Dogs are just as susceptible to anxiety and stressful situations as humans are. They deal with it in different ways: pacing, excessive grooming, excessive barking, loss of bladder control, cowering, hiding, quivering, destructive behavior, biting, and more. Sometimes the trouble is obvious, like fireworks, thunderstorms, or other loud noises. Sometimes they just don’t want you to leave them alone.
But no matter what the cause, it can be heartbreaking to see your dog suffer, for any period of time. If only our dogs could talk, and we could learn answers to such questions as “why are you barking?” and “what is it now?”
Until that happens, here are some tips to help you and your dog deal with anxiety. They may not make the problems go away completely, but they can certainly strengthen the level of trust between you and your dog. We begin with one of the biggest canine stress issues.
Dogs are companions, from the pack to the home, and when you go away, they have no idea if you’re ever coming back. Separation anxiety is a big cause for stress in canines, and it really only goes away when we return. But there are ways you can prepare your dog before you go.
First, never leave your dog alone for long stretches of time, for its own safety. Dogs need exercise, and they need to relieve themselves. This can be tough, understandably, since many of us work away from home. If nobody will be home with your dog for more than eight hours, arrange to have a sitter or walker visit during your absence.
Distractions can come in handy when you’re trying to leave the house. A good long walk before you go will help your dog expend energy, be more likely to rest or sleep while you’re gone, and less likely to engage in destructive, nervous behavior. Be sure to leave plenty of water available, as well as chew toys or its favorite blanket, but nothing that might be a choking hazard. Food-dispensing toys can also keep your dog occupied. Some people also like to leave the TV or radio on, for “company.”
Because dogs like their routines, he or she may well get resigned, at the very least, to the concept of your leaving the house at the same time every day. And you’ll notice him or her waiting for you at the exact moment you return.
It’s common to crate a dog, particularly in the early days of its training, to help him or her become used the crate as his or her special sanctuary. But the crate should never be used as punishment, and if a dog feels trapped, it might respond physically and hurt itself.
But even dogs with the run of the house when left alone can exhibit confinement anxiety, in the form of destructive behavior. You might return home to find the kitchen garbage everywhere, books torn to pieces, furniture damaged, or worse. The first thing to do is to restrict access to anything you don’t want chewed up. (See our article on Dog-Proofing Your Home.) Keep bedroom and bathroom doors closed, install baby gates in places where there are no doors, and put valuable items out of reach. Work with your dog using positive reinforcement, so he or she feels comfortable and less prone to lashing out.
Every year it seems like our neighbors begin celebrating the Fourth of July earlier than before. Fireworks can be pretty to look at, but they’re loud and unpredictable. At least with thunderstorms, we can plan ahead.
It’s tough, but unfortunately it’s best to avoid trying to soothe a scared dog during fireworks or a storm. He or she may prefer to hide somewhere dark, quiet, or enclosed, like a closet, bathroom, or a crate. If the dog reacts by being destructive, sit quietly with him or her; otherwise, let them be until the “danger” passes.
One popular item that aids anxiety in dogs is the Thundershirt. Basically a fabric wrap with Velcro enclosures, it applies constant, gentle pressure on the dog’s torso, kind of like a hug. Besides helping calm a dog during loud storms, its effectiveness during travel or even vet trips has been claimed. However, it’s important to overuse the Thundershirt, because your dog may learn to associate it with being scared, and only become more stressed.
Some dogs love every person they meet, but not all dogs do. A dog that’s been rescued or spent any time in a shelter or foster situations may be particularly wary of strangers. Who knows what scared your dog before you came along?
The best way to help your dog get used to new people, or other dogs, is desensitization. Keep contact brief, and don’t force the situation. It’s better to let your dog approach a new person, than vice versa. If your dog becomes aggressive in any way, diffuse the situation immediately without punishment, and try again later.
Most dogs love to go for rides in the car. But sometimes the feeling of motion can be scary, and then there are all those loud trucks and strange noises. In this case, providing a secure environment will help alleviate nerves. Crating your dog inside a car will not only provide a safe haven of sorts, but will also help keep protect your dog in case a collision occurs. If a crate isn’t an option, you can secure your dog with a harness that integrates with the seat belt latches in your car.
This is another area where desensitizing can be a big help. By acclimating your dog slowly and carefully to a potentially stressful situation–for instance, for going on short car rides before strapping in for a long trip–and rewarding your dog treats as he or she progresses, riding in the car won’t seem so scary.
For air travel, medication might be the best answer. In fact, medication is certainly an option for any of the above anxiety issues, but recommended only in extreme cases, if you can’t naturally alleviate your dog’s stress issues. The best remedy for canine anxiety is a strong combination of time and patience. Good luck!