Is your furry friend suffering from dog anxiety, or could it be that they’re simply a little higher strung than the rest? And in terms of their health and quality of life, does the difference really matter?
In this article, we’re going to break down what stress means for dogs, how you can identify it, and what you can do to calm an anxious dog. Your pup may still bounce off the walls every now and again, but with the right care plan, you can give them a more balanced lifestyle overall. And that might just mean more relaxed cuddles and quiet time for you!
What is dog anxiety?
Just like humans, our furry friends have a nervous system response to stress and danger. When exposed to a trigger—whether real or imagined—stress hormones are released in the brain to prepare the body to fight, flee, or freeze. This process happens in seconds and is largely automatic. Your dog may not be in control of their actions during this highly aroused state.
Every once in a while, a healthy dog can experience a stress response without much of a strain on the body. Indeed, whether they live in a bustling city or out in the country, all dogs are bound to experience stress at one point or another. And most will recover in no time.
It’s also important to note that stress hormones are activated in moments of excitement, as well. A 2017 study, for instance, showed that dogs experience an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, when receiving pets from their owners, presumably because they anticipated play.
So, as you can see, stress hormones themselves are not bad. They can protect your dog from danger and even prepare them for a fun game of fetch. The problem, though, is when a dog has difficulty recovering or is in a constant state of arousal or stress. Dogs with heightened levels of stress hormones may suffer from a weakened immune system, digestive problems, and an inability to relax or focus. They may seek out ways to cope with their elevated state of arousal, which can put them at risk for injury while straining their relationship with their owners.
For these reasons, as well as your dog’s general wellbeing, dog anxiety should be considered a neurological problem to be taken seriously.
What are the signs of dog anxiety?
Most dogs will show some of the following symptoms when they’re experiencing a stress response:
- Dilated pupils
- Whale eyes, or exposure of the whites around the eyes
- Yawning and lip licking
- Restlessness and pacing
- Excessive grooming, such as licking and chewing of the paws
- Raised hackles
- Whining, barking and howling
- Nipping or reactive biting
- Cowering and shaking
- Toileting in the house after successful toilet training
If your dog is in a heightened state of arousal or excitement, they’ll likely show the following:
- Dilated pupils
- Inability to calm down or stay still
- Barking and whining
- Biting or mouthing
- Panting or open mouth
- Jumping up or mounting
- Leash reactivity or pulling
- Inability to focus or listen to cues
You can see that there is some overlap here. Remember that hyperarousal and heightened stress are two sides of the same dog anxiety coin! If your dog is showing symptoms from either list multiple times throughout the day, it’s time to start thinking of ways to lower their anxiety levels.
What are the most common triggers for a nervous dog?
In general, dogs tend to experience the same four types of anxiety:
–Separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is very common in dogs, and it’s easy to understand why. Dogs are social animals, and we’ve bred them for hundreds of years to work and live alongside us. So, they’re predisposed to prefer spending time with us. Every puppy and dog should be taught how to be comfortable being alone for reasonable amounts of time; otherwise, they’ll experience a stress response as soon as we are out of their sight.
–Lack of proper socialisation. Socialisation with other dogs, people, animals, and settings is an important process for any puppy or dog. Without proper socialisation, the world can be a scary place! Which can mean that your dog becomes stressed any time they leave the house.
–Overstimulation or flooding. If your dog seems to have a stress response out of nowhere, it’s quite possible that there has been a build-up (or flood) of small stimuli that have boiled over into an all out stress response. Dogs who are prone to overstimulation may struggle on walks, at the dog park, or in public, where the accumulation of sights, sounds, and smells overwhelm their nervous system. Dogs, in this scenario, may not be sure what they’re responding to, which can make them lash out in unexpected ways.
–PTSD. After a traumatic experience, such as living with an abusive or neglectful owner, the death of a family member, or sudden life change, dogs can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Dogs with PTSD may have generalised anxiety as well as panic episodes.
Every dog will have their own unique list of triggers. Some are afraid of the hair dryer. Others go wild when they see a cat. The more time you spend learning about your dog’s anxiety, the better you’ll be at recognising their triggers.
Is dog anxiety medication an option?
Yes! The good news for anxious dogs is that there are clinical treatments available.
From a health perspective, treating a nervous dog with anti-anxiety medication can ensure that they’re not suffering from some of the health risks associated with heightened stress hormones. With better sleep, improved digestion, and less stress on the cardiovascular system, your dog can live a healthier life, overall.
But there’s another reason why anxiety medication for dogs can be so useful: it can help with the desensitisation process. Training your dog to be calmer includes rewiring their nervous system to respond differently to their triggers. And that can be much easier with the use of anxiety medication as it helps your dog to access an open, learning state of mind.
Talk to your vet about whether anxiety medication or supplements may be right for your pet. And when you are ready to order your prescription, Pet Chemist can have it delivered to your home so that your pup can start feeling better in no time!
Are there non-medical dog anxiety treatment options that can help a nervous dog?
Aside from or in conjunction with anxiety medication, there are many interventions that you can try to lower your dog’s reactivity to stressful or exciting triggers. Here are a few ideas:
- Work on desensitisation. By exposing your dog to their trigger at a distance and with plenty of positive praise and treats, you can slowly rewire their neural pathways to stay calm when they might otherwise have a stress response. This process takes time and patience, but is one of the best ways to lower dog anxiety in the long-term.
- Build up your dog’s tolerance to being alone. Like desensitisation, training your dog to be alone is done little-by-little. Try leaving your dog with treat-filled toys for short periods of time and then gradually increase alone time as they become more comfortable.
- Make sure your dog gets plenty of mental stimulation. Dogs who are over excited and anxious can often benefit from activities that rely on their senses and problem-solving skills. Puzzle toys, scent work, and trick-training can be great ways to burn off extra energy so that your dog feels satisfied and accomplished.
- Opt for exercise activities that aren’t too overwhelming. For some dogs, the dog park is a great place to let your dog run free and tire themselves out. But for an anxious dog, this kind of high-arousal setting can do more harm than good. Instead, they might benefit from smaller group play with trusted doggos or one-on-one activities with their caring Owner, such as jogging, walking, or swimming.
- Give your dog plenty of rest. Ever feel particularly on edge when you haven’t had enough sleep? The same goes for your dog. Sufficient sleep is crucial for your dog’s overall health and wellness. And it’s especially important for building new neural pathways in desensitisation training.
- Learn how to give your dog a relaxation massage. If your dog enjoys touch, learning how to give them a proper massage can be a fantastic practice to encourage relaxation. It’s also a great way to bond with your dog and get them more comfortable with handling, which will come in handy for grooming.
- Call in the pros. A nervous dog can absolutely benefit from the help of a certified animal behaviourist. These psychologists for dogs can help you better understand your dog’s anxiety and put together a treatment plan for lowering the frequency of their stress and arousal responses.
Anxiety in dogs is serious, but there are solutions!
Dealing with dog anxiety can be difficult for the animal and loving Dog Owner, so don’t feel bad if you’re sometimes overwhelmed when living with a nervous dog. With some compassion, medical care, training, and lifestyle changes, your dog can overcome their dog anxiety to live a happier, calmer life.