Tackling Dog Anxiety: Common Causes and Potential Solutions

What to do About Dog AnxietyAccording to animal behaviorists, up to 40 percent of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Other forms of anxiety can affect dogs as well, often leaving their owners at quite a loss on how to help them.

In fact, many dog owners are simply not prepared to handle the concerning behaviors that arise as their pets start to feel anxious. Their dog may howl, whine, and bark constantly or even start to tear up the house to cope with how they are feeling.

Knowing how to help is even more difficult, since there are so many different ways anxiety arises and presents in dogs. But an understanding of all the different forms of anxiety in dogs can help. With this information, you can pinpoint the cause of the anxiety and start working toward a solution. Use this guide to get started.

Symptoms of Dog Anxiety

Although there are many different types of anxiety in dogs, they all share similar symptoms. Dogs with anxiety may:

  • Pace back and forth
  • Turn in circles or constantly chase their tail
  • Drool and shake
  • Have difficulty breathing
  • Howl and bark incessantly
  • Hide from everything and everyone
  • Chew up furniture and other belongings
  • Scratch flooring and doors
  • Run from loud noises
  • Shy away from certain objects
  • Exhibit aggressive behavior, like growling and even biting

In an effort to deal with their anxious feelings, dogs often display displacement behaviors as well. They may itch themselves a lot or yawn constantly, trying to shift how they are feeling in the moment. They may also walk around sniffing the floor or run from window to window trying to distract themselves.

The symptoms of anxiety vary considerable from dog to dog and depend on the underlying causes. Running from loud noises and shying away from certain objects, for example, is usually rooted in fear-related anxiety rather than the other types.

Getting down to the root of the problem is key in resolving the anxiety and helping dogs live without worry. With an understanding of what causes their distress, dog owners can find a way to relieve the anxiety and banish the symptoms altogether.

With fear-related anxiety, dogs often act nervous in specific situations or around certain items. They only exhibit the symptoms of anxiety in those particular circumstances and otherwise act completely normal.

Their anxiety may arise during:

  • Thunderstorms
  • Firework shows
  • Car rides
  • Visits to brand-new places
  • Encounters with strange objects

Almost anything can cause dogs to have a fear response, especially if they have not been properly acclimated to the situation or item in question. Some dogs react in extreme fear upon simply seeing plastic bags rattling in the wind, for example, causing them to grow increasingly wary of that item.

Owners must pinpoint the exact cause of their dog’s fears to have a chance at reducing or eliminating their anxiety. Without that information, they may not be able to work with their dog and help them through this trying problem.

Causes

A little bit of fear and wariness is normal as dogs encounter new situations throughout life. Owners need to gently work their dogs through the fears to keep the elevated levels of concern from becoming ingrained. While doing so, they must not baby their dog or act overly concerned. Otherwise, their dog will pick up on those emotions, which reinforces their fears.

Fear-related anxiety in dogs may also start in response to being forced through the distressing situation. Dogs need to take the time to investigate the scene or item before them to cope with their fears in a healthy manner. If they are forced through the area before they get a chance to do so, their fears may get worse and stick with them, causing anxiety in similar situations.

Genetics

Any breed of dog can develop anxiety, though some carry a higher risk if left to their own devices far too often. Border collies, greyhounds, and similar breeds, for example, are prone to being wary of new situations and developing fear-based anxiety. Any amount of training and conditioning will not reverse a dog’s predisposition to being fearful. Owners can only work to mitigate the effects and help their dog approach life with curiosity instead of fear.

Upbringing

The way dogs are raised through puppyhood and beyond also has an impact on their potential to develop fear-based anxiety. Puppies need to be socialized and brought out into the world quite often to develop a calm disposition in new situations. Depriving them of new experiences and social interactions before 14 weeks of age can leave them fearful for life.

Even dogs with a genetic tendency to be fearful or did not have the best upbringing can overcome their fears with help from their owners. You do have to pinpoint the exact cause of your pet’s distress to start working toward the right solutions, however.

To do so, reflect on how the dog behaves in different situations and make a list of the things that set off their anxious response. Then, try to find a common thread between the items on the list, creating a path toward an ideal solution.

Solutions

There are many solutions to try in eliminating your dog’s fears and reducing fear-based anxiety. Not all solutions will work for all dogs, so it will take some trial and error to get right. Before getting started, it is important to understand what not to do while dealing with a fearful dog. For example, never:

  • Comfort a dog showing signs of fear as this only serves to confirm their feelings
  • Force a dog to encounter the object or situation causing them to be fearful
  • Overwhelm a stressed dog by forcing them to work on their fears in that moment

Instead, it is important to set dogs up for success in learning about the world and facing their fears. Be sure to accurately gauge your dog’s distress levels through each training session, for example, to keep things positive. Also, aim to end on a high note and reward lavishly for a job well done.

Exposure Exercises

For dealing with fear-related anxiety, exposure exercises often work the best. Always work in a controlled environment. This allows the dog to work without distractions and help keep triggers from disrupting the training, which could derail all the progress.

To complete targeted exposure exercises, start with the stressors causing the least problems, then work up to the more challenging ones. If the dog is mildly afraid of strollers, place an empty stroller across the room and invite your dog to check it out. Do not move the object closer or cause it to shift position in any way.

As your dog’s body language loosens up and they approach the object on their own, provide plenty of praise and treats. If they will not approach on their own, slowly move the stroller an inch closer at a time, encouraging them to push their comfort levels to the limit without getting overwhelmed.

Keep the training sessions short, ending after 5 to 10 minutes of working with the object. End on a positive note to associate good feelings with the training sessions. This will help the dog approach the training with confidence and enthusiasm, replacing the fearful feelings they had before.

Advanced Outings

Once the dog stops showing a fear response to the situation or item in question, the next stage of training will revolve around taking outings to reinforce prior lessons learned. Ideally, the outings would give the dog a chance to encounter their triggers in an uncontrolled environment.

Take the process just as slow as before, as if no progress had been made at all. If possible, simply follow the dog’s lead in encountering the items or situations, providing support along the way. Provide praise and big rewards as the dog reacts calmly to the stimuli, which helps reinforce those positive feelings and keeps fear at bay.

Repeat the exposure exercises and outings for each distressing item or situation to effectively dismantle all the dog’s fears and build confidence.

Separation Anxiety

Dog Experiencing Separation AnxietyWith up to 40 percent of dogs having separation anxiety, there is a pretty big chance your own dog has this issue. Separation anxiety occurs each and every time the dog is left alone in the house, car, or another location — not just occasionally.

Their response to being left alone is usually quite dramatic. They may:

  • Bark and howl without so much as pausing to take a breath
  • Rip furniture to shreds using their teeth and claws
  • Have accidents indoors when they are normally house-trained
  • Drooling and pacing, creating a mess all over the floor

Crating rarely helps either, as dogs with separation anxiety will go as far as hurting themselves to get out.

Since dogs are so smart, they may even start these behaviors as their household members begin getting ready to leave. The dog’s owner putting on a jacket or grabbing the house keys, for example, may trigger the dog’s anxious feelings and cause the behaviors to begin.

Causes

Dogs can develop separation anxiety for many different reasons, and some are often outside of their owners’ control. By determining why your dog is anxious, you can better understand their challenges and patiently find a solution. Here’s a look at the most common causes of separation anxiety in dogs.

Abandonment

When dogs are shifted between households, especially when a trip to the shelter occurs in between, they experience feelings of abandonment. When this happens, dogs may desperately try to keep this situation from happening again by sticking by their owner’s side at all times.

When they are left alone, they may feel like they are being abandoned all over again, causing them to act out as their anxiety grows worse. They may then engage in destructive behaviors, which help them cope with those strong feelings and occupy them until their owners arrive back home.

Household Changes

Household changes, like a divorce, new baby, or move across town, can also cause dogs to develop separation anxiety. These big changes often result in household shifts dogs do not understand. Their stress levels and anxious feelings increase as a result, leaving them unable to properly cope with the changes.

Dogs may respond by getting clingy and wanting to remain right by the side of their owner and other household members. When everyone leaves for the day to go to school or work, the dog may be unsure if that change is permanent or not, leaving them feeling stressed. In order to cope, they will likely start tearing up the place or exhibiting other destructive behaviors until everyone returns home for the day.

Lack of Exercise

According a study on canine behavior, a lack of physical activity may also contribute to the development of separation anxiety. The anxious behaviors may arise in dogs who have too much pent-up energy and no way to expel it. They may seem frantic for their owners to get home because they need to go out and play or have a job to do.

Unless they get the exercise they need, these dogs may start to make up their own things to do, which are often quite destructive. They may also bowl over their family members as they come in the door in hopes they will have a chance to run and play. These behaviors will often become a bad habit unless promptly resolved, causing additional problems in the long run.

Pinpointing the cause of separation anxiety in dogs is helpful, but not absolutely necessary in resolving the problem. No matter the cause, you will use the same steps to help your dog overcome this problem and stop feeling anxious while you are away.

Solutions

Before working on the separation anxiety itself, verify the dog is getting enough exercise every day. Depending on their breed, size, and activity levels, dogs need between 30 minutes to two hours of physical activity a day to stay happy and healthy. Small dogs, like Pomeranians, may only need 30 minutes, while working dogs, like Boxers, need the full two hours. Reflect on the dog’s exact needs and ensure they get enough time training and playing to start resolving their anxiety.

Crate training can help some dogs, but others feel panicky in there while their family is out of the house. Despite that, it is worth seeing if using a crate might help the problem before going through the training steps. Only introduce the dog to the crate while people are at home, taking separation out of the equation for now. Make the crate a positive space by giving you dog special toys and treats to enjoy there.

Whether the crate works out or not, you will still need to help your dog get over their feelings of separation anxiety to overcome this problem in full.

To accomplish this goal, just follow these steps:

  • Place the dog in the crate or a secure room with all their favorite belongings
  • Maintain a calm demeanor and let your dog know you will be back soon
  • Leave the room for only a few seconds to start, then gradually increase the time
  • Come back in the room and reward your dog for being calm and quiet

You will need to repeatedly go through these training steps, increasing the time each round. Only work on this skill a few rounds at a time and always end on a positive note. Give your dog plenty of praise and attention at the end of the training to further soothe their fears and help them feel less anxious.

Once you have trained your dog to be quiet while you are gone, help them look forward to your absence by always providing a special treat when you are leaving for the day. You can freeze wet food, kibble, and treats in a KONG toy, for example, creating a treat they will enjoy for hours to come. That way, the dog will look forward to everyone leaving, so they can have their treat rather than feel anxious.

Both advanced age and pain can cause dogs to experience intense waves of anxiety in new and familiar situations. This can cause a happy-go-lucky dog to have quite a dramatic shift in their behavior. They may appear more fearful in normal situations and outright refuse to cooperate in unfamiliar scenarios.

If your dog’s behavior suddenly changes and they start having anxiety out of the blue, it is time to see a vet. The veterinarian will assess the dog for common ailments and evaluate their behavior. Through their exam, they can usually pinpoint just what is bothering your dog and help find ways to deal with their anxiety.

Causes

As dogs age, their physical and mental health often declines, causing intense anxiety to develop. Existing health problems, like diabetes, can complicate matters, especially if they cause pain. Painful conditions can even cause younger dogs to have anxiety. Dogs cannot adequately voice their concerns, so a visit to a vet is necessary in finding out just what is wrong.

Physical Pain

At the visit, your dog will receive a full checkup, which allows the vet to diagnose any underlying conditions potentially causing the anxiety symptoms to arise. They will look for physical signs and likely perform some tests to make an accurate diagnosis.

Painful health conditions linked to anxiety in dogs includes:

  • Arthritis
  • Tooth abscess
  • Gum disease
  • Ear infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis

When dogs are in pain, they may feel anxious about being touched or left alone for long periods of time. Also, they likely do not understand why they are feeling so bad, resulting in worsening anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive Decline

Dogs can also suffer from cognitive decline as they age, causing anxiety to grow worse and worse over time. In fact, like humans, dogs can develop dementia at an advanced age, though it is called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

The symptoms of cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs may include:

  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Odd reactions to normal situations
  • Weakness
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Potty accidents

They may also start to act out when left alone for any length of time, despite the absence of separation anxiety in prior years.

Loss of Sight and Hearing

When dogs lose their sight or hearing, anxiety tends to arise as they work on navigating their environment. Blind dogs may feel nervous if they cannot make it through the house without bumping into walls or are unable to find their family members with ease. Deaf dogs can experience anxiety if they are approached without warning, or feel like they cannot participate in being part of the family as they did before.

There are many different things to consider in finding the cause of age or health-related anxiety in dogs. A vet can help find the cause and identify solutions to help your dog recover or to cope with the changes.

Solutions

Whether physical and mental health conditions contribute to the anxiety, your dog will need care from a vet to recover. In some cases, treatment can help alleviate the symptoms of the condition and the underlying anxiety. In others, vets may only be able to offer minimal support. Going through the diagnostic process and discussing the treatment options is the only way to find out, however.

In addition to treatment for the diagnosed condition, vets may suggest using anti-anxiety supplements or medications to relieve the dog’s symptoms. The anti-anxiety compounds can help take the edge off their distress, but will likely not fully fix the problem.

Thankfully, there are also some things you can do to relieve your old, ill, or injured dog’s anxiety, including:

  • Offering comforting words in a low, calm voice
  • Avoiding touching their painful areas
  • Providing a security blanket or toy for support
  • Leaving the TV or radio on when leaving the house

If your dog is experiencing high anxiety levels because of blindness, then getting them a sighted companion might help. The sighted dog will offer direction and support to the blind dog, helping them navigate their life without difficulty. Just make sure the companion is not too exuberant to have the greatest effect.

Deaf dogs, on the other hand, may need retraining with hand signals to calm their anxieties and help them cope with the changes. They also need their owners to approach them from the front only and avoid touching them without showing their presence first.

Whether your dog is ill, injured, or just getting older, it is important to eliminate hazards in the home as well. If they are having hip pain, for example, consider using secure mats on bare floors to improve their grip. Also, consider moving their food and rest spots to easily accessible areas of the house.

Training to Help Dogs with Anxiety

Training Dog to Help With AnxietyNo matter the cause, dogs with anxiety benefit from targeted training sessions. These sessions can help them develop strong coping skills and an understanding of what is expected. The training sessions need to be completed on a regular basis and reinforced in daily life to effectively reduce anxiety.

A skilled trainer can help you tackle this process and give you confidence you are taking the right steps. You can then use their guidance to practice the skills at home and help your dog become resilient in the face of stress. They will introduce ways to halt the destructive behavior and replace those actions with healthier alternatives. Trainers can also help in learning about how to gauge canine body language. This will help owners learn when to remove dogs from stressful situations before they become reactive.

Dog trainers skilled in relieving canine anxiety tend to use positive reinforcement techniques over rehabilitative training. Through positive reinforcement, they can help dogs reframe the situation so it does not cause anxiety levels to surge upward.

While helping dogs feel less anxious about outings, for example, they may follow these steps:

  • Put the dog on a leash and grab treats
  • Go outside in the yard while gauging their reaction
  • Praise and reward for calm behavior while outdoors

Once they have the dog desensitized to just going outside, they can slowly move outside the boundaries of the yard. They move just a few feet at a time, helping the dog cope with the change without feeling overwhelmed. When the dog acts calmly while facing their key stressors, trainers praise big and offer plenty of rewards to reinforce the wanted behavior.

Trainers adjust their approach for every behavior, of course, providing dogs with the support they need to feel less anxious over time. For dogs with problems with nervous chewing, trainers may task owners with replacing the item in question with a suitable chew toy, then offering praise and rewards.

As these trainers help you address each of your dog’s problem behaviors, they also assist in reducing the anxiety your dog feels. When dogs know their place in the household and how to act, they feel less stressed and nervous, helping them stay calm more often than not.

What to Give Dogs for Anxiety

When all else fails, or you need a prompt solution in a moment of stress, supplements and medications can help reduce anxiety symptoms in dogs. But always check with your vet before giving dogs anything, even if it is a natural herb or over-the-counter medication.

Upon finding something that works, give it to your dog as indicated by the vet to keep anxiety at bay. There are many options, however, so it might take some trial and error to find the best one for your dog.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Certain over-the-counter medications, like Benadryl, are relatively safe for dogs to take for anxiety. Always check with a vet first, however, to acquire the right dosing information and other considerations for your dog’s exact needs.

Benadryl is made using diphenhydramine HCL, which is an antihistamine commonly used for treating allergies in people and dogs. This active ingredient blocks histamines from reaching receptors in the brain, which trigger a reaction. Benadryl is also helpful in stopping anxiety in its tracks by calming the mind and body through its sedative effects. Dogs often feel a bit drowsy after taking this medication, allowing them to rest through the anxious feelings rather than act out to cope.

This medication should never be given to dogs with certain health conditions, like angle closure glaucoma and seizure disorders. So, make sure to check with a veterinarian to confirm this medication will benefit your dog before administering the first dose.

Dosage Considerations

As with any over-the-counter or prescribed medications, dosages matter to achieve the intended effects without causing harm. According to the Merck Manual for veterinarians, Benadryl is normally given at a rate of two to four milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The actual dosage your dog needs for anxiety may differ, however, depending on their symptoms and health considerations.

Always avoid time-release formulas, as they can break open during administration, causing an overdose. Also, pay close attention to the dosing differences between the various types of Benadryl. The pill and liquid form of this medication, for example, have different dosages to follow, so listen carefully to the vet’s advice and do not substitute for their recommendations.

Potential Side Effects

As with any medication, Benadryl can potentially cause minor to severe side effects, such as:

  • Fast heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Retention of urine
  • Sedative effects
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These side effects tend to arise within an hour of giving the medication. Watch your dog during this time and report any side effects to your vet. With their help, you can weigh the risks and benefits and decide if this medication is best for your dog.

Herbal Supplements, Vitamins and Natural Remedies

Supplements, Vitamins, and Natural Remedies to Help With Dog AnxietyIf something with fewer potential side effects is needed, consider herbal supplements, vitamins, and other natural remedies. There are many helpful compounds available to treat anxiety in dogs or at least minimize their symptoms. Here are several options to consider.

Chamomile

Just like with people, dogs can greatly benefit from ingesting chamomile to deal with anxiety. Active compounds in this herb, such as apigenin, help calm the mind and body, increasing resilience against stress. The herb has a mild sedative effect as well, giving dogs a chance to relax and let stress slip away.

Since dogs are not likely to comply in drinking chamomile tea, it is usually ideal to acquire this herb in a glycerin-based tincture. The most common dosage is one milliliter per 30 pounds of body weight, though checking with a vet is best to find the perfect dose for your dog.

Valerian

Valerian root is another herbal supplement and can help dogs feel much less anxious. This herb acts as a mild sedative and calming agent, which can be used as needed to treat canine anxiety. Dogs tend to get rather sleepy after ingesting this root, helping them avoid feeling anxious and becoming reactive.

Look for this supplement in tinctures, capsules, or chewable tablets and reflect on which one will be easiest to administer to your dog. Include your vet on finding the right dosage, as it can vary considerably from dog to dog and differs according to the selected formula.

CBD Oil

Using CBD oil taps into the natural endocannabinoid system in the brain, helping control anxiety at the source. The cannabinoid receptors in the brain attract the CBD compounds, which stimulate the production of serotonin. This helps stabilize moods and reduce anxious feelings in dogs and humans alike.

For the best results, only acquire CBD oil made using full-spectrum hemp and labeled for use in dogs. Dosage instructions are included on the bottle, but it is best to check with a vet to confirm they are correct.

Bach Flower Rescue Remedy

Doctor Edward Bach came up with a unique blend of flower essences to help relieve anxiety symptoms. Using this information, he created Bach Flower Rescue Remedy for dogs, cats, and other animals.

Many different flower compounds are featured in this remedy, including:

  • Clematis
  • Rock rose
  • Impatiens

By putting just a couple drops of the remedy in the dog’s drinking water, you can reduce their anxiety considerably. This mixture can be used daily without risk of side effects, making it a great choice for dogs who are always anxious.

Veterinarians can provide even more natural supplements, vitamins, and other remedies to use for anxious dogs. Like the other solutions, trial and error is usually required to find something that works for each dog’s symptoms.

Prescription Medication

When anxiety is too intense, dogs have trouble focusing on training designed to help relieve their symptoms. They may also find little to no relief from other remedies. Their symptoms must be eliminated to set them up for success in training and daily life.

To accomplish this goal, veterinarians may need to prescribe anti-anxiety medication for your dog. These medications rapidly relieve the anxious feelings, keeping dogs from feeling overwhelmed and becoming reactive.

They have many different medications to choose from in treating this disorder, including:

  • Amitriptyline
  • Lorazepam
  • Alprazolam
  • Diazepam
  • Fluoxetine

They will use the dog’s medical history and symptoms to pinpoint the ideal prescription medication and dosage. The cause of the anxiety will also come into play, as some medications are better than others for certain purposes.

Alprazolam, for example, provides quick relief from intense anxiety caused by prolonged loud noises, such as fireworks shows and thunderstorms, or other temporary stressors. It is normally given on an as-needed basis rather than relied on for everyday general anxiety. The calming, sedative effects kick in right away and eliminate anxiety symptoms altogether.

Amitriptyline, on the other hand, can be taken daily at a low dose to keep general anxiety from arising. This medication cannot be given in the moment to reduce anxiety, however. Instead, it provides long-term support by increasing the production of serotonin in the brain. Dogs with separation anxiety benefit more from this medication than a fast-acting one, as it reduces anxious feelings across the board.

Once dogs are on a prescription medication to effectively control their anxiety, owners can use training and other methods to work through behavioral issues. Some dogs are able to stop the medication once their behavioral issues are under control, while others may stay on it for life.

Vets will provide guidance and support in finding the best medications and methods in treating your dog’s anxiety. Remember to schedule regular checkups even if the medication has your dog’s anxiety under control.

Talk to Your Vet

Talking to Your Vet to Help Dog With AnxietyWhen dogs feel anxious, they look to their owners to figure it all out and provide the relief they seek. Otherwise, they will simply continue the destructive behaviors as a way to cope with how they are feeling. Thankfully, all it takes is a little reflection on why your dog is feeling anxious to start finding some solutions.

Through trial and error, you can find the solutions that work best for their anxiety symptoms. Your efforts will go a long way in helping decrease your dog’s distress and improve their quality of life. Your quality of life will likely improve as well as you eliminate your dog’s problematic behaviors. So, take the time to speak with your vet and pinpoint the cause of your dog’s anxiety to get started today.