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Noticing anxiety in your dog can be hard. They might pace around, bark, whine, and seem generally agitated—and you’re not entirely sure what to do about it. The good news is that, with the right anxiety dog training and evidence-based medication, your dog can start to manage their anxiety and get back to wagging their tail and playing fetch like they love.
In this guide from Dutch, we’ll explain what you need to know about dog anxiety, how to train a dog with separation anxiety, and how a subscription with Dutch can help.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Why Do Dogs Experience Anxiety?
- Signs Of Canine Anxiety
- Training Tactics For Dogs With Anxiety
- Anxiety Dog Training: Frequently Asked Questions
- Wrapping Up
Note: We'll use "anxiety" as a generic term throughout this post because it's a more common phrase for most pet parents. However, it’s important to note that veterinary behaviorists use the phrase “fear, anxiety, and stress” to describe related behavioral problems in dogs. For more information on fear, anxiety, and stress, refer to our post on dog anxiety.
Let’s start by explaining the basics. Why do dogs experience anxiety in the first place?
Why Do Dogs Experience Anxiety?
Many people are surprised to learn that dogs can suffer from anxiety. However, just like humans, dogs are emotionally complicated, and can have different reactions to their environments the same way that humans can. And, just like humans can become anxious under different circumstances, dogs can become anxious too. Here are some of the most common causes for dog anxiety:
- Socialization stressors: Dogs that are not accustomed to spending time with other dogs, or other humans, can become more easily stressed by things in their social environment. Socialization can be especially important between three and 14-16 weeks of age, however, continued positive experiences are also essential as your dog’s brain develops and social maturation occurs from 1-2 years of age.
- Traumatic event: Traumatic events may range from abusive past owners to a fear of lightning and thunderstorms. If your dog has experienced trauma in the past, this puts them at risk for an anxious disposition.
- Genetics: Family histories of anxiety, as well as certain dog breeds, may cause your dog to behave more anxiously.
- Prenatal factors: Certain conditions from their early puppy development, even before they were born, may cause them to be anxious. Prenatal factors may include poor nutrition as well as chronic physical or emotional stress in the mom.
- Change of owner: If you’ve recently adopted a dog, you may find that it experiences many anxiety symptoms. Dogs are highly social creatures, and finding themselves in new social situations can be a source of anxiety for many dogs. In most cases, newly adopted dogs will acclimate to their new owners, but if symptoms persist, you may need to consider more direct treatments for your dog’s anxiety.
- Change in schedule: Dogs can become highly accustomed to their schedules—when they’re fed, when they go for walks, when you come home, and more. If their schedule changes, dogs can suddenly feel out of place, causing anxiety. Some dogs are comfortable with schedule changes, but if your dog is more prone to anxious responses, changing up their schedule often may cause them distress.
- Change in physical location or environment: Just like changes in schedule, dogs can also struggle with changes in their environment. If you move to a new home, travel, or simply bring your dog for errands they’re not used to, your dog may experience anxiety. Keep in mind, behavior is very dependent on the environment of an individual. This includes the people and other animals in the environment, not just the location. If somebody moves in, you get a new pet, or a baby is born, your dog may experience heightened anxiety.
- Sudden absence of owner: Your dog considers you a loving family member and expects you to be around to provide them with direction and comfort. If you’re gone suddenly, this can confuse them, causing them to behave anxiously.
Anxiety in dogs is caused by a mix of external factors rather than a single cause. Dog anxiety can be triggered by a variety of causes, including separation from their owner and as a result of cognitive decline in old age. Whatever the cause of your dog's anxiety, the most essential thing is to determine how to treat them so they may have a happier and healthier life.
Signs Of Canine Anxiety
Because dogs can’t express their emotions through human language, it’s often harder for pet parents to notice anxiety in dogs than it is to notice and diagnose it in humans. Some of the more common signs to look out for include:
- Drooling and panting more than usual: A dog with anxiety may drool and pant excessively due to the stress of being left alone, new dogs in their environment, or whatever other triggers they may have.
- Pacing in circles or in straight lines: Some dogs with anxiety may pace about the home in circles or in straight lines on a regular basis.
- Attempting to flee: A dog suffering from anxiety may attempt to flee the cause of the stressor, including your home if they struggle with dog separation anxiety. They may try to dig or eat their way through windows or doors, perhaps injuring themselves.
- Excessive howling or barking: A dog with anxiety will likely howl, bark, and whimper as a reunification effort. This practice has been observed in wolves who howl when a member has been separated from their pack. Researchers suggest that allelomimetic howling is likely used to strengthen the cohesiveness of the pack. Therefore, howling may be considered a natural response in dogs experiencing separation anxiety.1
- Urinating or defecating in the house after being housetrained: Even if they've been potty trained, a dog with anxiety will urinate/defecate in the house if they are triggered by one of their anxiety triggers—they may even have dog diarrhea.
- Destructive behavior: Chewing, digging, and scratching are destructive activities that some dogs with anxiety engage in. They will gnaw or scratch on door frames, window sills, doors, and other home objects.
Each of these symptoms can also be signs of other illnesses and disorders—not just anxiety. It’s important to bring your concerns to a vet so that they can review your pet’s symptoms and provide a diagnosis. Some dogs, for example, urinate when they are stimulated or get physical touch. This isn't an indication of anxiety; rather, it's the dog's reaction to what's going on in their environment. Urination can also happen if your dog hasn't been properly housetrained and isn't sure what to do while you're not around.
Similarly, dogs might behave destructively simply if they are poorly trained, if they are young and playful, or if they are scared or disturbed by something in their environment. The fact is that it takes time to determine whether a dog has anxiety, so it’s good to be patient and work with a vet to ensure that you get your dog the diagnosis they need to receive the treatment they deserve.
Training Tactics For Dogs With Anxiety
Dogs with anxiety can be treated in a number of different ways. While medication is often an effective option, especially medication like the evidenced-based options a Dutch-affiliated vet can connect you with, anxiety dog training can also be a helpful way to ensure your dog feels comfortable and at ease.
There are multiple training tactics that you may want to try. Some of the most common options include:
- Counterconditioning: A technique designed to replace a positive emotional response to certain stimuli with a negative one. Often, anxiety is a conditioned response to some stressor, like lightning, or the mailman. One way to help alleviate your dog’s anxiety is through counterconditioning. The technique involves the exposure of triggering stimulus at a low threshold so that the dog is not stressed. The exposure is paired with positive things such as treats, playtime, or food.2, 3
- Desensitization: The aim of this approach is to slowly and steadily expose your dog to different anxiety-inducing stimuli, until they gradually become less sensitive to them. You'll want to take it cautiously at first, ideally over a few weeks. In the meantime, you’ll want to avoid exposure to the triggering stimuli outside of your training sessions. If you decide to attempt this treatment option, continue with caution because there is a potential that it can exacerbate your dog’s anxiety. Keep a close eye on your dog's reactions to see if it's genuinely working or if it's making matters worse. Ultimately, this training mechanism should be done under the guidance of a trained professional as incorrect technique may worsen symptoms of anxiety.
- For dogs with separation anxiety: Some dogs get "pre-departure anxiety," which is when they become concerned because they realize you will be leaving them soon. Getting your car keys and putting on your shoes, for example, might cause anxiety. To prevent your dog from linking these activities with worry, teach them that picking up their keys or putting on their shoes doesn't always signal they're going, or take it a step further, and hide these things. For example, you could put your shoes on outside where you’re out of view from your anxious pet.
- Environmental management: Making your dog's environment more conducive to their preferences can be an effective way to reduce anxiety. By adjusting your dog's environment, you can help them cope with their anxiety. Creating a cozy, “sanctuary space” for your dog to relax is a great tool to help them settle down when they’re starting to feel the effects of anxiety set in. Enriching their environment with food puzzles and taxing their brain with exercises like nosework and teaching new tricks can also help them to focus on something other than their fears and concerns. If you have the means to do so, investing in a dog walking service or taking your dog to daycare can also help optimize your pet’s environment.
- Medication: Many dogs benefit from a medication-based approach to anxiety. Because anxiety is a behavioral disorder, it seldom goes away on its own, even with the help of many of these treatments. Often, your nervous dog will require prescription medicine to calm their mind before they can begin to acquire new knowledge and directions.
Anxiety Dog Training: Frequently Asked Questions
You have questions, Dutch has answers—find quick responses to FAQs below.
Can you train a dog to help with anxiety?
You can train a dog to help its anxiety using one of the methods listed above: counterconditioning and desensitization, coupled with a careful and accurate use of anti-anxiety medication. It’s a good idea to approach your anti-anxiety training under the guidance of an appropriate professional at first, as you don’t want to accidentally trigger and worsen any symptoms your dog may be experiencing.
How do I get my dog to stop being so anxious?
The best way to get your dog to stop being anxious is to treat their anxiety symptoms directly. Anxiety treatment consists of a combination of anxiety dog training and medication.
How do I know if my dog has anxiety?
Symptoms can include drooling, pacing, fleeing stimuli, excessive howling, barking, or whining, urination or defecation inside the home, and destructive behavior. However, each of these symptoms can also be signs of other illnesses and disorders, so it’s important that you have a professional vet examine your dog, to ensure that they get the correct diagnosis.
It's scary to learn that your dog is suffering from anxiety. You might worry about the damage your dog will do to themselves or their environment, whether it's urine on the carpet or a chewed door. Self-inflicted injuries, such as broken teeth and wounded paws, can occur from anxiety too. Dealing with a dog who suffers from different forms of anxiety may make you continually concerned about their well-being and interrupt your regular routine. Finding the best treatment options ensures a higher quality of life for you and your pet.
Anxiety in dogs can be alleviated in a variety of methods, ranging from desensitization to anxiety medication. Curious about finding the right medication treatment? Check out Dutch.com if you're unsure whether medicine is the best option for your dog. You can consult with licensed veterinarians from the comfort of your own home using Dutch. Our telemedicine for pets gives you access to medicines to help manage your pet's separation anxiety without having to leave the house or take them to the clinic. Begin with an online consultation and we'll work with you to decide the best course of action or treatment. Within 7 days, you'll have your pet’s prescription, which will be delivered right to your door.
- Lund, Jørgen Damkjer, and Mads Chr Jørgensen. "Behaviour patterns and time course of activity in dogs with separation problems." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 63.3 (1999): 219-236.
- Mazur, James E.. Learning & Behavior (p. 76). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Landsberg, Gary M., and Sagi Denenberg. “Behavioral Problems of Dogs - Behavior.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/behavioral-problems-of-dogs?query=separation+anxiety.