Top tips to help anxious dogs
Our canine companions are known as man’s best friend for good reason. Their unwavering loyalty, boundless affection, companionship and endless love enrich our lives. However, just like their humans, dogs can often experience stress and anxiety. Something that can manifest in various forms, affecting their overall wellbeing and happiness.
In collaboration with Joii Pet Care, we’ve produced some meaningful guidance about living with an anxious dog, and shared supportive ways to help make life easier for all parties in challenging times.
And if you’re an on-the-go pet parent and don’t have time to sit and read, why not check out our podcast episode on dog anxiety with Sarah Jones, Founder of My Anxious Dog, and Natalie Light, Director of Behaviour at Joii Pet Care, available here from 21st November 2023.
Understanding dog anxiety
Dog anxiety can stem from various factors, including genetics, experiences, environment and even certain health conditions. So, to really help your dog learn how to manage their fear, it’s essential to first learn how to recognise the signs of anxiety.
Common types of dog anxiety
Dogs are social animals and can become distressed when left alone for periods of time. This separation anxiety can lead to destructive behaviour, excessive barking, and signs of depression.
Many dogs are frightened by loud noises like thunderstorms, fireworks, or construction sounds. They may tremble, hide, or try to escape when heard.
While most dogs are social, like us, some are naturally a bit more shy or fearful around other animals or unfamiliar people. As a result, they may seem withdrawn in social situations and, if really pushed, display increased signs of aggression.
If your dog suffers from generalised anxiety, they can exhibit signs of constant worry and restlessness, and may be sensitive to environmental changes or changes to their routine.
Signs of dog anxiety
Identifying the signs of anxiety in your dog is important for early intervention, making sure they get the help they need quickly and preventing any challenges from getting worse. Common symptoms include:
- Excessive barking: Barking or whining may increase when a dog is feeling anxious or distressed.
- Destructive behaviour: Anxiety can lead to chewing furniture, digging holes, or scratching doors and walls.
- Pacing or restlessness: An anxious dog may exhibit restlessness, pacing back and forth, struggle to stay still or settle down.
- Panting and trembling: Some dogs may start panting and trembling regardless of the weather.
- Unusual toilet habits: Dogs with anxiety may have accidents indoors even if they are housetrained.
- Withdrawal: Socially anxious dogs may withdraw from interactions, trying to avoid what’s worrying them.
- Aggression: Anxiety can mean aggressive behaviours escalate in dogs, especially in unfamiliar situations.
How can I find a dog that’s less likely to be anxious?
While helping dogs cope with stress is important, it's also worth discussing how to choose a dog breed or certain pooch that may be less prone to anxiety, before bringing them into your life. Choosing a dog with a temperament that’s more likely to align with your lifestyle and preferences can help prevent anxiety-related issues in the future. Here are some factors to consider when making this big decision:
Some dog breeds are known for their calm and confident personalities, which can help make them less prone to anxiety. While every dog is different, some don’t rely on their owner for as much attention as other canines might. Make sure to research different breeds and their typical temperaments to find one that suits your lifestyle.
The vets at Joii explain that a dog can be anxious from birth, especially if the mum has had a traumatic experience whilst pregnant or during the birth. Asking questions about their history can give you an insight into how the puppy might be feeling. Observing the behaviour of the mother and father can also provide you with insight into what to expect when your puppy’s older.
Finding the right breeder
Natalie, Joii’s Clinical Animal Behaviourist, says it’s worth finding a breeder’s home that mimics your own lifestyle (if buying a puppy), which may mean the dog will be less anxious and more prepared for a similar home life experience with you. For example, if you have a busy household, find a breeder that’s the same to make things easier for you and your new companion.
If you're adopting from a rescue, check to see if they have conducted any temperament tests. This assessment can help identify dogs that show relaxed behaviour, which can indicate a lower likelihood of developing anxiety, as well as ensuring their animals find the forever home that’s right for them.
Ask about the dog's history in different environments and situations. Dogs that have been well-socialised from an early age tend to be more adaptable and less anxious in different stages of their lives.
Meet and greet
Always try to spend time with the dog before buying or adopting them. This gives you a chance to observe how they interact with people, other animals, and their environment.
Medical issues or chronic pain can contribute to anxiety and other problems in dogs. A thorough veterinary examination is essential before bringing your new pet home.
Consider your own lifestyle and activity level when doing your research. Some dogs will need more exercise and mental stimulation than others, so choosing a dog that matches what you are able to provide can reduce the likelihood of anxiety-related issues resulting from boredom.
Helping your anxious dog
While research is key, there may still be times when your pooch becomes anxious but that doesn’t mean they are any less deserving of our love our time. Luckily, there are several methods you can use to help manage and ease your dog's anxiety, improving your lives and happiness together.
Working with a professional dog trainer or behaviourist can help you to understand the source of your companion's anxiety and support you with developing a training plan to address your dog's specific needs.
Dogs thrive on routine and predictability. As such, establishing a consistent schedule for feeding, exercise, and playtime can help reduce anxiety as they’ll know what to expect throughout the day.
If they show signs of becoming comfortable, gradually introduce your dog to new people, animals, or environments to provide positive experiences that can help alleviate social anxiety.
Regular physical and mental activity are essential for emotional well-being so be sure to engage your dog in daily walks, scent games, fetch, or treat toys.
For dogs with separation anxiety, crate training can provide a safe, secure and comforting space for them. Make the crate a positive experience by giving them positive praise when they use it and try placing treats and their favourite toys inside too.
Gradual exposure to anxiety triggers, such as loud noises or unfamiliar people, can help your dog become less reactive over time, keeping them calm in situations that may have previously caused them stress.
Never punish your dog for displaying anxious behaviour as this can lead to fear, increased anxiety, and confusion.
Use yellow colouring to signal their unease
Using the colour yellow for nervous dogs can help “give them their voice”, letting passers-by and other dog walkers know that they’re anxious and that they need a bit more space.
Traffic light days
Keep a record of your days together, marking each one as either red for a bad day, green for good, or amber for an iffy day.
If your dog has a reaction to something whilst out on a walk, for example a person or another animal, this can be classed as a red day. Your dog’s stress and fear markers have been heightened and sometimes this can take hours or even days to come back down to green again.
If their stress is heightened, the chances of them reacting again will be very high. Natalie says that if your dog has a red day, “it’s important to give them a green day the following day,” meaning no walks outdoors (if it means bumping into something that makes them reactive) and staying indoors or in the garden instead. Here, you can practice enrichment (playing games or training) to help keep them stimulated while easing their stress.
Anxious or reactive dogs often get a negative image, but these experiences can actually create a strong bond between dog and owner through the additional training undertaken and the increased level of trust this type of activity inevitably builds. Your pooch will be forever grateful of your loving efforts as you help them enjoy a happier and healthier life by your side.