Since dogs are usually seen as fun, carefree companions, it can be alarming to realize that, just like people, they can also experience anxiety. For some dogs, anxiety might manifest as a slight annoyance, while for others it can disrupt every aspect of their life, including their relationship with their families. It can be challenging and overwhelming to live with a dog struggling with anxiety, but the good news is there are observable signs to look out for and ways to help your pup cope.
Heather Mishefske, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, notes, “Anxiety in dogs can present a number of different ways and can be related to contexts such as being separated from their people, fear, and age.”
Common symptoms of all categories of anxiety include: “Excessive panting, drooling, pacing, barking or vocalizing excessively, extreme restlessness, destructiveness, self-harming behaviors, or even behaviors that look like obsessive compulsive behaviors,” Mishefske says.
“Anxious dogs pace and are generally overexcited by normal stimuli such as people coming into the room, a doorbell, and cars or people going by outside,” explains Dr. Ross Taylor of the NorthStar VETS Emergency and Critical Care team. Other signs to watch for are dogs who are overly vigilant and concerned about the environment around them.
San Francisco-based dog trainer Alisha Ardiana says she watches for dogs who are unable to engage in training or do normal calming behaviors, like smelling. “If the dog is unable to smell the ground, is looking around, or looking over his shoulder, the dog is concerned that something is going to go wrong,” she explains.
To determine if your dog is anxious, you’ll need to spend time observing how they respond to experiences and stimuli in the environment. Separation anxiety is a common form of anxiety where dogs panic when left alone, even for short periods of time. Dr. Taylor explains that if you have an anxious dog, “You might notice your dog isn’t settling down after five or 10 minutes, or starts back up again when you get up from the couch. In extreme cases, you can see aggressive or destructive behaviors when no one is home.”
If you think your dog may be anxious when you leave the house, Dr. Taylor advises “installing a Nest or nanny cam to verify whether your pet is truly anxious or simply bored.” Nanny cameras for dogs can give owners valuable information about what dogs are doing when left alone, which you can share with a trainer or veterinarian to develop a treatment plan if your dog is displaying signs of anxiety.
Some dogs develop anxiety after experiencing a traumatic event, while in other cases dogs are genetically predisposed to being anxious. Regardless of if your dog has ever displayed symptoms, it’s important to incorporate anxiety prevention activities into their routines.
A key way to prevent dogs from developing anxiety, or to reduce an anxious dog’s level of stress is by giving them opportunities to just be a dog. “Allowing your dog to do natural dog behaviors like smelling, scavenging, and moving freely on a 20 to 30-foot line and harness for periods of time is so important for their emotional well-being,” says Mischefske. “This is not a structured walk, but a walk where your dog is allowed to move freely through a space.” These free walks are successful at preventing anxiety, she notes, because “we often do not allow dogs to make their own choices, and this is a tiny opportunity where they can control a portion of what they may enjoy doing.”
Of course, safety should always be the priority. “For dogs who are triggered by cars, bikes, or unfamiliar dogs, be sure that this space is devoid of these things. Sniffspot is a super opportunity to locate these gems of properties near you,” Mischefske advises.
Having a dog struggling with anxiety can be stressful for dog owners. As frustrating as your dog’s behaviors might be, though, it’s important not to ever punish your dog for being anxious. “Always remember that your dog is not having anxiety on purpose. They are responding in a way that their body is telling them there is danger,” Mishefske explains. If you feel like your dog has anxiety, and you aren’t sure how to help them, it’s important to reach out for professional support from a positive reinforcement trainer or your veterinarian.
Training is important for all dogs. “The research is abundantly clear that using reward-based training will support your dog’s emotional welfare and create positive bonds between the teacher and learner,” Mishefske notes. Training isn’t just about fixing “problematic” behaviors that dogs express because of lack of training or anxiety, but also helping you and your dog to better communicate with each other.
“If you’re not where you want to be in your relationship with your dog, call a positive reinforcement trainer,” suggests Ardiana. Dogs benefit from learning new skills and having creative outlets to explore the world around them. She explains that the core of training is about giving dog owners the skills to be “clear, consistent, reliable, and predictable,” which she says allow dogs — especially anxious dogs — to thrive. “Predictability is crucial for dogs with anxiety.” Ardiana notes.
In addition to training, there are a variety of over-the-counter supports available for anxious dogs. It’s important to note that these products are unregulated, so while they may make claims about their success, results with your dog may vary. Pheromone therapy like Adaptil can be used as a plug-in diffuser, or a spray which you can apply to a bandanna for your dog to wear in stressful situations.
But for dogs who have complex anxiety, over-the-counter treatments like thunder shirts, calming chews, and other natural products likely won’t make a substantial difference. “While these products may show some positive effects in minimizing anxiety, your best money spent is to find a certified behavior consultant or trainer who can help design a plan to…create a dog who has coping skills to face these anxiety-provoking contexts,” explains Mishefske.
If you have a dog who is struggling with severe symptoms of anxiety, it’s always a good idea to make an appointment with your veterinarian. “Dogs that exhibit anxiety that interferes with their daily ability to live their lives should be seen by a veterinarian who is well versed in current behavior research, or a veterinary behaviorist,” Mishefske advises. Having a veterinarian on your dog’s team who can really dive into your dog’s history of behavior and offer appropriate pharmacological interventions is a key piece of treating anxiety.”
Your veterinarian will evaluate what is going on and may prescribe anxiety medication for your dog. “Anxiety medication decreases the trigger threshold for your pet and creates a better mind space for training,” explains Dr. Taylor. In some instances, like if your dog is suffering from severe separation anxiety, your veterinarian may prescribe your dog medication to be taken daily for a period in collaboration with positive reinforcement training. In other cases, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to be given leading up to and during times that will trigger your dog’s anxiety, such as in the week leading up to the Fourth of July when fireworks are common.