Anxiety isn’t just a human trait—animals can also feel it to varying degrees as well. And much like humans, it can manifest in different ways and be triggered by different factors.
Unfortunately for many dogs, these factors are incredibly common. Some pets feel anxious amid seemingly benign everyday activities and not just during Fourth of July fireworks or at annual vet appointments. A simple walk around the block might cause encounters with loud sirens, large trucks, unwelcome strangers, and unfamiliar dogs. Even at home, their guard is up—from being left alone when their owner departs to the sudden ring of a doorbell or a crowded gathering in their personal space.
Because anxiety can cause other behavioral issues in dogs, knowing how to calm an anxious pup before it adopts dangerous or destructive habits is important, as is understanding what puts your particular pet at ease.
“It’s rarely one thing that you’re going to do that’s going to alleviate the stress,” Janice Triptow, a certified professional dog behavior consultant and trainer, tells Mental Floss. “It’s generally going to be a combination of things that you put together that you hope will provide some relief.”
To help discover the right combination for your canine, we spoke to several veterinary behavior experts to learn how to keep anxious dogs calm, no matter the scenario.
1. Consult your veterinarian to rule out a medical issue.
Although chronic anxiety is very likely behavioral, sometimes dogs are more anxious or irritable when they’re in physical pain or discomfort. According to Dr. Rachel Malamed, a veterinarian specializing in behavioral medicine, it’s wise to schedule a checkup with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues. “This is particularly important if your pet is behaving uncharacteristically or if there is a sudden change in behavior,” she tells Mental Floss. For instance, if your dog has an abrupt loss of appetite, what you may assume is an anxiety response could actually be illness or pain, which can, in turn, lead to anxious behaviors.
2. Pay attention to your dog’s body language.
It’s one thing to recognize the more obvious signs of anxiety, such as shivering or cowering, but anxiety can present itself differently, even within the same dog depending on the situation. “Look at your dog for subtle signs,” Valli Parthasarathy, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Mental Floss, “like if the ears are back, the tail is down, if he’s crouched, has a furrowed brow, is panting or lip-licking.”
Restlessness or overexcitability can be an oft-undetected sign of anxiety, as can aggressive behavior. In fact, a dog who growls, bares its teeth, lunges, or bites has likely had less aggressive cues ignored. “If a dog is feeling threatened and the early signs of fear are not noted, they may resort to these as a defensive response,” Malamed says. “When we do not notice these earlier signs, and we continue to do something that is creating anxiety, we can teach them to hide those warning signs and bite instead. For the dog, this may be more effective at making the source of discomfort go away.”
3. Look out for the “anticipatory effect.”
Just as pet owners should watch for subtle signs in their dog’s behavior, they should note subtle shifts in situations that cause stress. “One of the big things we see with thunderstorms is you can get secondary predictors,” Parthasarathy says. A dog may pee on the carpet immediately following a clap of thunder, but the dog likely showed signs of anxiety well before the storm itself—like when the wind picked up or the sky began to darken. “Similarly, for dogs with separation-related distress, they can start showing anticipatory anxiety signs,” Parthasarathy says. “They follow the [owner] around, they start to pant or pace before the [owner] actually leaves.”
During these anticipatory moments, try to redirect your dog away from the stressful situation and then reward the calm behavior with a high-value treat. “This will give your dog predictable information on what to do in a challenging situation,” Malamed says. The key is to teach your dog to focus in this way before they’re fully in fight-or-flight mode, when they won’t be able to respond to commands.
4. Avoid flooding.
A common mistake well-meaning pet owners make is “flooding,” which is intentional, constant exposure to a trigger. For a dog that barks at the doorbell, one might think that continuously ringing the bell will acclimate them to the sound and they’ll eventually feel more comfortable. But that isn’t the case. “If it does look at all successful, it’s because the dog has gone to the edge of its upset and is exhausted, and doesn’t have energy left to react,” Triptow says. “That can actually sensitize the dog to the trigger and make him say to himself, ‘See? I knew that was bad!’ What you’ve done is inadvertently created more fear.”
5. Practice counter-conditioning.
Instead of flooding, Malamed suggests “desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques that allow for gradual exposure” to an uncomfortable stimulus at a level that doesn’t provoke a fear response. “The stimulus can be paired with a special treat to create a positive association.” For instance, if a dog gets anxious on leashed walks because of close encounters with other dogs, an owner might first get the dog comfortable taking its harness on and off inside the controlled environment of the home. Then, the owner might take their dog to just outside the front door on the leash. The next step might be going for a walk, and upon seeing another dog in the distance, giving their dog a treat and immediately walking away. “Eventually, you can slowly, slowly increase the exposure,” Triptow says.
6. Desensitize your dog to the vet.
One thing most anxious animals have in common is a fear of the vet, and even though it’s typically only an annual experience, it’s imperative that dogs feel comfortable in such a setting. As often as you can, Malamed recommends short visits to the dog’s vet clinic. “Ask your veterinarian to schedule a ‘fun’ appointment where they can play with your puppy and give treats in the exam room,” she suggests. If that’s not possible, just popping into the reception area to hop on the scale and get snuggles from the reception staff can do the trick.
Along the same lines, Triptow suggests working on “handling skills” that are often associated with checkups. “Work on the vet holds where they have to hold the dog for an injection,” she says. “Lift their lips to examine their teeth, look in their ears, lift their tails, massage their paws and nails. If the only time a dog experiences that is at the vet, a majority of dogs aren’t going to handle it well.”
7. Exercise your dog’s mind.
Long walks or a rigorous game of fetch can tire a dog out and even relax them, but for anxious dogs in particular, “mental exercise is often more important than physical exercise,” Parthasarathy says. “A lot of times, anxiety to some extent is due to a lack of control. If we can give them things they can control, it helps.” Scent-based nose work games—such as finding the hidden treat under one of several cups—are a great option, as are interactive toys, like ball launchers and puzzle feeders. “Use mental stimulation every day, especially when they’re separated,” Parthasarathy says. “It’s like us reading a book. Give them something to do.”
8. Stock up on calming products.
Depending on the situation, a dog might benefit from a ThunderShirt, a calming wrap similar to a swaddling blanket, or a white noise machine. Triptow also suggests synthetic products that mimic the pheromones a dog secretes during rearing to calm its litter: “These can be used in the form of a diffuser or a plastic collar that fits snugly around the dog’s neck so that the chemicals are released by the dog’s body heat.”
She also suggests asking your veterinarian about nutraceuticals, like melatonin or tryptophan, or CBD products. “Typically, veterinarians are hesitant in recommending these and are far more willing to embrace something that’s been scientifically tested, but if they are against an over-the-counter product, find out why,” Triptow says. “‘Is it because you don’t use it and don’t know enough about it or because my dog is susceptible to seizures and therefore I shouldn’t be using anything that could be contraindicated?’ Understand what their objection is, and understand that there’s a spectrum of the quality of a product.”
9. Do not punish your dog for being anxious.
Verbal or physical reprimands—from yelling or hitting to the use of a spray bottle or shock collar—for unwanted behavior can actually have the reverse effect on a dog. If you smack a dog on the nose whenever he lunges at a bicyclist, you may be inadvertently teaching your dog that bikes actually cause pain. “These techniques can lead to fear and can actually increase aggression, and animals can also become fearful of their handler,” Malamed says. “Use positive reinforcement methods to teach the dog what to do versus what not to do by rewarding desirable behaviors.”
10. Consider prescription medication.
In more extreme cases, behavioral medications are worth considering. “Prescription medications can be very helpful, especially for dogs where the stressors are unavoidable or constant or there are multiple situations in which the dog is exhibiting anxious behavior,” Parthasarathy says. Consult your vet to determine what’s right for your dog, whether it’s a daily pill akin to Prozac or Zoloft or a situational sedative to have on hand when needed. “Remember: the use of meds doesn’t mean you’re a bad owner or that you’ve failed them,” Parthasarathy says. “It’s just like with people. Some have anxiety to the extent it can be difficult to live day to day, and the same is true for dogs. It can help reduce their anxiety so they can have a better quality of life.”