down inside the crate. The contained space feels good to your pup even though it might look like jail to you. To your dog, it’s a safe and comfortable zone where he can relax. Later, crate training pays off when you can leave your dog alone in the crate. He won’t have the opportunity to destroy your house if he’s inside a crate while you’re shopping, at work or picking up the kids from school.

Social Anxiety

Many people think dogs love playing with other dogs. Some dogs, however, suffer from social anxiety. This type of dog anxiety manifests as perceived aggressive behavior around other dogs. Dogs suffering from social anxiety don’t understand the difference between friend and foe. To them, every dog is a perceived threat. They strike first to ward off the threat. They may bark, lunge at other dogs or growl or snap at them. Some dogs with social anxiety act out at every unknown being — both person and animal. They may be fine around family members, but if someone unexpected comes to the door, the dog expresses his anxiety by growling or snapping at the stranger. Other dogs may be loving and calm around strange people and even other animals, such as cats, but be deeply anxious and afraid of other dogs. The cause of social anxiety in dogs is thought to be early weaning or taking puppies away from their mother too soon. Because the dog didn’t get enough of a chance to understand how other dogs interact, being around other dogs makes him feel anxious. The dog never learned that other dogs could be friends. Puppies should be at least eight weeks old before they’re taken away from their mothers and littermates for weaning. The first eight weeks of a puppy’s life are a crucial time for him to learn social skills. Playing with littermates, wrestling with Mom and enjoying life with their own pack helps dogs understand how other dogs communicate and interact. Without this time together, dogs grow fearful of other dogs. Other dogs become an unknown and scary entity.

Noise Anxiety

Noise anxiety is another common type of dog anxiety. Many dogs are afraid of loud or sudden noises. The crack of thunder or the boom of fireworks is enough to drive them into a frenzy.   Dogs also begin to associate other physical signs with noise. They can sense changes in barometric pressure preceding a thunderstorm. Even windy days can send them into a tizzy, since most thunderstorms are accompanied by winds.

How Do You Calm an Anxious Dog?

Now that you understand what causes anxiety in dogs and what dog anxiety symptoms look like, it’s time to talk about calming an anxious dog. There are several methods of soothing your scared canine. The method you choose depends on the type of dog anxiety your pet has and what you can do to help.  

How to Calm Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety often begins in puppyhood, so begin training your puppy to enjoy time in a crate from the moment you bring him home. Crate training is by far the best way to prevent and manage anxiety in dogs. The crate becomes associated with a safe and comfortable place and dogs treat it like their “den” the way a wolf might. Soft blankets, toys and treats make the crate a wonderful place to be and dogs will enter the crate willingly. Consider having a dog walker come to the house around midday to exercise your dog. Doggy daycare settings are also great for dogs with separation anxiety. They can have fun during the day while you’re gone and it will give them great exercise. For adult dogs with separation anxiety, you can begin to desensitize them to your leaving the house. On a day when you have time, pretend to leave the house as if leaving for work or school without making a fuss over your dog. Enter the house again when your dog calms down and praise him with a treat. Continue with longer periods of time.

How to Calm Social Anxiety

The best way to help your dog overcome social anxiety is through a process called desensitization. This means gradually exposing your dog to the fearful stimuli and rewarding or praising him when he exhibits the desired behavior. You may enlist the help of a friend with a gentle dog to help you with this process. Find an open spot where the dogs can see each other and make sure they’re both on non-retractable leashes. Walk the dogs so they see each other but remain far enough away so they can’t hurt one another. Praise your dog if he exhibits a calm demeanor or doesn’t show aggression. Gradually, over a period of days, weeks and even months, walk the dogs closer together. Some dogs just make a lot of noise, like barking or growling, when they meet another dog, but if the other dog is gentle and submissive, they usually settle down. Don’t risk a bite for yourself or the other dog or owner if your dog lashes out. Calming an anxious dog means working slowly and carefully, praising the desired response. Training dogs out of social anxiety can be a lengthy process. You may need to work on it constantly. Some dogs allow one or two dogs near them, but the process must begin over again for strange dogs they meet.

How to Calm Noise Anxiety

Noise anxiety can be reduced through desensitization, too. You can play tapes of thunderstorms while dogs experience some sort of pleasurable activity, like getting a belly rub or eating a treat, to help them associate the noise with something good. You can also try blocking the sound with a radio turned on during noisy days when fireworks or other scary noises are occurring.  If your dog is afraid of intermittent loud noises, like trucks backfiring or thunder, provide a place to hide and help your dog stay safe without hurting himself during a storm.

Providing a Low-Stress Environment

If your dog suffers from anxiety or out-of-control fears, it’s important to know how to soothe him when he works himself into a frenzied state of fear. Some steps that can help with calming an anxious dog include:

  • Social contact with humans, including petting them and talking gently to them
  • Soft, soothing music
  • Physical exercise
  • Sufficient time out of the crate

Additional Ways to Keep Your Dog Happy and Healthy

These are all great ways to keep your dog from falling into patterns of fear and anxiety. But there are so many more things you can do, too! Here are a few additional suggestions to for calming an anxious dog:

  • Go for Walks: Walks are essential ways for your dog to get exercise and they’re also good for your dog’s mental health. They help him experience new things, see new places, run off extra energy and just get out of the house.
  • Train Your Dog: Dogs love to make their owners happy. By training your dog, you help him know how to better please you. This keeps both of you a little happier and makes life easier.
  • Teach Your Dog a New Trick: Not only does this provide your dog with mental stimulation, but it’s also a great way for the two of you to spend quality time together.
  • Get More Play Time: Spend some extra time before and after work playing with your dog. This helps him use up extra energy and lets him spend more time with you, which will always lead to a healthier, happier puppy.
  • Establish Consistency: If there are no clear patterns in your household, your dog will be confused. One day certain behaviors earn a treat, but other days they earn a harsh word. Sometimes you’re gone for days at a time and other times you aren’t. By establishing clear patterns and consistency, you can give your dog more peace of mind.
  • Praise Your Dog: Dogs love nothing more than to feel as though they’ve made you happy. By giving them praise, affection and dog treats, you’re helping to ensure their happiness and peace of mind.

Calming an Anxious Dog With Supplements

Sometimes calming an anxious dog regquires for than training. In cases like these, veterinarians may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or other medicines to help your dog settle down.   If you would prefer not to give your dog such medications, calming supplements might be the answer. Supplements such as Fortitude® Canine CSP provide vitamins, minerals and food supplements that support the nervous system and a calm dog.   With time, patience, training, exercise and perhaps calming supplements, you can calm your anxious dog and enjoy the special bond you share together.

A Healthy, Happy Dog

We all want our four-legged friends to lead their happiest and healthiest lives possible. It can be hard for them to do that when their lives are ruled by fear and anxiety. Breaking these cycles and establishing new healthy habits is no easy task. It takes patience, dedication and a willingness to give your dog the very best of your attention and time.   With time, patience, training and exercise, you can calm your anxious dog and enjoy the special bond you share together. To learn more about dog anxiety and ways you and your pet can overcome these patterns, contact us at Fortitude Canine today.

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