For many dog owners, symptoms of anxiety among their canine companions can be a source of stress, frustration, and concern. Often triggered by certain stimuli, an anxious dog may react in a number of ways, from aggression to depression to compulsive behaviors, and a number of symptoms in between. Luckily, spotting anxious behavior is fairly easily done by trained professionals, and help is available to all who seek it. Helping a dog with anxiety is not always the easiest task, but for many, structure, routine, and reassurance is what's needed to keep anxiety symptoms from interfering with daily life.
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What is anxiety?
Before you can begin treating your dog's anxiety, it may help to understand just what is triggering her anxious feelings and reactions. According to the American Kennel Club, anxiety in dogs is typically triggered by three things: fear, separation, or old age. Anxiety caused by fear can stem from anything stimulating, be it physical or visual, which can include a number of things like cars, crowded sidewalks, hats, a ride in the car, and unfamiliar animals or people, to name a few. Separation anxiety occurs when dogs are left alone or are away from their owners for any period of time and often results in bouts of whining, barking, and destruction of property.
Additionally, some aging dogs may display symptoms of anxiety which are often compared to symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in people, thanks to cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This ailment can affect a dogs ability to perceive the world around them and remember basic things, which can lead to frustration and anxiety for some.
Tools to help with anxiety
Anxiety may be difficult to deal with at times, and for an anxious dog, not much feels worse than the uneasy and inexplicable feeling that comes with it. Fortunately, there are tools available to help anxious dogs and their dog owners live with anxiety. While the degree of anxiety will vary from dog to dog, certain measures can alleviate stress in dogs, from preventative measures to calming techniques. Start with lots of regular exercise, quality food, and basic training to keep your dog in a routine designed to help him thrive.
The exact measurements and activities contained within your dog's wellness plan will depend on your dog and his specific anxieties, but the idea is to build as much confidence as possible to help him navigate potentially triggering situations. Socializing with other dogs and people is a great way to develop healthy associations with possible triggers, and ideal behavior, like overcoming a fear, should be encouraged and rewarded. If your dog has separation anxiety when you are away, creating a predictable schedule to the best of your ability may help him overcome his irrational fears. If it's possible for you, having a dog walker pop in for a mid-day walk can provide a break for him to look forward to, and may help alleviate pent-up anxious energy that sometimes leads to destruction inside the home.
For some dogs, physical comfort in the form of light pressure on their bodies can alleviate anxiety, which is exactly the science behind the Thundershirt. Thundershirts have been known to assist dogs triggered by audible stimuli like fireworks, thunder, and other loud noises, and have resulted in decreased heart rate and overall anxiety score, as measured in one 2017 study. Dogs with chronic anxiety may benefit from herbal supplements like CBD oil, which has become a common and popular fix many people rely on to help their anxious dogs. A natural compound derived from hemp, CBD is a great alternative to pharmaceutical options like Prozac or other medications, and often offers quick relief of anxiety symptoms. Because not every dog will have a positive reaction to CBD, however, it's important to only administer it under the care and guidance of a veterinarian, and discontinue use if you witness adverse effects, like increased anxiety.
What not to do
While determining what to do to help your anxious dog may require a little trial and error, there are a couple of things you should absolutely steer clear of, or risk making your dog's anxiety worse. One behavior to avoid is reassuring her during anxiety attacks, which could be mistaken as a positive reinforcement. On the other hand, you absolutely should not punish your dog while she is anxious either, as that can lead to more fear, uncertainty, and even trauma. Encouraging your dog to remain calm in stressful situations is a good way to build healthy bonds between the two of you, but rewarding her with treats or praise amid an anxious episode, or yelling at her or banishing her to a crate can be terribly confusing. Patience and practice is the name of the game when it comes to helping a dog through her anxiety.