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Learn how to calm an anxious dog

Anxious dog looking up advice

Learn the signs of an anxious dog and how to calm him down

© Shutterstock

Dogs might not worry about talking in front of an audience or taking a driving lesson but their anxieties are as real to them as ours are to us. It is very important to learn how to calm an anxious dog.

By Nick Whittle

Dogs may suffer from anxiety when bored, scared, or when they have too much pent up energy, for example.

No breed is more susceptible to anxiety than another, but each breed has different needs; what makes a dog anxious is due to these needs not being met. For instance, a Shih Tzu will be easily concerned about new people monopolising the owner’s affection; a Collie will become anxious if it is kept indoors all the time; a Greyhound will get easily distressed if left alone for long periods of time.

If untreated, anxiety can cause a whole bunch of problems. We’ll find out more about this later. First, in our effort to learn how to calm an anxious dog, let’s look at what causes a dog to stress.

What causes a dog’s anxiety?

In order to know how to calm your dog down you need to learn what is making her anxious. The causes of this are various and getting to the root of the problem will take time and patience and awareness of your own living arrangements and state of mind. Here are some of the potential causes:

  • The dog’s upbringing: was your dog abused before she came to you?
  • The dog’s sleeping arrangements: does your dog have a comfortable place to sleep?
  • The dog’s exercise and care: is your dog getting enough exercise? Is she sick?
  • The dog’s food: some campaigners think additives in food are responsible.
  • Your work commitments away from home: is your dog exhibiting separation anxiety?
  • Your mental health: are you anxious and stressed?
  • Your family routine: is the household a calm and tension-free place for a dog to be?
  • Visual/auditory influences: are there loud noises or bright lights nearby?

Dogs that suffer with stress tend to fall into one of these next three groups:

Anxiety comes mostly from an external stimulus. Some dogs can have an inbuilt phobia of objects that to us are completely harmless, such as an umbrella or a musical instrument. Different types of surfaces can distress some other dogs: they hate walking on the rough tactile paving at pedestrian crossings and (for obvious reasons) get nervy when they try to step over a cattle grid.

There is also anxiety caused by separation from their owners; this is thought to afflict over 10% of dogs. Some breeds are more susceptible to this type of anxiety but no dog will be comfortable being left alone for a long period of time. Separation anxiety will manifest itself in various ways, including messing in the house, chewing furniture and doors and vocalising excessively.

The last major group of anxiety sufferers are those dogs that have reached a stage of life that we call geriatric. Canine dementia often affects dogs that are considered senior or geriatric, that is to say they have surpassed the usual longevity of the breed. The limitations of their sense of the world around them can cause dogs with dementia to become anxious.

Anxious dog in his bed
What can cause your dog's anxiety? ©Shutterstock

Signs of anxiety

So how can you tell if your dog has anxiety? There are several important symptoms to look out for:

  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Excessive salivation, biting and licking
  • Lip licking
  • Frequent yawning
  • Decreased appetite
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Depression, withdrawal, lethargy
  • Excessive barking
  • Aggression
  • Urinating or defecating in the house
  • Restlessness, pacing
  • Trembling

If you have noticed one or more of the above behaviours and they have occurred non-stop over some weeks you should consult a certified animal behaviourist or a vet.

Calming your anxious dog

When you have discovered the possible causes of your dog’s agitation you should prepare yourself to do whatever it takes to calm her down.

Remove the cause of the agitation

One-to-one counselling works as well for dogs as it does for humans. If you want to properly treat canine anxiety you should deal with the problem from the dog’s point of view. First, you must remove the cause of distress in a way that is uncomplicated and immediate. Removing the triggers of a dog’s stress is still the most effective way to calm your dog. If crowds are the problem, avoid them; if umbrellas are a problem, get wet! Then you should contact a certified pet behaviour counsellor, who can professionally help your dog deal with her fears.

Use aromatherapy and essential oils

There are many holistic therapies for treating a dog’s anxiety and getting her to calm down. You may even consider a calming massage or a warm bath with added essential oils (that is if your dog actually likes to have a bath). Some plug-in vapourisers also claim to calm dogs down. Dogs calm down well when they listen to soothing music.

Anxious chihuahua dog
How to calm an anxious dog ©Shutterstock

Increase your physical contact

Petting a dog in a relaxed, soothing way calms her down as much as it calms you down. If you are out a lot during the day you should devote more time to your dog at night. They will crave your attention and be upset if they don’t receive it, especially if they haven’t seen you all day! However, make sure you ask your dog for a calm behaviour, such as sitting down, before giving her attention.

Increase the amount of exercise you give her

Regular exercise and stimulation are crucial for a dog’s physical and mental well-being. A stimulated dog is less likely to pick up destructive behaviours. This is especially true of breeds that like to eat up the miles, such as Border Collies or Dalmatians for example. However, not all exercise is equal. You need to provide your dog with calm and long walks, where she can get physical as well as mental stimulation. In tandem with this, good nutrition is equally important for your dog's health.

Find her a space to where she can retreat

A dog bed is the perfect spot for your dog to be alone and to de-stress. This should be a sort of “safe haven” where your dog can go and feel safe when things around her become too hectic. It would be useful to position your crate in a quiet room or in a room away from where there is noise and action.
Knowing what has caused your dog to become anxious leads you to find the appropriate remedy of the condition. If necessary you may have to resort to medications, but before that you should speak to a professional animal behaviourist.

Usually a consistent and well-thought-out behavioural management plan should calm down a stressed dog in no time. Remember: You should not leave your dog to just 'get through' a chronic bout of anxiety: doing so can bring on far more serious health concerns and exacerbate the problem.