8 Tips for Helping an Anxious Dog · The Wildest

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8 Tips for Helping an Anxious Dog

Easy ways to calm your pup’s nerves

by Tiro Miller PhD, SBA
31 October 2023
Pet parent comforting anxious dog by holding their paw
FellowNeko / Adobe Stock

Most humans know how paralysing anxiety can be, but it sometimes feels like the dog world is polarised between people who understand anxious and nervous dogs, and those who don’t. Worse, humans who don’t understand dog anxiety can be dismissive and unkind, not to mention make it difficult for you to navigate the world with your pup by not respecting personal space.

Lately, however, people are coming to realise that completely calm, bombproof dogs are closer to the exception than the rule. Much like humans, many dogs have something they’re not comfortable with, whether it’s alone time, storms, cats or children. This increased awareness has translated into easier tactics. First up, let’s go over typical behaviours of a dog with anxiety or nervousness. 

What are signs of dog anxiety?

Knowing the common signs a dog may exhibit can assist pet parents in figuring out what is causing the anxious or nervous reactions. Here are some symptoms that would indicate a nervous dog:

  • excessive barking and howling

  • excessive whining

  • aggression

  • panting or drooling excessively

  • digging or scratching repetitively

  • depression

  • excessive licking

  • pacing or restlessness

  • compulsive behaviours like unusual chewing

  • urinating or defecating in the house

  • trembling or shaking

When a dog becomes stressed and anxious, oftentimes this distress manifests in symptoms that mimic misbehaviour. If your dog is getting up to some out-of-character mischief, it could indicate the common symptoms of nervousness, and you may be wondering what you can do to help.

Tips on how to reduce dog anxiety

Here are eight ways to make life with your anxious (or nervous) dog better for both of you.

1. Seek out a positive reinforcement dog trainer

In recent years, modern trainers have learned that an overwhelming majority of dogs who lunge at, bark at and fight with other dogs and humans aren’t doing so because they’re ‘dominant’ or because they want to be ‘pack leader’. They’re doing it because they’re scared. A frightened dog, especially one who feels like they can’t escape, will turn to aggression in a ‘get him before he gets me’ defence. Once we know that aggression is rooted in fear, we know to avoid trainers who ‘rehabilitate’ aggressive dogs by dominating them.

Hurting a dog with anxiety doesn’t stop them from being scared, it just makes them shut down. Change the emotion, on the other hand and you’ll change the behaviour. A dog who isn’t scared of other dogs has no need to bark or fight. Find a good dog trainer, ideally one who follows positive reinforcement principles and is certified, and you can work wonders together.

2. Make the dog visible

This might sound like the last thing you want to do with an anxious dog – I’ve certainly spent my share of time hiding around corners and not opening my door until I’ve checked that the coast is clear – but drawing attention to your dog’s anxiety is a good way to tell other people not to approach. Put a yellow ribbon on your dog’s lead, or buy a bandana or harness that says ‘nervous’ and you’re giving people a heads-up without having to yell at them.

3. Muzzle the dog up

If your dog has anxiety about other dogs and is big enough that you could lose control if they lunge, consider a good quality muzzle. A muzzled dog is still seen by most people as a dangerous dog, which can lead to some unpleasantness for the owner, but thankfully more and more people are seeing that a muzzle is a sign of a responsible owner and a safe dog. By making those with aggressive dogs feel safer, muzzles allow both people and dogs to get more enjoyment from being outside.

4. Consider changing your vet

While some vets are great with nervous and aggressive dogs, others are still very old school; they don’t listen to owners and use invasive and rough handling. There are, however, new techniques out there for vets dealing with anxious dogs. Dr Sophia Yin developed a programme for vets that focuses on low-stress handling, which can make a huge difference in your dog’s anxiety levels.

5. Learn your dog’s body language

Your dog constantly communicates how they’re feeling, and the better you understand what they’re saying, the easier it can be to avoid stressful situations. Something that was fine for them last week might be too much for them to cope with today due to a phenomenon called ‘trigger stacking’ (an increase in dog anxiety-related behaviours caused by them experiencing repeated stressful events without enough time in between for the associated stress hormones to leave the system). Avoid this by keeping an eye out for signs that tell you how your dog is feeling.

6. Consider medication

Many of the same antidepressant medications that millions of humans use have been proven to help dogs with anxiety have the confidence to try new behaviours. A conversation with your vet is the first step on this route. Your vet can recommend medication if necessary and might be able to advise on a behaviourist. Making the decision to try medical intervention can seem like a big step, but there is a lot of specialist information designed to make it easier.

There are also numerous over-the-counter pills and products marketed to help anxious dogs, but be careful if you choose to experiment with them. Most calming supplements haven’t been tested, and evidence for the ones that have been is sketchy at best. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, but do remember that treatment has its own kind of placebo effect.

7. Find a shared interest

It’s OK to be disappointed that your dog doesn’t want to go to the park, do agility courses or sit outside at a café; try focusing on what you can do together instead. Set up indoor obstacle courses, go on quieter woodland hikes, take nose-work classes or just chill at home. Don’t try to force your dog to be the dog you wanted. In the end, you’re likely to make their problems worse, not to mention strain your relationship.

8. Know your limits

If you’re really out of your depth, or your dog represents a serious danger to you or your children, it’s okay to consider rehoming. Training and medications are expensive, and anxious dogs often require a lifetime commitment. In some cases, it’s safer for you and better for the dog to find a new home where they can get what they need if you don’t have the resources or the situation to provide it. You’re not a bad person or a failure – you’re making the wisest, kindest choice in the circumstances.

Jesse Miller

Tiro Miller PhD, SBA

Tiro Miller, PhD, is managing editor of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants’ online journal, volunteers at the San Francisco SPCA.

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