As a pet owner, one of the saddest things in the world is witnessing dog anxiety. The inability to sit down and tell your dog that everything is going to be okay can often feel frustrating, and heartbreaking. Even though we can’t speak to our dogs, there is a way that we can show them that the world is not necessarily a scary place.
In order to understand how to make our dog feel less anxious, we need to understand what causes the anxiety, and how they show it in their body. Dogs don’t always show their anxiety in the most obvious way, like whining or crying. When a dog is anxious it will try to rid itself of that anxiety by participating in displacement behavior, and these gestures might not be obvious to the human eye unless you know what to look for.
Stress Signs & Displacement Behavior
Displacement behavior is normal movements displayed out of context. When a dog is anxious and wants to do something about it, it will channel that anxiety into an unrelated behavior. Common displacement behaviors are:
When a dog yawns it does not actually mean that it’s tired. A dog will yawn when it is feeling anxious, or overly excited, and it doesn’t know what to do with that energy.
A dog will lick its lips when it is feeling anxious. It may also lick other areas of the body, like the paws. This can cause many problems with dogs because they could lick so excessively to the point of creating self-inflicted wounds.
Similar to licking, a dog may scratch itself raw when it’s feeling anxious. A common spot for a dog to scratch itself is around the collar, but they can scratch anywhere on the body to relieve their stress.
Excessively sniffing at the ground
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a dog is sniffing on the ground because it’s anxious or it just smells something appealing. The best way to tell is if a dog remains adamant on sniffing no matter what incentive you offer. Dogs will often sniff when they’re meeting a new dog in order to keep the attention away from itself and to appear smaller. Dogs will often do this in training when they are trying to tell you that they’ve had enough of a certain exercise.
Shifting weight between paws
When a dog is sitting down and shifting weight back and forth from each front paw it could be telling you that it’s feeling a little frightened.
Avoiding eye contact
In dog language, staring is seen as a threat. When two dogs meet each other for the first time, they will often avoid eye contact with each other until they get to know each other. If a dog is avoiding eye contact it’s likely a sign that it feels a little bit unsure of a situation, and is, therefore, trying to appear submissive and small to keep itself safe.
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The Causes of Dog Anxiety
Dogs become anxious when they are afraid. Whether it is a fear of the unknown, or they had a bad experience in the past that they are reminded of, there are many things that can trigger that anxiety. The best thing to do when working through anxiety is to observe your dog and cater to his needs without pushing.
Curing a dog of anxiety is not a matter of “throwing him into the pool and hoping that he swims”, but rather a gradual acclimatization to the feared situation.
Situations that Trigger Anxiety
There are many dogs that may not necessarily have an anxious personality, but anxiety is triggered by a particular situation. The first thing to do is to understand exactly what it is that is scaring your dog. Observe your dog closely. When he’s exhibiting stress signs, note what is happening in the environment. Is he meeting another dog? Is there a person around? What is the weather like? What time of day is it? Be specific here. You will begin to see a pattern arising very soon, and that will give you a clue into what makes your dog anxious.
Once you know what your dog is afraid of, avoid it initially and then introduce it slowly. Overwhelming your dog is the worst thing that you can do to lessen the fear. Remove your dog from the situation before it escalates, by getting your dog to focus on you (having a treat or a favorite toy is a good way to get that attention) and ask him or her to “work”. Work consists of asking for a “sit”, “shake a paw”, or whatever it is that your dog knows how to do. This will help to keep your dog’s mind off of the thing that it is afraid of.
You will not be avoiding the scary thing forever. Ideally, you want that fear to go away, and in order to do that, you’ll need to slowly introduce your dog to the situation, offering lots of praise and rewards as you’re doing so.
Some Dogs Just Have Anxious Personalities
Some dogs are simply more anxious than others. This can be because of the genetics of the breed or because of environmental factors. Often it is a combination of the two factors. Some dogs will never be “cured” of their anxiety, but there are some things that we can do to give them more confidence so that they can move through the world with less fear.
Dog’s are creatures of habit, so keeping your dog on a consistent schedule will help to make him feel safe and comfortable in his surroundings. Try to keep his walks and feeding time at generally the same time each day.
Work on obedience to bring up the confidence
Giving your dog a “job” will help to give him more confidence. By working on commands you’re allowing your dog to use his mind and giving him a reward for doing so. The act of getting something right will up your dog’s confidence on the day to day, which will decrease anxiety. You can incorporate this easily into your day by asking your dog to sit before giving him his food, or putting on the leash for a walk.
When it comes to confidence building, there’s nothing better than positive reinforcement. When your dog does something right, let him know! Give him a treat, and praise so that he can feel confident in his choices. When you’re beginning to work on easing your dog’s anxiety, you want him to feel as though he can do no wrong, so avoid chastising him, and give him some love to up his confidence level!
If your dog has severe anxiety you may need a bit of extra help in order to ease the stress. Consider working with a professional trainer, as well as speaking to your vet about the options available to you while you’re working with your dog.
If your dog doesn’t already sleep in a crate you might want to consider introducing it. A crate can act as a kind of “safe house” for your dog. Not all dogs are good crate candidates, but many feel a sense of safety and comfort being in a small space that is completely their own. If you are introducing the crate be sure to do it slowly so as not to overwhelm your dog. Allow your dog to go in the crate for short amounts of time, in the beginning, to get accustomed to it.
Calming shirts, also called “thundershirts”, are essentially a vest that fits comfortably around your dog. The shirt is based on the concept of swaddling or compression in order to make the dog feel secure and safe. This concept has been used for humans and animals alike and is said to have a calming effect that helps approximately 80 percent of dogs with anxiety.
For dogs with severe anxiety, medication has been proven to ease some of that stress on a day-to-day basis. If you are interested in this route, make sure that you speak with your vet before making any decisions in order to deduce if your dog would be a good candidate. While medication can work wonders for some dogs, it should not be a final solution. You will need to work with a trainer to desensitize your dog to its fear. The medication will work to ease the anxiety in the meantime, but you will want to wean off of it as soon as you can.
The world can be a scary place for a dog, but they don’t have to live in fear forever. We’ve brought dogs into our human world, so it’s our responsibility to be good leaders and show them that it’s not so scary after all. Pay attention to when your dog is telling you that it’s anxious, and help to ease that anxiety in any way that you can. Helping to rid your dog of anxiety will help to bring your stress level down as well so that you both can get back to what you truly want to do: cuddle.
 Sara Logan Wilson. (June 20, 2017). Thunder Jacket for Dogs: Coated in Safety from Thunder and Fireworks. Retrieved on October 16, 2017 from https://www.caninejournal.com/thunder-jacket-for-dogs/
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