Dog Anxiety Causes & What Works
Dog anxiety is a real issue for many pet parents who find themselves unable to help their dogs cope with various stressors around the house. Loud storms, new puppies, and changes in normal schedules often lead to behavior problems in dogs. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, there are simple solutions you can implement to help alleviate his stress.
Causes of Dog Anxiety
Any animal behaviorist will tell you that there are many things that can cause anxiety in dogs resulting in a ripple of negative behaviors. And while submissive dogs are more prone to anxiety issues, any dog can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other anxiety issues. Some of the most common issues causing dog anxiety is a stressful event like moving into a new home, getting a new owner, being abandoned at a shelter or on the streets, getting injured, or any other significant routine change.
New Home Anxiety
Dogs are creatures of habit and territory. They mark their territory both on your property and around the neighborhood, giving them a sense of security of where they are and where they sit in the community pack order. Dog owners need to understand that moving to a new home is stressful and there may be an adjustment period for pets. Socializing your dog in the new area quickly helps reduce anxious reactions.
New Owner Anxiety
Getting a new owner doesn’t always happen after spending time in a rescue or at the shelter. Many dog owners will rehome their pets for a variety of reasons such as a new baby in the family, moving, or even the death of an owner. Dogs get attached to their humans and seek reassurance from their pack leader that everything is alright. New people (or pets) in their lives can make the dog anxious due to uncertainty.
Changing humans means a significant disruption to the pack leadership causing confusion and losing a loved one as happens when someone dies can send dogs into depression. Most dogs just need an adjustment period but severe cases require a professional dog trainer, veterinary, or behaviorist to step in and help.
Sadly, millions of dogs are abandoned every year. Some are dropped off at shelters while others are literally kicked to the curb miles from home or in the middle of the wilderness. Dogs bond with their owners and when abandoned, they become confused, depressed, and anxious. Not only do they miss their family, but they must also assess their environment quickly without a pack to help protect them. Walking down any shelter aisle shows you how deep the bonds with their family run.
Traumatic Injuries or Illnesses
Dogs suffering from a serious injury or illness are likely to develop a bigger need for their humans. Whether it is pain and immobility from an accident or an illness such as Cushing’s Disease that results in incontinence, a dog under medical care requires more attention. Think about a well-trained dog who never has an accident in the house suddenly being unable to control his bladder. He will seek out help to be outside more or feel guilty for not being able to hold it.
Aging dogs may also develop anxiety resulting from cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) where they become confused, experience memory loss, and reduced awareness. The end result is stress and anxiety, ultimately with greater dependence on human parents.
Signs of Anxiety
There are many signs of distress and anxiety in dogs for dog owners to be aware of. Since many of the symptoms can be attributed to many different things, it is important for dog owners to know what is common behavior for their dog and what triggers specific symptoms. If in doubt, seek the advice of your veterinarian or professional dog trainer.
The most common signs of anxiety in dogs include:
- Depression: Laying around without any interest in toys and games normally loved.
- Excessive barking and howling: Nonstop barking when you leave the house even for short periods of time.
- Aggression: Nipping or biting other dogs, animals, or people and takes an aggressive posture when triggered.
- Housetraining accidents: Urine or defecation accidents in the house when already housetrained.
- Drooling: Excessive salivation under stressful circumstances when not a breed that normally drools.
- Destructive behavior: Chews and scratches through human clothing, furniture, windows, doors, and walls.
- Pacing: Unable to settle down and relax, constantly on patrol in the house or on the property.
- Restlessness: Unable to sit or lay and relax, consumed by anxious behavior wandering the house or constantly checking in with humans.
These symptoms are often set off by very specific triggers. Understanding what is causing your dog’s anxiety is critical to finding the right solution. If you are unsure what the root cause is, take your pet to the veterinarian to rule out medical issues or talk to a trainer to help you solve the problem.
Dog Anxiety Triggers
Once a pet has developed anxiety issues (maybe even an anxiety disorder), there are some common triggers to be aware of that include being left alone for long periods of time, loud noises such as thunder or fireworks, getting in the car, or other people or animals.
Dog separation anxiety is a common condition resulting from stress and fear of being left alone for extended periods of time. It can start with puppies but even older dogs can develop separation anxiety after a traumatic event. When a pet with separation anxiety is left home alone, he will often bark, howl, scratch at doors and windows, or have house-soiling accidents. Owners often come home to complaining neighbors, destroyed furniture, and accidents to clean.
Severe separation anxiety is a bigger problem than barking and house soiling. A dog suffering separation anxiety disorder may harm himself in an effort to escape and find his human.
Fireworks or thunder sounding close by are enough to make even the most alpha dog feel anxious. Not only does the sudden boom strike panic, but the high-pitch of fireworks also causes pain in many dogs’ ears. If you have ever had a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector’s battery die, you’ll see a similar panic in your dog. Dogs try to get away from the painful and frightening sounds any way they can. This is why the Fourth of July is the day where shelters get flooded with lost dogs; canine ears are not meant for fireworks.
Some dogs love car rides while others associate them with negative things such as the veterinarian or even being abandoned. A dog afraid to get into a car will fight his owner every step of the way, refusing to jump in and going so far as to put his paws on the doors to prevent being placed in a backseat. Car phobias are common. In extreme cases, an anxious dog may even nip or bite his owner. In other cases, dogs may try to jump out of a moving vehicle. Always make sure to transport your pooch securely.
If you have a fearful or anxious dog, putting him in large groups will bring out his skittishness. He may become protective of you, taking an aggressive stance among any other animal or person approaching. On the flip side, he could cower behind you and even have a submissive urination accident. Socializing an anxious dog is essential, but don’t just throw him in. It takes time to help him develop the confidence necessary to deal with so much going on.
Methods to Deal with Dog Anxiety
It takes time, patience, and consistency to help an anxious dog build the confidence he needs to deal with most triggering scenarios. Dogs suffering from anxiety need to learn that they are safe in various situations like during a storm or being left alone. There are also some things a dog owner can do to help a pet in the occasional anxiety-causing scenarios such as annual fireworks. Helping your dog through positive reinforcement training helps reduce the onset of phobias of punishment or various triggers.
Here are some methods that work in dealing with dog anxiety:
Professional dog training is a great way to help a dog deal with the fear of loud noises or separation anxiety. You may start with crate training to secure your dog in a safe spot in the house but don’t assume that this will address the entire problem. For separation anxiety, create a routine your dog recognizes as your “leaving routine.” This may include grabbing your keys and a coat. At first, leave for short periods of time, literally a minute or two and return in a nonchalant way. As your dog understands that this routine means that his owner returns, he will be able to handle longer periods of time.
When it comes to loud noises, you can do a similar type of training. This may not solve all loud noise problems, but it certainly has helped more than one dog owner curb the barking dogs make when startled and frightened by loud noises. Expose your dog to loud noises such as pots and pans, rewarding him with a treat for not barking. Add other noises such as horns outside to expose your dog to different sounds.
Silent dog whistles also help curb a barking dog who can then be rewarded with a treat. Use the whistle to grab his attention and then redirect him, rewarding him for not barking.
Under extreme circumstances, your veterinarian may prescribe valium or other prescription sedatives for your dog. However, there are several over-the-counter remedies to consider. Benadryl is an anti-histamine with the side effect of drowsiness in canines. Your veterinarian will help you determine the right dosage for your dog depending on his weight.
There are others who believe in natural remedies including herbal remedies and even CBD oil products for dogs. Herbal remedies such as five flower are known to help take the edge off for dogs with extreme separation anxiety that makes training a little easier. CBD oil has a calming effect (just make sure it doesn’t have more than 0.3 THC to be safe for your dog).
Before giving your dog any medication or supplement, talk to your veterinarian.
The ThunderShirt is a drug-free alternative for dog owners suffering from separation anxiety or a fear of loud noises. It has a calming effect by wrapping the dog in a comfortable shirt helping them feel protected and secure. The ThunderShirt is safe to leave on for extended periods of time. The theory behind the shirt is that the light pressure it puts around the dog’s torso is similar to being held or hugged by his human. The dog feels protected and calms down reducing phobias associated with loud noises and being alone.
Taking the time to socialize your puppy from the start will go far to reducing anxiety issues from creeping in. In fact, socializing dogs of any age helps boost confidence and acceptable behavior. Socialization often starts with taking your puppy or adult dog to neutral locations such as a walk in the neighborhood or to the dog park. Start introducing your dog to others while both are on a leash.
Socialization is one of the most effective ways to prevent dog phobias such as separation anxiety fears from developing. Animal behaviorists know that a dog that understands where he fits in the pack, both canine and human, is better able to handle time by himself or under more stressful circumstances.
Last Thoughts on Dog Anxiety
Whether you have a new puppy, adopted a new dog, or have a dog that experienced a major stressing life event, take the time to be aware of his stress and growing anxiety. Dogs have a keen sense of your emotions and will feel less anxious when they feel your calm demeanor. Work with a dog trainer to learn how to develop routines that reduce stress and build confidence in your dog.
Kimberlee Leonard is a certified pet first aid and CPR instructor. Her company, Safer Family Pets helps families prepared for worst-case scenarios including evacuations during natural disasters. She enjoys time with her beagle mix, Arky who enjoys “sit-walks” where he sits more than walks, enjoying the fresh mountain air.