Hello pet lovers! This week’s article came by request from a good friend, so we’re taking a small diversion from our ongoing travel series to talk about anxiety in pets, specifically in dogs. Our Elsa is a nervous pup, and getting her anxiety under control was a definite source of stress before we got better tools for dealing with it. Enjoy the read, and check out some more resources at the bottom of the article.
Canine anxiety is a real problem for many dogs. It often manifests in unwanted behaviors with other dogs and people, including excessive barking, growling, hiding, and/or running from the frightening stimulus. Fearful animals can lash out in challenging situations, putting them at risk of biting another pet or even a person in a moment of extreme fear. The anxious dog can be difficult to have in public, and can be scary for any pet parent – including me! My pup’s anxiety has been a source of fear and frustration and has had me asking, “why her, why us?” a great many times. A cursory look at the research out there shows the sources of anxiety can vary widely – genetic predisposition, trauma, medical problems, and/or a general lack of confidence can all contribute to canine anxiety. Like us, dogs have physical, mental, and emotional needs, and for the anxious dog, all of these elements can factor into their well-being. For most dogs, including ours, the source is likely a combination of many factors. So, what to do when your dog is anxious? Taking a holistic approach can start anywhere, but I’d recommend reaching out to a trusted pet professional first.
Talk to your veterinarian
It is always wise to consult your veterinarian as your first step in treating any physical or emotional issue in your pet. While there are prescription medications out there to treat canine anxiety, not all cases of anxiety need to be medicated, and there are some wonderful holistic supplements your vet might recommend. Some veterinarians may prescribe supplements available only to veterinary professionals, others will advocate for behavioral interventions before prescribing medications or supplements of any kind. Our vet provided a combination of supplements and training resources that have worked great for our pooch, with the possibility of meds as a backup plan, which has worked great for our girl. Not only can a veterinarian help address any medical causes of anxiety, but they can also be a great resource for behavioral intervention as well, including recommendations for local dog trainers/behaviorist with expertise in anxious pets.
Get that canine brain working through training and exercise.
Even if your veterinarian doesn’t have a particular dog trainer in mind, it is definitely worth the effort to research a qualified dog trainer or canine behaviorist. A dog trainer is another canine professional who can be of great help in managing your dog’s anxiety. We work with a great local trainer who runs everything from agility classes and Canine Good Citizen (CGC) courses, but her most important quality is her focus on rewards-based training and positive reinforcement. Getting rewards for learning is a great confidence booster for your dog, and a confident dog is often less anxious and less afraid. When researching trainers, look for certification from a dog training association like The Association of Professional Dog trainers (www.adpt.com) or the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (www.ccpdt.org). When looking for a trainer, ask them about their methods and look for a trainer who emphasizes rewards for positive behavior, consistency, and kindness in their classes. These are the qualities that will help your dog overcome their fears through training. Group classes or individual sessions can work equally well. Work with your trainer to pick activities and classes that will build your pup’s confidence and help them learn skills too!
Trainers and veterinarians may also recommend exercise as part of anxiety treatment. Exercise is important for all dogs, but especially for a high-energy, anxious pup. Some high energy breeds will even become physically destructive when not given enough time to run and play, and a destroyed home on top of an anxious dog is no fun for any pet owner. Even a simple game of fetch gets you and your dog out and moving. Daily walks or runs, plenty of yard time, and/or hiking can all help your dog get in their exercise, and help mitigate symptoms of anxiety. If your dog isn’t much of a “run and play” type, or your home doesn’t have the space for bounding and playing, games can be a great way to get some energy out too. Try some confidence-building games, like gentle sessions of tug where you let your dog win, or hiding treats for them to find in your home (tip: this works best in single-dog households). Remember to give big praise and love when they succeed by getting the toy or treat, and your dog’s confidence will start to blossom.
Treating anxiety can be…fun?
Sometimes, it can be easy to focus on what our dog is frightened of and trying to avoid that. Try taking the opposite approach – what does your dog like? Working with your dog in situations they enjoy can help to build their confidence and give the two of you the courage to conquer new activities.
If your dog is not so fond of other dogs and is additionally fearful of people, try developing your bond with your dog one-on-one. Even the most fearful, anxious dogs usually enjoy special time with their best friend, and that’s you, their person! You can exercise with them or play some games with them, like those mentioned above.
Does your dog like other dogs? If so, try to incorporate some play time with other pups via play dates, dog parks, or enrolling in a doggie daycare program. Socializing with other dogs can be fun for your dog and can help them increase their confidence, a key factor in overcoming anxiety. If your dog loves dogs and is fearful of new people, the overall confidence-building of puppy playdates and presence of other humans in a dog-based, safe environment can help your dog build positive associations between safe places and people.
Dealing with canine anxiety and fear can be just as scary for us pet parents as it is for our furry companions. The fear that they could hurt themselves or someone else because they are afraid is a terrible feeling. But there is hope! Canine anxiety can be managed and your dog’s quality of life improved with the help qualified professionals and a little bit of time and effort on your end. It can seem a daunting task to work through their anxiety, but remember to be gentle with your dog and yourself – try to have fun! Half of combatting anxiety is playing games, training, and bonding with your dog, which is some of the best parts of pet ownership. Don’t hesitate to talk to your veterinarian today, and start taking steps to a less fearful and more fun life for you and your pet. It’s an ongoing process, but you can do it!
Remember all, I’m not a vet, and if your canine (or feline!) companion is struggling with anxiety, you should talk to your trusted veterinary professional to rule out other medical problems and to treat any symptoms of anxiety in your furry friend. For more resources, check out the links below for further reading on canine anxiety and resources to help.
The American Veterinary Association (AVMA)
Canine Anxiety https://www.avma.org/News/Journals/Collections/Pages/AVMA-Collections-Canine-Anxiety-Disorders.aspx
Noise Aversion Anxiety and Treatment https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/170701a.aspx
The American Kennel Club on Anxiety Treatment: http://www.akc.org/content/health/articles/treating-dog-anxiety/
Canine Behavior Associations and Resources
The Association of Professional Dog trainers www.adpt.com
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers www.ccpdt.org
The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants https://iaabc.org/