Dog Anxiety 101: How to Help Your Anxious (Canine) Bestie
As a society, we’ve widely recognized the negative impact that anxiety disorders have on our friends and family. However, despite extensive research and education about these disorders in humans, there’s still a learning curve when it comes to how best to address anxiety in our dogs. Fortunately, behavioural science has come a long way in recent years and we now know more than ever about the diagnosis and treatment of these disorders in pets.
So how do we know our dog has anxiety, anyway?
Like people, symptoms may differ in each case, but here are some of the possible behaviours that your dog may display when he or she is experiencing stress or anxiety. Please note that these behaviours alone are not indicative of an anxiety disorder and any behaviours that develop suddenly or without explanation should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
- Inability to relax or pacing
- Excessive barking or whining
- Excessive panting or drooling
- Chewing and other destructive behaviour
- Lip licking
- Avoiding eye contact
- Excessive licking of surfaces, people or self
- Excessive yawning
- Tail tucked
- Moving away or hiding
If you’ve noticed that your dog displays these behaviours, first evaluate whether the behaviours are due to other environmental, breed-related or medical circumstances. If your dog seems to be displaying these behaviours regularly and without any other known explanation, the next step is to determine if there is a specific situation or stimulus that is causing this reaction. Although anxiety can come in all shapes and sizes, there are a few common types that your dog may be experiencing.
Types of Dog Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a common type of anxiety in dogs which can result in frustration, property damage and even the surrendering or rehoming of affected pets. Dogs with separation anxiety suffer from varying degrees of panic and unrest when their guardians leave them alone. This can present as excessive barking, howling or whining, and destructiveness such as chewing or having accidents inside. Those living in close proximity to neighbours are at particularly high risk from this condition, as a noisy dog can lead to complaints and even eviction. Fortunately, with time and patience, there are tactics you can use to help your dog become more comfortable when staying home alone.
Depending on the severity of the separation anxiety, there are a few first steps worth trying. Dogs with separation anxiety often benefit from a crate or otherwise enclosed space. While the smaller space should be large enough for them to stand up and move around, it should be small enough that it restricts them from excessive pacing, which can work them up more. Additionally, an enclosed space can prevent house-training accidents (as most dogs won’t soil their sleeping area) and destructiveness.
As humans, we are inclined to talk to our dogs as we would any other family member, reassuring them that we love them and will be home soon. However, since our dogs can’t understand what we’re saying, this can often make their separation anxiety worse. After all, they receive a whole bunch of attention from us only to be left alone immediately after—what a shock to the system!
Instead, trainers often recommend gradually decreasing the attention you are giving your dog in the 15 minutes leading up to your departure and gradually increasing it upon coming home. You can also practice “going out” behaviours like picking up your keys or putting on your shoes when you’re not going out so that your dog doesn’t automatically associate these with you leaving. If you are able to, practice leaving your dog alone for short periods of time at first, increasing as he or she becomes more comfortable. Your goal is to make their experience alone as positive and relaxing as possible.
Many dogs experience anxiety around specific stimuli such as thunderstorms or fireworks. These dogs aren’t necessarily suffering from an anxiety disorder, but may have trouble calming down when presented with unfamiliar noises or situations.
If your dog is calm in most situations, but anxious around certain stimuli, you can do your best to avoid these stimuli or expose your dog to the stimuli in small doses. Dogs generally will not accept treats when they are scared but if yours will, giving treats while the scary situation is happening can be a very nice counter-conditioning exercise to help your dog associate the threatening stimuli with something positive. Additionally, a special tightly fitted garment called the ThunderShirt is available in most pet stores to help dogs feel calmer during thunderstorms and has proven quite successful.
Generalized anxiety disorder
A disorder often diagnosed in humans—generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)—is also a well-known problem for our canine friends. Unlike dogs with separation anxiety or anxiety around certain stimuli, dogs with generalized anxiety tend to show signs of anxiety regardless of the circumstance.
If your dog has generalized anxiety disorder, they may display stress behaviours like pacing, tail tucking, panting, drooling or licking when there is seemingly nothing stressful going on. These dogs are predisposed to anxiety, so they are likely to experience the above types of anxiety as well. Treatment varies depending on the severity of a dog’s GAD.
Treatment Options for GAD
There are a variety of supplements and natural options to try if your dog has mild anxiety. These include calming sprays such as Naturvet Quiet Moments Herbal Calming Dog Spray, which imitate a dog’s natural calming pheromones, or treats like True Hemp Calming Chews. For moderate to severe anxiety, a trainer or behaviourist should be consulted. A trainer will be able to suggest behavioural modification you can use to address your dog’s specific issues, while a certified veterinary behaviourist will do the same with or without the use of anxiety reducing medications. These medications do not change a dog’s personality, but rather aim to increase their threshold for anxiety provoking situations so that they are calm enough for behavioural modification to take place. As in humans, medications may be used in the short or long term.
Canine anxiety is not an easy behavioural problem to manage and requires a fair amount of time and patience. However, if you take the time to increase your dog’s confidence and sense of peace with the world, you will be rewarded with a valuable learning experience that will undoubtedly make your relationship stronger for years to come.
Tess Morgan is a writer and nonprofit professional with a passion for animals. She currently works at a large animal welfare charity and has experience with pets in veterinary practices as well. Tess lives in Vancouver with her husband, a cat named Kitty and a chihuahua miniature pinscher mix named Lily.