Subtle Signs of Dog Anxiety and How to Ease Stress
It’s frustrating, you’re walking your dog, and he stops, looking at everything but you. He won’t move, no matter what you do. Or, perhaps, you invite a large group of friends over to meet your puppy, but he squirms and nips so much that your guests leave, annoyed. Nothing you’ve tried fixes your dog’s stubborn, dominant behavior.
That’s because your dog isn’t trying to control you, he’s struggling with anxiety.
How to Prevent Anxiety
Even though the above situations are common in our everyday life, they are overwhelming for many dogs. So, how do you acclimate your dog to accept normal, day-to-day activities, without anxiety?
Let’s first think about puppies, because who doesn’t love puppies? While puppies aren’t behavioral blank slates, you have endless socialization opportunities to prevent anxiety. However, most new pet parents think socialization is taking their puppy to a loud festival or crowded dog park. Unfortunately, in those two environments, there may be too many new people, dogs, smells, and sights that your puppy will freak out rather than enthusiastically accept lots of people or dogs.
A better anxiety prevention strategy would be to grab some treats and have a friend wear a large hat while you reward your puppy for happy, social behavior. Then, and only if the puppy remains wiggly and engaged, ask a second friend to wear sunglasses as puppies are often nervous when they can’t see a person’s eyes. After a few repetitions, even if your puppy is super excited to meet more new people wearing novel gear, stop the training session.
Why would you stop if your puppy is doing well? Most people continue to push new experiences on their puppy then, it becomes too much stimuli and their puppy stops responding or has an adverse reaction (which could last a lifetime).
Now, let’s consider a walk. Your rescue dog was never socialized to sirens, airplanes, garbage trucks, lawn mowers, kids laughing, other dogs barking, and much more, and the instant your neighbor turns on the snow blower, he lays on the ground. He won’t even walk to go home.
You have to consider that dogs with a typical range of hearing have three times more muscles in their ears as we humans do and can pick up sounds four times the distance that we can. Think of the loudest event you’ve ever attended and how, if you couldn’t escape and didn’t know when the racket would end, how paralyzed or worried you’d become.
So, pay attention to your dog’s subtle body language cues to help him better navigate your world. And if your rescue dog is nervous just stepping outside of your house because the sounds are too stressful, then make a plan to train him to like your neighborhood noise.
Put your dog’s leash on, open the door for two seconds so he can hear the sounds, but he’s still in his safe space. Reward him for any behavior that shows he’s trying to be brave like taking a step towards the door, sniffing the air in the direction of the sounds, or a relaxed body posture. Then, shut the door and put your treats away before your dog retreats.
While you’re training your puppy and you need to take him outside, it helps to use the most amazing treats (and save them for outside outings) like hot dogs or cheese stuffed in a rubber toy.
Watch Your Dog, Help Your Dog
Trainers use the term “under threshold” when your dog is capable of coping with his surroundings and more likely to walk or interact with new people. The goal, during training sessions, is always to keep your dog in that state of mind.
However, as he begins to exhibit slight stress signs, it’s important to give him space from uncomfortable situations. You can also practice “touch” or “find” (only if you’ve also practiced in non-stressful situations), gently massage your dog’s shoulder, or reward him for any voluntary eye contact. If you redirect and reward his behavior before he’s frozen in fear, you’ll not only make life easier for you, but you’ll be teaching him what you want—bravery.
Subtle body language indicating your dog is growing anxious:
- Warily looking around
- Rapidly twitching eyebrows
- Excessive sniffing or eating grass
- Shaking, yawning, or lip licking
- Lowering ears
- Suddenly speeding up or slowing down
- Moving closer to a wall or fence
- Nonchalantly walking away from people or other dogs
Remember, your dog gives you the courtesy of trying to understand how you communicate. If you pay closer attention to the above subtle signs that indicate your dog is feeling uncomfortable, you can better pinpoint if, for instance, the sight of other dogs triggers your dog’s stress. Then, the next time you’re on a walk, even if you see another dog two blocks away, reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior. And, never give your dog treats when another dog is close, food is a highly valued resource and can cause a scuffle.
Tips to Reduce Anxiety
Here are three more ways to help reduce your dog’s anxiety:
1. Desensitization: By introducing sights or sounds that cause your dog stress (in smaller, quieter doses) and pairing them with high-value rewards, you can actually change your dog’s underlying emotional response to a previously scary trigger. Let’s use the example of sirens. During a quiet time of day in your house, pull out your smartphone and turn the volume down (almost to silent mode). Next, play a siren sound for 5-10 seconds. Reward your dog for maintaining relaxed and calm. Then, repeat a few times. If your dog happily accepts the sound, slowly increase the volume each week. Always end training sessions on a positive note. If your dog trembles or hides, you likely turned the volume up too loud, too quickly.
2. Confidence building games: Some dogs accept anxiety-inducing situations better when given simple tasks like “touch” (your dog touches his nose to your hand) and “find” (dropping his head towards the ground.) If you practice these behaviors in safe settings, like your living room, for a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to use these exercises when you need to encourage your dog to keep moving or to redirect his attention away from scary stimuli.
3. Safe space training: If your dog is anxious at home, create a special area just for him and teach him “bed.” To put the behavior on cue, lure your dog to his bed while cueing “bed” or say “bed” as he’s naturally walking there. Practice this task without guests (at first), so your dog understands what you want. Once he’s walking to his bed on cue, reward him for staying in his bed until you cue “free.” It’s vital to practice “bed” in non-anxious moments. Please also make sure your dog’s bed is off limits to whatever is scaring him, to assure it is his safe space.
Include Your Veterinarian
Even if your dog isn’t hiding or shuddering, anxiety can adversely affect his long-term health. Please talk to your veterinarian about her recommendations to help ease his stress while you’re training. There are many great holistic options available to calm your dog without taking away his fun personality that you love.
Canine anxiety manifests in many ways, and it’s not always overt. Watch your dog and, if you see subtle signs of stress, give him space. Then, make a plan to start training him to accept, refocus, or remove himself when anxious.