Anxiety is extremely common in dogs. Almost all of them will experience being distressed at some point in their lives. Fortunately, the cause is mostly short-lived and the dog will calm down soon after the situation is over. In other cases, the state is almost permanent and the dog develops obsessive and compulsive behaviours such as regularly relieving themselves, chewing incessantly, gnawing themselves, barking, pacing, drinking excessive amounts of water, destructive digging, grooming for hours non-stop, running up and down in continuous circles and biting other dogs and people. Some of these symptoms may cause extreme destruction to your property or physical harm to your dog. Other dogs may prefer to simply hide from sight. Remember though, anxiety causes the body to physically go into overdrive. The brain goes through a cycle of repetitiveness and all the organs follow suit. The heart pumps faster, breathing quickens, digestive acids are produced and this often results in nausea. An anxious dog will be producing more urine and faeces than a calm dog, and they will need to urinate almost constantly when anxiety is at its highest.
Extreme anxiety is often the guilty culprit in many cases of ‘aggression’. A fearful dog will try to avoid becoming cornered without an escape route. When this happens, they feel threatened, are unable to get away and will fight until they can. They are so terrified that they are unable to reason, relying on instinct to save them from the threat they are facing. While you, Fluffy or Tiddles may or may not be the ‘perceived’ threat, many dogs become fearful when their exit route is blocked. It means they will not be able to get away should something horrible arise. Often, an experience (or more) in their history has taught them to expect the worst, but is also an instinctive assumption for a dog to make. Never corner an animal, ever, regardless of what animal it is. Dogs will also guard familiar comforts such as objects, toys, people and food, which are viewed as secure and safe in an otherwise chaotic world. In extreme cases such as these, it is advisable to get professional help for both you and your dog. Attempting to deal with this problem on your own may result in serious conflict. Many dogs end up being euthanized because the owner did not understand the problem, their dog or how to deal with it. These situations are completely avoidable and should never result in such an outcome. Although people have good intentions, they often corner the animal inadvertently or approach the situation in entirely the wrong way, distressing the dog even further and creating deeper anxiety issues.
Why is my dog so anxious?
Anxiety is the direct result of a dog not knowing what to do in a particular situation. They are unable to cope because they have never been taught, have never encountered it or have had a very bad experience with it. There are multitudes of situations that could cause your dog to become stressed out. While dogs are generally more laid-back, eager to please and willing to accept situations beyond their control than say, cats, they are just as needy of routine, safety, comfort and predictability in their environment. Anything out of the ordinary could cause them distress and result in a myriad of unwanted behaviours, including house soiling. The easiest way to find out what is making your dog anxious is to watch them closely. It is important for us to figure out what is triggering their fear in order to help them adapt. It does not work to try resolve the issue if nothing is done about the cause. So we watch them to see when they start displaying anxious behaviours. If someone walks past and the dog cowers, shows teeth, runs away, quickly goes somewhere to relieve themselves, then there may be an issue with that person. The same applies to any member of the household walking past. If it is a loud noise, you will then know about it. Perhaps it is a stranger or conflict with another dog or animal. Maybe there is a new furniture item or object in the house. It could be because their routine has changed.
Dogs that are reprimanded for even looking at a newborn learn to fear or resent them. The dog must never believe that punishment or exclusion is imminent when the baby is near. Parents also tend to immerse themselves in their baby, forgetting entirely about the dog. In addition to this, many dogs are simply threatened by the new and strange arrival, which is why it is critical that the baby becomes familiar to your dog as soon as possible. Give your dog plenty of attention and reward them for good behaviour around the child. This will teach them that good things happen when the baby is near. Proper introductions are of utmost importance and the dog should never be left out of the daily routine, which should be kept as normal as possible. Make exercising your dog a priority every day. It will burn off excess energy and strengthen your bond through shared activity and togetherness. While dogs should not be alone with newborn babies, they must be allowed access whenever you are around. Do not expect your dog to know these things instinctively when you are not there, use baby gates and doors instead. Keep calm at all times, with a ‘business as usual’ type of attitude. Be quiet and gentle in your manner with the child. Remember that your dog is a dog and any exuberance on your part will incite the same from them. Sniffing, licking and normal dog behaviours are critical to the introductory stage and should be supervised and encouraged appropriately.
Bringing a new dog home may cause extreme anxiety, hierarchy displacement and general insecurity, especially if your dog is not used to having other dogs around. Dogs need to be introduced in neutral territory and one should never be favoured over another. Daily routines should not change at all and household rules must apply equally to each dog. Tolerance of one and intolerance of the other is bound to cause problems. It is also advisable to take both dogs for a long walk each day, or an exhaustive run if possible. If they share this activity daily, they will quickly get used to the fun adventure the other dog represents.
Visitors, or people moving into the household dynamic permanently, often result in making a dog feel insecure. They do not know what this new person represents and your dog may bark excessively at them, nip at them, run away or become protective of their owners. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for these people to react appropriately in such a situation and the dog is often kicked, shouted at, locked in another room or forcefully made to meet them (sometimes even dragged from their hiding space). This is absolutely the wrong approach to the situation. It is best for everyone to meet outside first, depending on the severity of the problem. Meeting on neutral territory often removes the protective need altogether, giving the dog a chance to sniff and greet the way a dog is supposed to. It is a great idea to go for several lengthy walks with a future member of the household before they arrive on the doorstep. In the case of visitors, calm greeting outside is advised. Guests must ignore the dog completely so as not to trigger the behaviour. Should the dog continue with barking and nipping outdoors, then you need to put them on a lead and reward them for sitting quietly next to you. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to get them to do this when they are in an aroused state. If this is the case, ask your guests to go inside on their own while you reinforce what you are asking your dog to do. This does not mean forcing them, shouting at them, hitting them or any form of punishment. It basically involves asking once, using the lead gently to keep them from getting away from you, and then waiting for your dog to surrender and do it. Do not give up until your dog is calm and doing what you ask of them. If you do, your dog will learn that persistence gets them what they want. This is a battle of wills. Reward them as soon as they behave by following inside calmly. At the first sign of regression, ask them to sit next to you again, and again, and again. Eventually your dog will learn what it is you expect of them, provided you remain consistent about it. This means each and every time.
Children are an enormous source of anxiety for your dog. This does not apply to all dogs but it certainly affects large numbers of our canine friends. They would much rather urinate somewhere quietly in the house than risk having to get by the kid on their way outside. Some dogs are already anxious for other reasons and kids are pesky, bothersome. They will quickly learn that Fluffy gets blamed for whatever they do to her and will keep antagonizing her. A dog that constantly has to be alert for a child that pulls tails and ears, throws things, drags, squeezes, smacks, kicks, hits and generally gets away with terrorizing them is bound to eventually stand up for themselves. Fluffy will put up with it for a while as she would rather avoid the confrontation. Then she will start trying to get away instead. Finally, she may very well bite the child when she gets cornered by them. Even if the kid is not actively pestering her at that moment, she has come to expect it (which proves how horrifyingly often it happens). We hear all too many buts: ‘but my kid was just going to the bathroom’, ‘but they were not doing anything to the dog’, ‘but I thought they were friends’ and other similar excuses. What is seldom mentioned, or even noticed, is the hundreds of times the dog has been hugely antagonized before. Now she has been cornered and is expecting the worst. This is not the dog’s fault and the child must be taught to respect her. It is your responsibility to protect everyone in your house and small kids must be supervised around dogs (and vice versa). Fluffy is a friend, but if they hurt Fluffy then Fluffy will hurt them back. That is life and it is best to teach it from an early age. Kids must know that they are not allowed to hurt animals, ever. If they are not taught this lesson, it may escalate into something worse. They are also not likely to have many friends while bullying everyone in the playground, and we shudder to think just how far it will go. It is imperative that your dog has a safe area to retreat in a household with small children. It must be built to ensure the child is unable to disturb them at all and it should have an easy access route to other parts of the house as well.
While a dog’s instinct is to chase other animals in the wild, they are very adaptable in a predictable, domestic environment. If they are used to other animals and have encountered them before, it is easier for them to adjust. However, many dogs simply do not know what to do when it comes to other animals. Owners have a tendency to protect the smaller critters, very understandable, but the dog will quickly learn to resent them and start believing that bad things happen when the other animal is around. Your canine must be taught what is expected of them, but it should include them positively. It does not help to punish them for getting too close, or exclude them entirely, as this will either make them more determined to get rid of the critter or withdraw completely. Both outcomes should be avoided. Allow them to interact together, safely. Use a cage if necessary, or a lead, but not if it is not needed. The more they spend positive time together, the sooner everyone will feel comfortable. Reward your dog for being there and ignoring the other animal. As soon as the dog starts staring or focusing with too much emphasis, get their attention and reward if they focus on you instead. This will show the dog that good things happen when the other critter is near, as well as teach them what to do in the situation – which is to ignore.
New Furniture or Objects
Dogs like predictability. If something changes, they will notice. It may upset them and promote distress. The sudden appearance of a new sofa, new table, new anything may be perceived as threatening to a dog, who puts a lot of effort into creating an environment for themselves that is regarded as safe. Before bringing a new item into the home, leave it outside for an hour or two (if possible). On the patio, balcony or in the garden is ideal. Take the dog there, let them sniff and reward them for sniffing. Throw treats around it, on it and under it. The dog will quickly associate the object with food, feel less threatened and quickly lose any fear of it altogether. If it is not possible to do this outside before bringing it in, then do it inside. Do not spend any time soothing the dog if it is stressed. No petting, no talking. Just quietly, calmly and randomly surround the object with treats.
Loud music, thunder, shouting, banging, fireworks, arguments, household appliances and general, yet excessive noise pollution is disconcerting for most dogs. Their hearing is far more sensitive than ours and many of these sounds are sudden, startling your dog to incomprehensibility. All anxious dogs will react to a loud noise, but some only become anxious when faced with it. The dog has no idea what to do. They are unable to stop it or get away from it, resulting in the most extreme form of mental agony. It is vital to remove all loud noises for noise-sensitive dogs. This is not always possible however, but the problem will be less severe if we do everything we can. Be aware of pounding up the staircase or screaming to be heard from another room. Thunder and fireworks are two examples of what we cannot control. The one positive thing about noise anxiety is that our dogs will usually calm down once the disturbance goes away, provided that it does in fact diminish. It is vital that they have a safe area to be in when the noise is unstoppable. It will also really help them if we spend time desensitizing them to the noise. There are also dog appeasing pheromone products that may help in these situations, as well as tight wraps such as a Thundershirt. They are known to aid in calming dogs down dramatically. If the problem is horribly severe in thunderstorms or similar, medications may be necessary as an absolute last resort. The problem with medicine and calming products is that they do nothing to solve the underlying problem and will never work on their own.
Routine is very important to dogs. It makes their daily activities and environment predictable, which creates a sense of security. If their routine suddenly changes, it will result in fretting and insecurity. A dog will become anxious if their owner does not return at five o’clock as usual. Perhaps they suddenly need to spend more time, or different times, alone. Unusual absences are a major trigger of stress for dogs. Unfortunately, their scheduled needs are often incompatible with ours. Kids grow up and have to go to school. We may change jobs or begin working after spending time at home. We are forced to spend hours in traffic, work lengthy days and fetch our kids from school, take them for extramural activities and much else. We also want to go out for dinner, invite guests over and be spontaneous on occasion. In short, we are busy and our dogs still need to be fed, played with, petted, groomed, exercised, trained and included in our lives. This is overwhelming on a good day, which is why it is vital that we set aside time for our animals that is consistent with our schedule. There are three ways to do this. We can choose Sundays, when we are home, to deal with grooming, every morning to do five minutes of training with them, wake up at an exact time to feed them, run with them as soon as we get home or whatever works for us. The problem with this is that we are unable to guarantee being able to fulfil this routine indefinitely. It is generally better to be mildly random about it so that dogs do not become too dependent on our timetable. As long as they are getting everything that they need, it should not matter exactly what time they get it. The third option is to be gradual about any routine changes that are imminent. Instead of just waking up one morning and dashing off to work, prepare your dogs over time by spending lengthening periods away. Whatever works best for you, be consistent about it. The goal is to make sure that your dog’s routine never changes so dramatically that they are unable to cope with it.
Conflict with Other Dogs
If there is conflict among the dogs in your household, all of them will experience stress and anxiety. Some may start urine marking; others will urinate away from the conflict. It is extremely important that dogs are exercised daily. If there is conflict, exhausting them utterly will tire them out so much that they will not spend too much time asserting themselves over others. In addition to this, a good run is a social activity that makes dogs feel good and doing it together will relieve much of the tension between them. It is also critical that dogs are not forced to share resources as this often triggers conflict. If you have two dogs, there should be two water bowls in different parts of the environment, two food bowls, two beds, enough toys, different areas to use for elimination and any other resources your dogs use. Now if there is conflict among them already, there should be a few extra resources, as well as enough safe areas for them to go in order to avoid unwanted encounters. Escape routes are necessary so that nobody ends up cornered by someone else and avoid feeding conflicting dogs where they are able to eyeball each other. Make sure that your dog is able to get to their elimination area without having to fight anybody, or they will avoid going there. Watch what triggers the conflict and remove it from the environment. Often it may be you. Seeing as you are unable to remove yourself, be careful about the attention you are dispensing. An ill-timed pat on the head or given to the wrong dog may result in a fight. If one dog is standing by you with the other in the doorway, do not scratch the dog by you. His behaviour should not be rewarded. He is not there for a scratch (although we love to think that); rather he is keeping the other dog away with eye contact, stiff tail wagging and other dog communications. He is guarding you because you are the most prized resource, responsible for security, discipline, food, exercise and affection. If you give him attention, you are rewarding his behaviour and boosting his confidence. This may even result in him attacking the other dog in the doorway (who will quickly learn that you approve of his behaviour and do not want them there either). Rather ignore the one by you and calmly scratch the other dogs head on your way past. Learn to speak dog and make yourself as fluent as possible.
Conflict with People
If your dog is afraid of a person living in the home, it is vital to create a good association with that person immediately. Your dog will leave the room when that person enters, cower on the spot while shaking, licking, yawning and looking generally uncomfortable, or they will confront them. Perhaps it is the person being confrontational or preferring to leave for the sake of peace. Either way, it needs to end before disaster strikes and someone gets bitten or physically kicked and abused. The best thing to do in these situations is have your dog sit calmly next to you and give them treats for remaining there in a calm state. Do not try to soothe or pet them as you will inadvertently be rewarding their anxiety. Ask the person to sit in a chair and give your dog treats. Throw treats around them, on them and under them so that your dog learns to associate them with good things. Go for walks together. Walking is a great stress reliever and your dog will enjoy it, reinforcing the positive association with that person. Ask the person to remain calm around the dog and not raise their voice or loom over them. They must not allow themselves to be provoked by the dog’s behaviour, at any time. Eventually the dog will think they represent fun and good things, relaxing around them more and more.
There is another scenario that is even worse. A dog that is so anxious they are biting another person every time they come near. Typical of smaller lap dogs that are guarding their owners, it is also a problem with extremely fearful dogs (in which case, call for help from a professional behaviourist immediately. Do not corner the dog or they will bite you too). The victims are usually children, spouses, lovers, friends and everybody that tries to get anywhere close. This is serious and should not be allowed. The owner has the responsibility to make sure that their dog does not bite people. Put the dog on the floor every single time they do this. Stand up if necessary to prevent them jumping back up. Ignore the dog where possible or let them know with a single firm touch that guarding you is unacceptable. Do not hit the dog or physically hurt them. The touch is firm but not painful and should never be administered to a dog biting out of sheer terror. Shouting, screaming, laughing, petting and doing nothing while your dog is guarding you will only reinforce their behaviour and encourage it further. No. Stop it. Put the dog down and do not allow them back on your lap while the person is there. You owe it to your family who should not have to deal with it, ever. These situations can escalate to dangerous quickly. Never corner a dog or provoke them to attack out of fear. Call for help rather than make the problem worse for all concerned.
Being Left Alone
Dogs do not like being on their own, particularly for long periods of time. They get bored, frustrated and have no clue what behaviours are expected of them or how to deal with the situation. This is common with dogs that were never left on their own as puppies and those that were neglected for days, weeks, months or more. You should never just leave a dog on their own if they are not used to it. They should first be taught how to cope. Those that have suffered neglect in the past must learn to associate positive things with being left alone. This is achieved by going out for short periods at a time and leaving them alone. By alone, we mean alone. No other dogs, domestic workers, family members, no one. If someone is always there or they are always with the same companion, they are not really alone. Put their bed outside or in their confinement area, along with water and a chew toy filled with treats, such as Kong toys or other treat-dispensing toys. These will give your dog something positive to do (other than destroy your house). It will encourage them to chew the right things. Chewing releases endorphins and makes the dog feel good. They also have a job to do, which is to get to the treats inside. This will keep them quiet and occupied while you are away. Return after a short while and ignore your dog until they are calm. Each time you do this, increase the time away by another five minutes. Eventually your dog will know what to do and how to handle the situation if they are left alone. They will also learn that you are going to return soon.
Departure of a Household Member
If a dog becomes anxious when a particular person, dog or animal leaves the house, they are usually suffering separation anxiety. This is associated with one member of the household and should be prevented from developing at all. It is vital that dogs are taught to cope without their constant companion being around, as one never knows when disaster may strike or what the future holds. Dogs will tear their environment apart and shred everything, urinate everywhere, stop eating, avoid drinking, sleep restlessly, pace, cry, obsess about the door, chew everything, bark constantly, gnaw on themselves and potentially cause devastating personal injury by jumping out of windows and such. It is heartbreaking to watch a dog that is pining for a child that has left for boarding school or gone off to college, a person that has moved elsewhere, another dog that has passed away or something similar. This is the ultimate tragedy for a dog to endure and they need help as soon as possible. Unfortunately, their companion is gone and possibly never returning. All we can do is offer something else to think about and do, besides pining. Provide the dog with exercise, lots of it. Take them out to experience new adventures. Go to the park, the beach, a coffee shop. Enrol in dog training. Visit friends, go for drives and be creative. If the dog is kept physically active and mentally busy, they will be too tired and occupied to stress constantly. While they will never forget their companion, they will make a far easier transition to life without them. Never mollycoddle a dog that is pining. Do not pet them, stroke them, soothe them, pick them up, talk to them or give them any attention whatsoever. It will only serve to encourage the behaviour. Rather give them something else to do and let them burn off their energy in a healthier way.
How to solve an anxiety problem…
Working with anxious dogs is extremely rewarding. They need intensive therapy and their recovery is well worth the effort. There is little more satisfying than seeing a constantly fearful dog gain confidence and become a well-balanced, happy canine. It is always possible, but it will not happen overnight. When a dog learns how to cope with new or uncomfortable situations, everybody will lead a far less stressful existence. Helping a dog with anxiety involves combining exercise with mental stimulation, creating a calm environment and desensitizing them to their fears. It is also critically important that we teach them what to do when faced with their worst nightmares. We may also use calming products to help us, but they will not work on their own. Medication may be prescribed by your veterinarian in extremely chronic cases, but should never be given to your dog without their involvement and should not be relied upon to provide a miracle solution.
Naturally, the best cure is prevention. This should start the day your dog enters your household and include the opportunity to experience new things, as well as learn to solve any problems they encounter by themselves. This involves taking them out and introducing them to other dogs, strangers, smells, surfaces, babies, cultures, noises, obstacles, busy environments, quiet areas, bicycles, skateboards, walkways, snow, water and everything that you can think of. This is called habituation and socialization. It is vital for dogs to learn problem solving, especially when young. Pay particular attention to variants such as people with sunglasses, hats, skirts and umbrellas. Never pick your dog up and try to help them over obstacles, protect them from other dogs or prevent them from learning how to deal with the issue on their own. They are not fragile, human or newborn and are more than capable of surviving new experiences without your interference. Let them walk, that is what dogs do and it is good for their overall health and wellbeing. The more a dog experiences, the more they will learn and the more confident they will become. They will therefore be better equipped to deal with any situation that may arise in their lives.
It is imperative that all dogs have activities to stimulate problem solving and critical thinking. Special brain games for dogs are available at almost all pet supply stores and all dogs should have a few for times when they are left alone. However, the cheapest and most effective way to provide your dog with mental encouragement is to take them for adventures away from the house. They will meet new people, other dogs, different animals, strangers, friends, obstacles, surfaces and more on a simple walk every day. You should do some obedience classes that use positive reinforcement to teach dogs how to think for themselves. Practice them in every situation you encounter, wherever you go. Go to a variety of places; look for experiences that are new or unique. Go to the dog park, enjoy the beach. Find dog-friendly coffee shops and go to noisy festivals. Dogs should not be cooped up at home. They will never learn how to navigate obstacles or cope with new problems. They will become frustrated, bored, scared of unfamiliar situations, very destructive and develop a horde of serious behaviour issues. Make sure that you do not inadvertently defeat the object of these excursions by picking your dog up whenever they encounter other dogs, have to climb stairs or figure out what to do. Let them work it out for themselves and reward them for doing so. You must remain relaxed, calm and allow them these opportunities whenever they come across it. It is critical to their rehabilitation. Do not project your fears onto your dog; they already have enough of their own. Canines must be able to smell and be smelled (they are dogs, after all). Rather take your cues from other dog owners than assume everyone wants to eat Fluffy. If you are calm, relaxed, assertive and confident, your dog will be too.
Exercise is crucial for all dogs, regardless their state of mind. Those suffering anxiety will feel far more relaxed after a long walk or challenging run. It will trigger endorphins that make the dog feel great and more confident about themselves. It will increase blood flow, stretch unused muscles and feed the body with plenty of oxygen. All this will relax your dog, including their mind. It will also tire them out, leaving no energy for compulsive pacing, biting, barking and running around, hiding, fighting or other anxious behaviours. The goal is to tire them out, really exhaust them. You want them to return home, flop down on their bed and sleep for several healthy hours. This is a daily activity and exercise should never be left for tomorrow. Important for all dogs, it is especially necessary for those with anxiety. It is far more difficult, near impossible, to help these dogs if they have an unused, unwanted abundance of energy to feed their obsessions with.
Desensitization is absolutely essential when trying to remove the fear a dog associates with an object, person, noise or situation. You will need to acquire the sound of fireworks or loud noises if that is the problem, or whatever may be responsible for triggering the fear. It is best to attempt this after a lengthy and tiring exercise session so that our dog is completely exhausted and only interested in climbing into bed. Before you head out to remove that energy, quietly prepare the desensitization area. By now we should know what is triggering the anxiety and we will need to recreate it in a mild form. So for example, if our dog is afraid of noises or being restrained on a leash, we will need to play some music that mimics the noise or have a collar and lead ready. Make sure you will also be comfortable and bring a book. Place the dog’s bed in the area and head out for exercise. When you return, check that the entire household is quiet and relaxed. Enter the room with your dog and gently close the door.
Play the music at a mild noise level, put the collar and lead on and let it go. Do whatever you need to do to recreate the fear. Just remember that the trigger must be of a very low frequency, never high enough to cause total panic. Give the dog free reign inside the room. They will panic some, try to get away and pace the area for an escape route. Throw some treats into your dog’s bed. Ignore the dog and read your book until they calm down. If they approach, give them a reward. If they lie down, reward them. The moment they stop pacing, crying, scratching at the door or acting anxious, reward it. Hopefully your dog will flop over somewhere and go to sleep. If not, just keep rewarding relaxed and calm behaviour until they do. If your dog is still stressing out after half an hour, then the intensity of the trigger is possibly too high. Lower it and wait your dog out. If their exercise session was exhausting, they should calm down soon enough. Do not, under any circumstances, reward anxious behaviour inadvertently. Do not corner your dog in the room, follow them around, plead with them, pet them, soothe them, stroke them or even talk to them. This will make their anxiety worse and may result in a nasty bite from them. The idea is to let your dog figure out that there is no danger to them, by themselves. The only way to do this is if you remain in your seat, calmly reading your book, and ignore their fretting. Once your dog has calmed down, increase the frequency of the trigger slightly. Turn the volume up one notch or pick up the leash and hold it without force. Reward continued calm behaviour. Return to the previous frequency if chaos resumes. Stop the session. Begin all over again a few hours later. This time, teach your dog to do something else while the trigger is occurring, such as sit, stay, lie down, sleep, look at you and make eye contact or whatever you desire. Repeat this several times, increasing the trigger’s intensity level by one notch when they are able to focus on you and do simple obedience exercises. Reward your dog, open the door and resume your normal routine. Keep each session short. This will need to be repeated numerous times, gradually recreating their fear. If done correctly, your dog will soon associate whatever was causing them to become anxious with positive things such as food, sleep, peace and safety.
Teaching Alternative Behaviours
Once your dog is able to maintain calm during desensitization sessions, it is time to teach them what to do when confronted with the situation in future. It does not help to simply desensitize them without giving them some form of direction. We recommend encouraging them to go to sleep. It is quiet, healthy, relaxing, good for them and easy to teach. All it really involves is intensive exercise beforehand and rewarding them for lying in their bed. It may be anything however, as long as it does not encourage obsessive behaviour such as running or something equally energetic. Other good options include asking them to sit, lie down, stay or give paw. We are not only showing them what to do in that situation, we are also giving them the opportunity to use their brain to accomplish small tasks. An extremely fearful dog will simply not be able to do this in any way. This is why it is advised to teach your dog several different behaviours to use when they are afraid. During desensitization, ask them to sit, give paw, lie down and stay several times. If they are responding, then tell them to stay in their bed and read your book again. Do this during each session, over the course of several weeks.
Creating a Calm Environment
In order for dogs to feel safe, confident and secure, they need a calm environment. An anxious dog will not get better if chaos continues to reign supreme. We have to make an effort to provide them with this. If we feel stressed, frustrated, angry or worse, our dog will pick up on it. If there is constant noise, shouting, fighting, throwing things around, our dog will probably get worse in short order. The trick is to be considerate of what our dog goes through every time we do this, and make a consistent effort to remove it from our home. It is also important to provide predictability in daily routines, exercise, attention, feeding and grooming. Routine is important for providing stability, as are having fixed rules that are enforced gently, yet consistently.
The market is flooded with products designed to help calm dogs down when in an anxious state. Some contain synthetic pheromones that are sprayed into areas where the dog is most distressed. Others consist of calming scents such as lavender and other herbal remedies. The effectiveness of these products is hotly debated. The truth is that they will not harm our dogs and are worth a try. Thundershirts are excellent body wraps for anxious dogs. They fit snugly around the body, creating physical comfort that helps a dog ‘keep it together’ and feel more secure. Wrapping the body tightly definitely works, but only for dogs that will wear them. If your dog becomes more anxious when you dress them in a Thundershirt, rather take it off and try something else. Music is even advised, it works for us. Just beware of jazz, metal and rock. They are proven to increase anxiety, whereas soft classical music is the most soothing. These products will help us to solve the problem in collaboration with improving the environment, providing exercise, encouraging mental activity and delivering fixed routines and consistent rules.
Medication may sometimes be necessary in extremely bad cases. This is an absolute last resort and is not usually advised until everything else has been attempted without success. There are a variety of anxiety-reducing medicines available for dogs. Do not, ever, buy over-the-counter drugs for your dog. Their physiological makeup is not the same as ours. Always consult with your veterinarian about what is best for your canine and their particular situation. This is not a permanent solution, will not fix the problem and has truly horrifying side effects. However, it may help us to desensitize dogs with less difficulty, so it should only be used as a temporary measure while we deal with the underlying problem.
Anxiety is responsible for the worst behaviour problems in dogs. Fear causes their brain to shut down while their body relies on instinct. The more afraid the dog, the more likely they are to bite, run away and cause harm to themselves or your property. Make sure that you do not escalate their insecurities while trying to resolve the problem. Rather contact an experienced animal behaviourist to help you.