Dog anxiety can be a real problem for dogs. Whether your dog suffers from separation anxiety or just has some anxiety towards new people, places, and sounds, there are certain methods you can use to help them overcome their fears. But remember one thing – this is a process that will take time, and there may be setbacks along the way.
In this article, we’re listing 10 scientific ways to treat dog anxiety and taking a look at how they work before discussing some alternative treatment options as well as statistics about common symptoms associated with dog anxiety disorders.
1. Stimulating their Brain
There is a debate amongst scientists over whether or not dog anxiety comes from a natural fight-or-flight response in dogs themselves. There are two schools of thought on this topic. One is that when a dog feels anxious, their brain pumps out large amounts of adrenaline and other hormones in their body which in turn causes the symptoms we know as anxiety and nervousness in dogs. On this assumption, treating dog anxiety with any kind of pharmaceutical medication will only ever be temporary because it does not focus on the root cause of the problem (the brain).
The other school of thought says that dogs are not actually under attack or faced with any real danger (which would result in all of the adrenaline their brain is pumping out) and that the symptoms of anxious behavior are the result of them trying to cope with something negative that’s happening outside of their current sphere. On this assumption, pharmaceutical medications won’t work if you’re giving them to a dog who is afraid because they’ll be masking (or coating) an underlying problem that can never be resolved once it’s allowed to continue.
So, let’s first look at how stimulating the brain might work as a treatment for dog anxiety. This will help you to come to your own conclusion about the root of the problem.
It has been found that dogs who have suffered from an “adrenaline rush” show signs of brain damage leading scientists to believe that the adrenaline in their body is doing something bad to their brain rather than helping their body react faster. Therefore, it might be best for this type of dog anxiety to find out what is triggering the response in their brain and then eliminate that trigger.
Conversely, it has also been found that dogs who display anxiety with no apparent trigger tend to have a smaller cerebellum than those without anxiety problems. A smaller cerebellum (which is responsible for more complex mental activities such as coordination and fine motor skills) might make your dog more stressed out about the world around them and cause them to display signs of anxiety.
This has led scientists to believe that treating dog anxiety requires a dual approach: first work out what is triggering your dog’s stress and then find a way to stimulate the areas of their brain that might be smaller or damaged.
2. Dog Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
Another method you can use to treat dog anxiety is something called “desensitization and counter-conditioning”. This technique will try to rewire your dog’s brain so the effects of fear are replaced with positive emotions. It was first used by animal trainers in the 1970s to treat dog anxiety caused by noise or other stimuli that dogs couldn’t stand.
The general structure of this treatment is to show the dog a stimulus which makes them feel anxious, then neutralize it completely so they no longer have an emotional response to it, and finally work on pairing the stimulus with something they now do feel good about.
This approach is usually used with dogs who have a fear of something specific, such as being left alone, being around certain dogs, strangers, loud noises, etc. It is also an option for those dogs who have a general fear of life – they tend to be a little trickier to treat because they need to neutralize several different stimuli at once before you can begin to try and build a positive association with them. It’s important not to ignore possible causes of dog anxiety as desensitization and counter-conditioning will only work if you’re working on the right problem.
3. Aversion Training
You can also make your dog feel anxious by giving them a variety of bad experiences associated with whatever is making them feel unsteady or miserable. This will teach them to avoid the stimuli which caused the anxiety in the first place and this form of pet anxiety treatment can be used on any type of canine anxiety (no matter what its cause may be).
When you use aversion training, you will be teaching your dog to associate a certain behavior or stimulus with an unpleasant experience. This is often done by using a shock collar (and will be explored in detail in the next section). It can also be done using a “negative attention” technique where the dog is given something like sour milk which causes them to stop whatever behavior they’re doing and also causes them to feel bad about their actions.
4. Petting and Massage
It has been found that when dogs are placed under stressful situations such as being left alone, petting and massage can reduce their overall anxiety levels significantly. This is because their bodies are able to get more oxytocin (the “feel-good hormone”) which lowers their stress levels and makes them feel better. This form of treatment can be used on any type of dog anxiety since it doesn’t require your dog to learn anything new.
There are two ways you can use massaging and petting to treat your dog’s anxiety:
One method is to give your dog a massage once they have already developed an anxiety disorder. Remember that massaging your dog is not the same thing as giving them lots of affection. You can use it to help them relax when you’re in the same room but don’t do it when you’re out of the house (unless you’ve left them in a secure location).
The second method is to use massage or petting in an attempt to make them feel relaxed in the first place. This can be done with a variety of different tools and techniques depending on the cause of the anxiety.
To begin, you might start by simply rubbing your dog’s body in a brief process called “therapeutic stroking” that is designed to calm your dog down. You might also massage their muscles and joints to help relieve their pain and stiffness (if any). After they’ve settled down, try massaging the top half of their head while you scratch along their spine. If they tense up, it’s likely because they feel anxious about what you’re doing so don’t worry about it – just keep doing whatever feels good for both of you until they settle again.
Exercise is another proven way to reduce the amount of cortisol in your dog’s system (cortisol being the hormone associated with stress) and can help to calm any signs of anxiety they might be exhibiting. The best forms of exercise for reducing canine anxiety are generally considered to be free running, long walks, or training exercises.
Dogs are naturally energetic creatures but it is often hard for them to blow off all their steam in a tiny apartment. This can leave them feeling antsy which could lead to symptoms of dog anxiety. If this is the case, try to take your dog out for at least 45 minutes every day. You’ll not only be helping them feel better about their situation but also be giving them the opportunity to run around and have some fun.
It might sound a little strange but it has been found that changing what your dog eats can reduce dog anxiety and depression – especially in older dogs who tend to exhibit signs of depression and withdrawal. The reason for this is two-fold: firstly, many pet foods contain hormones and other additives which cause the brain to release more serotonin. Secondly, what we feed our pets has a direct effect on the chemical balance of their brain and because the majority of animals (including humans) feel better when they’re eating good quality food, it makes sense that altering their diet would give them more confidence as well.
The use of medication to treat dog anxiety is not very common for a number of reasons. The main concerns people have about this method are that it can have negative side effects, it will mask the problem rather than fix it, and that the main goal of using these drugs is to make your dog feel better rather than learning how to make them feel better themselves.
However, there are many types of medication that can help to reduce dog anxiety. The problem with using the medication as a pet anxiety treatment is that it has to be used correctly and there are a lot of poor examples out there. Some pet owners don’t realize that their dog will need to be weaned off the medication and then may find that it doesn’t reduce their symptoms and that they need to take more than they were originally prescribed, potentially increasing the stress levels in their dog rather than reducing them. For better results, your vet should prescribe your dog an option that can be used for a longer time period (like lorazepam or clomipramine).
8. Using a Shock Collar
The most controversial treatment for dog anxiety are what are known as shock collars or e-collars which deliver an electric shock to your dog whenever they bark or seem stressed out. This type of dog anxiety treatment doesn’t get very much attention (and none whatsoever from the CDC), but it is widespread and has been linked to more than 3,000 deaths in dogs in the US.
This leaves little doubt that there are some serious health risks associated with using a shock collar to treat canine anxiety. You should always consult your vet before using or administering any kind of medication, but in this particular case, you should be extremely wary of using one in an attempt to treat your dog’s anxiety. Your dog can easily die if they are shocked for several hours straight because their bodies don’t have the capacity to build up enough cortisol to protect them from permanent damage.
There is also a concern with using a shock collar to treat dog anxiety in that the goal is to reduce the amount of cortisol in your dog’s body so they feel better, but this cannot be done in a controlled and safe manner if you try to do it with pain and an electric shock.
9. Taking Your Dog to a Veterinary Clinic
If you have a dog that is showing signs of anxiety, it is very important that you seek medical attention in order to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan in place in order to prevent permanent damage. As in humans, canine anxiety can be treated by using either medication, therapy, or aversion training. Once the root causes of the dog’s anxiety are found and treated (assuming they can be) there should be no reason why your dog will continue to experience symptoms such as excessive panting or trembling after the treatment is over.
If you notice your dog has trouble sleeping, is panting excessively, or seems nervous around certain things or in certain places then speak to your vet. There are various forms of treatment that can help reduce the effects of dog anxiety, but it is important that you get a proper diagnosis first in order to ensure you are choosing the right one for your pooch.
10. Changing Their Environment
If your dog is timid around people or other dogs, then exposing them to different social situations can be very helpful for reducing their anxiety. Exposure to different social situations gradually desensitizes dogs to anxiety-producing stimuli. The first step in doing this is to take them on long walks near locations that you know cause them anxiety. This has the effect of training your dog to see that place as something which is not threatening. Once they are acclimated, you should try bringing another dog along so they can become friends with your dog.
There are many ways you can deal with dog anxiety in your pet and hundreds of different techniques which you can test out and see which is most effective for them. If your dog is already experiencing signs of anxiety, then start using some form of treatment immediately. The longer they go without treatment, the more difficult they will be able to handle it in the future.
The best way to treat dog anxiety is to take an active approach. There are obviously many ways you can deal with your pet’s anxiety. Each dog is unique and will react differently to various treatments. You could try using several different treatments and combinations and see which one works best for your dog’s anxiety. The more you do to help your dog, the less anxious they will be and the better they will feel about their home environment. But if you’re unsure where to turn to begin your treatment, don’t hesitate – call your veterinarian – they’re there to help you and know what treatments work best for dogs.
To explore more, check out our other articles on dog anxiety.
Have you ever had to deal with dog anxiety? How did you, or are you currently dealing with it? Did it work? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.