Dog Anxiety Problems – How to Deal with an Anxious Dog

Like us, dogs have anxieties and fears. A dog’s anxieties, may not be the same as our own anxieties, but they cause stress and physical reactions just the same.

Some common dog anxiety problems include -

  • Separation anxiety – A dog gets anxious when left alone.
  • Noise anxiety – A dog becomes fearful when exposed to loud or unusual noises. Some examples include fireworks, thunderstorms, garbage trucks, and more.
  • Travel anxiety – The car is like a den, but dogs are unaccustomed to moving dens. Therefore, they may become unsure and stressed over something so new and unexpected.
  • Confinement anxiety – A dog gets anxious when he feels trapped or confined. If a threat should arise, a confined dog may be unable to escape or flee.

Symptoms of Dog Anxiety

When dogs are anxious, they may engage in repetitive or displacement behaviors to relieve their stress. For example, when we are anxious, we may pace, bite our nails, or play with our hair.

Dogs may also pace, groom, and more. Some dog anxiety behaviors may lead to property destruction, may cause us harm, or may simply be undesirable to our human sensibilities. This may include -

  • Non-stop barking.
  • Chewing up furniture, walls, shoes, garbage, and anything else in sight.
  • Pooping and peeing in the house, crate, or other confinement area.
  • Eating his own poop.
  • Aggression toward people, dogs, or other animals.

Punishment or aversive techniques will do little to stop these anxious dog behaviors in the long-run, because punishment does not address the source of the problem, which is the dog’s anxiety. In fact, suppression of these displacement behaviors, through pain and dominance methods, will make the problem worse, because pain increases stress and uncertainty.

Dog Anxiety Solution 1 – Desensitization

One of the best ways to help a dog deal with his anxiety issues, is by slowly desensitizing him to the problem stimulus.

In the desensitization process, we start with a weak version of the stimulus that is triggering the anxiety attack.

The stimulus must be weak enough, so that my dog is able to stay calm in its presence. Then, I get him to focus on me, by doing eye-contact commands or simple obedience exercises.

If my dog is able to focus and stay in-control, I reward him with a very high priority treat. For desensitization purposes, I usually bust out the really good stuff. I try to pick a highly aromatic or smelly treat that my dog loves, but does not usually get to eat. The smell will help to engage his nose, and further distract him from the source of his anxiety.

When he is comfortable with this exercise, is calm, and able to follow simple commands, I very slowly raise the strength of the problem stimulus. I make each session short, fun, and very rewarding.

In this way, my dog learns alternative behaviors for dealing with stressful situations. He also learns to associate something that was previously a source of fear and stress, with something positive (nice smells, yummy treats), and with being calm.

Dog Anxiety Solution 2 – Calm Environment

Another important aspect of helping an anxious dog, is to create a calm and predictable environment for him, in his daily life.

  • Fixed routine – I set a fixed schedule for feeding, walking, play-time, leaving the house, coming home, and more. I also establish a fixed set of rules, and a consistent way of enforcing them. A very fixed routine and rule-set, helps our dog understand what to expect from us, and also what we expect from him in return. Greater certainty reduces anxiety and stress.
  • Staying calm - Most dogs are very good at picking up the energy of the people around them. My Shiba Inu, for example, is very sensitive to what I am feeling. If I get stressed and anxious, he picks up on that immediately and becomes anxious himself; but with a hundred times more gusto! Therefore, it is important for us to stay calm and in-control.
  • Relaxing massage – Some trainers suggest giving our dog a massage to help him relax. There is also the special TTouch massage method, which uses circular finger motions to help relax our dog’s body.

I tried the TTouch method briefly on my Shiba Inu, but it did not seem to have much of an effect on him. Desensitization exercises, together with a fixed routine and consistent rules, helped us most.

Dog Anxiety Solution 3 – Calming Equipment

There are a variety of products designed to help calm our dogs. The attraction of such products, is that they require little to no work from us. However, it is also unclear how effective they truly are.

1. Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP)

DAP is a synthetic chemical that was developed based on a hormone produced by nursing mother dogs. Mother dogs produce this hormone to help their puppies feel calm and secure. It also helps the mother dog establish a positive bond with her puppies.

Scientific studies *do* show that DAP has a positive effect on puppies. However, it is unclear whether DAP helps with anxiety problems in adult dogs.

There are also a variety of natural calming scents, including lavender, and other herbal remedies.

2. Dog Calming Music

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

Music can certainly help calm us down and soothe our nerves. Therefore, it is not such a big stretch to imagine that it can also be helpful to our dogs. However, the wrong kind of music can actually increase anxiety in dogs.

What is the right kind of dog music?

According to sound researcher Joshua Leeds,

“Rock music, jazz, heavy metal made them more anxious. Classical slowed them down. It just relaxed them in a way that the other music seemed to irritate them.”

~~[Want to Calm Fido Down? Try Music!]

3. Thundershirt

The Thundershirt looks like a dog winter coat. It wraps around the torso of a dog, and works by exerting constant pressure on the dog’s body. Proponents argue that this pressure, can have a calming effect on the dog’s nervous system.

However, the only study I found was a very limited experiment, from an unsubstantiated source. Therefore, it is unclear whether the claims made on the effectiveness of Thundershirts are true.

Note – Pressure wraps will not work on all dogs. Some dogs may get even more anxious, when they experience continuous pressure on their body. In addition, it is unlikely that pressure wraps can fully solve our dog’s anxiety issues. Wraps and other calming equipment, are commonly used together with desensitization and other dog behavior modification techniques, to achieve true long-term success.

Depending on the dog and the situation, you may need to incorporate training with the cape to show an effect. The Anxiety Wrap recommends an 11-step treatment program for separation anxiety that includes using the wrap and leaving toys filled with favorite food treats for the dog to enjoy while you are gone.

~~ [ Putting the Squeeze on Doggie Anxiety ]

Some people also use clocks or heartbeat pillows, to help calm new puppies.

Dog Anxiety Solution 4 – Medication

Do not medicate your dog with over-the-counter human drugs, on your own. Dogs have very different physiology than humans, and dosage is very dependent on weight.

I always consult with my vet before giving my dog any medication.

Some medications used to suppress a dog’s anxiety response include -

  • Clomipramine(Anafranil) – This drug was originally developed to treat OCD in humans. With dogs, it is sometimes prescribed to treat OCD and separation anxiety issues.
  • Fluoxetine(Prozac,Sarafem,Fontex) – Fluoxetine is perhaps most well-known by its tradename Prozac. Prozac is used to treat heavy depression, OCD, and serious eating disorders (Bulimia nervosa) in humans. Eli Lily makes a special Prozac for dogs called Reconcile.

For lonely dogs with separation anxiety, Eli Lilly brought to market its own drug Reconcile last year. The only difference between it and Prozac is that Reconcile is chewable and tastes like beef.

~~[Pill-Popping Pets]

  • Sedatives – Powerful sedatives such as benzodiazepine (benzo) are prescription only. Some lighter sedatives such as antihistamines (Benadryl) and valerian can be obtained as over-the-counter medications for humans. Do not give sedatives or any other medication to dogs, without first consulting with a veterinarian.

The dog medication business is now a very profitable enterprise, and there are a large number of dog drugs available for purchase. These medications treat anything from separation anxiety, OCD, and depression, to motion-sickness, forgetfulness, and obesity. Most dog medications are short term solutions and may have serious side effects.

Dog Anxiety Problems

I believe that the best way to help our dogs with their anxiety issues, is through desensitization, as well as a calm and relaxed home environment.

Dog calming equipment and medication are very tempting solutions, because they involve little to no effort from us. However, their long-term effectiveness is highly questionable. These methods work by suppressing or muting the effects of anxiety, rather than addressing the source of the anxiety itself.

This is in contrast with desensitization and home management techniques, which target the anxiety stimulus, and teaches the dog new ways to cope with fear and stress. Rather than just suppressing symptoms, desensitization helps to build a dog’s confidence, and promotes a stronger bond between him and his human companions.

Ultimately, behavior modification and desensitization techniques lead to long-lasting effects, and a better quality of life for a dog and his family.

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  1. Debbie says

    Hello! Our Yorkie is now 5 years old. He’s always had anxiety about traveling, but usually not at any other time. Starting about 2 weeks ago, he is having HUGE anxiety issues when my husband leaves for work. I stay at home most of the time, and our routine has not changed at all. Since my husband left for work this morning, he has cried like a child. He is also urinating on the furniture more. He also continues to cry after my husband is home for a bit. Any helpful suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    • shibashake says

      Hmmm, what is his daily routine like? Has he always urinated on furniture or did this only start recently? What do you do when he cries? Is he eating and drinking normally? Is his pee and poop normal? Is he urinating more frequently? Does he urinate while lying down? Are there any other changes in behavior?

      What type of training is he used to? How does he act towards other people and dogs during walks?

      When there are large and sudden changes in behavior in my dog, I rule out physical issues first. Once I am sure that the change is *not* caused by something physical, then I start to look at behavioral triggers. After I identify the triggers, then I can redirect and do desensitization/counter-conditioning exercises.

  2. Donna says

    Hi I have a 4 year old flat coat rescue. We have had him for 3 years. We moved 6 months ago from country side in the uk to downtown boston. Over the last 6 month Benny has become frightened of motorbikes, men approaching in the dark or day light, he has become possessive of toys, has shown some mild aggression to other dogs and it is horrible to watch my happy little dog become so aggressive, anxious and scared! Any ideas please???

    • shibashake says

      Is he anxious all of the time or is it only when he is outside? How is his behavior when he is in the house? Is it noisy inside the house? How is he while travelling in a car? What was his behavior like right after the move? Has it gotten worse? Is he currently on a fixed routine and schedule?

      With my dogs, I set up a fixed routine, consistent rules, and a calm environment at home. This helps to create certainty, which in turn helps to reduce stress. I talk more about this in the article above.

      I also do desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises with my dogs, to help them build confidence and become less anxious. More on how I did noise desensitization exercises with my dog.

      However, with desensitization, it was important to maximize positive and successful instances, while at the same time preventing negative events and more anxiety attacks. Therefore, management of the environment is very important so that I do not expose my dog to situations/stimuli that he is not ready to handle.

      Given that your situation is such a big change in environment, and likely a challenge in terms of stimulus management, I would get help from a good professional trainer.

  3. Stacey says

    I have a new rescue. 1yr old poodle terrier mix. She is super loving and playful, sits when I pull out the leash for a walk. Doesn’t potty in the house. I had her in isolation, per orders, to make sure she didn’t have kennel cough. But every time I take her out for a walk and she spots a dog all is over! She is squirming, yelping, whining and jumping all over. Most of the time if I spot another dog I will walk the other direction. If she starts to get squirmy I well kneel down beside her and stroke her neck and back til she calms down and the dog is out of view. Recently she went completely berserk for a small dog and tore away from my arms. Only scrapes and bruises but I want to teach her to remain calm. I know there is a long process with a rescue and I’m not sure of her background. Any quick fixes? I’ve only had her a week and a half. So far everything is great, she even behaves while I’m at work.

  4. Donna Edwards says

    Hi I have an 11 year old bitch , who is great during the day , but come bedtime she pants and paces throughout the house . She does actually sleep better in the living room , but not on her own so now we’re taking it in turns to watch over her , any ideas please ? Thank you x

    • shibashake says

      Hmmm, when did this behavior start? Does she respond to her name or favorite rewards while pacing? Are there other changes in behavior? How is her physical health? When was her last vet visit?

      Sleep irregularities and anxious pacing *may* be signs of senior dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction). It can also be due to pain or other physical factors. I would consult with a vet first, to determine if the behavior is due to some physical issue.

    • Amy Bates says

      My 5.5 year old rescue Greyhound has started this exact same behavior. At all other times during the day she is happy, playful, relaxed. But when bedtime comes she does not want to go out for a last potty break, and she cannot decide where to sleep. She doesn’t want to be in our room, or in her playroom downstairs, or in the living-dining rooms/kitchen where the two cats sleep. Nervous, shaking, panting, pacing. She has just spent the whole evening with us watching tv in the living room – it’s just going to bed that she can’t abide. This behavior is recent – within the last couple months.

  5. Christopher says

    So I have a black lab/blue nose pit mix, he is absolutely wonderful when it’s just me at the house, but he has major anxiety/hyperactivity problems when I have company over. He starts licking/chewing on my walls to the point he foams at the mouth, runs around constantly, if crated he won’t stop barking/crying, or he will start playing with my English setter mix, but so rough I have to break them up. He also seems to suffer from separation anxiety. If I so much as go get the mail he starts barking, tearing up/breaking my blinds to see out the window, and I can’t even leave him in my backyard to vacuum even without him digging a new hole under my fence. He’s approaching the 20 month mark and I’ve had him since he was 5 weeks old. He follows me everywhere, sleeps with his head on the pillow next to mine touching me with at least one paw or he’ll reposition so that he can have some contact with my body. I need help with both problems as I can’t leave him alone without always crating him (never have had to crate any previous dogs I’ve owned) and I can’t have company over without my house being destroyed or everyone being miserable if I crate him because of the barking. repair costs for his anxieties are almost $200 a month and I can barely afford to feed myself but the house cannot stay in disrepair, and I refuse to get rid of him as he is literally my baby and the only reason I have motivation to do anything

    Please help, thank you

    • shibashake says

      What is his daily routine like? How does he respond to people during daily walks? What was his behavior and experiences as a puppy? How did he respond to people when he was young?

      In terms of anxiety, what has helped my Shiba Inu, Sephy, is to -
      1. Set him up for success,
      2. Properly manage his environment and routine so that he doesn’t have any more panic attacks, and
      3. Slowly socialize him to people in a positive and structured way.

      The more successful “people” experiences Sephy has, the more confidence he builds, and the more calm he becomes. The more panic attacks that Sephy has, the more it undermines his confidence, and the worse his behavior becomes. Therefore, it was very important with Sephy to not only maximize positive and calm experiences, but also to minimize anxiety attacks and reactive behavior.

      Very informative ASPCA article on separation anxiety.

      During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear. He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him. This means that during treatment for separation anxiety, your dog cannot be left alone except during your desensitization sessions.

      More on how I desensitize my dog to people.
      More on how I desensitize my dog to alone time.

      Note that dog behavior is very context dependent, so each dog and each situation is different. During Sephy’s difficult period, we visited with several professional trainers who could observe Sephy within his normal environment and routine. They helped me better understand Sephy’s body language and behavior, and helped guide me in the retraining process.

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