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Stress Can Shorten Your Dog's Life: 8 Ways to Calm Him

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to calm down a dog with anxiety

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs can and do suffer from stress, and chronic stress can affect your animal companion’s wellbeing and quality of life
  • Stressors in your dog’s world include changes in his environment, loud noises, lack of opportunities to express natural behaviors, and punishment-based training methods
  • Signs your dog is stressed include tucked or lowered tail, nose or lip licking, and panting
  • It’s important to reduce or eliminate as many stressors in your dog’s life as possible; there are also many things you can do to calm and soothe your stressed-out pet

Fortunately, it's becoming more widely recognized and accepted that even the most pampered pooch encounters stress in his or her daily life. The things our dogs experience as stressful are often quite different from human stressors, but that doesn't mean they're any less significant. In fact, research shows stress can seriously affect the wellbeing of dogs.

According to a 2010 study, "There is evidence to suggest that the stress of living with a fear or anxiety disorder can have negative effects on health and lifespan in the domestic dog."1 For example, when your dog is under stress, her body releases an excessive amount of norepinephrine — known as the "fight or flight hormone" — which can alter the gut microbiome and interfere with gastrointestinal (GI) tract motility.2

Some dogs experience only fleeting episodes of stress, but others deal with longer term, chronic stress. The more you know about what triggers your pet's stress, how he behaves when he feels stressed, and what stress can do to his health, the better equipped you'll be to recognize the signs and take steps to reduce or eliminate stressors.

10 Situations That Cause Stress for Most Dogs

If you're unfamiliar with common canine stress triggers, take a few minutes to review the following list:3

  1. Changes in household routine — new job schedule, kids returning to school, holidays, etc.
  2. Invasion of personal space — disruption when resting, hugging, kissing, forcibly restraining, etc.
  3. Changes in household members — new baby, new pet, loss of pet or human, houseguests, etc.
  4. Separation from human family members — separation anxiety, etc.
  5. Changes in housing — moving to a new home, boarding, etc.
  6. Lack of outlets for normal breed behaviors — herding, running, retrieving, etc.
  7. Novelty — exposure to new items, new people, new animals, etc.
  8. Loud noises — fireworks, thunderstorms, etc.
  9. Punitive training methods — shock collars, yelling, hitting, etc.
  10. Poor (strained) relationships with other household members (pets or humans), etc.

Obviously, some of the items in the above list can be unavoidable and/or positive from your human perspective, such as a move to a new home or a change in work schedules. However, there are also several triggers on the list you can reduce or eliminate to minimize stress in your dog's life. These include:

  • Increasing your dog's daily physical activity level, since most dogs, especially working and sporting breeds, need much more exercise than they get.
  • Ensuring your dog isn't left alone too often, since canines are social creatures who get lonely and bored when forced to be by themselves for long stretches. If there's no one home during the day to keep your dog company, I recommend recruiting a friend or neighbor or hiring a dog walker to take him for a stroll around the block, at a minimum. An alternative is doggy daycare.
  • Making sure everyone in the family understands and respects your dog's need for uninterrupted sleep and appropriate canine-friendly handling.
  • Replacing punitive training with positive reinforcement behavior training. Research shows yelling at your dog creates anxiety.4

As you go about identifying the triggers for your dog's stress, also consider her history. If you adopted her, what do you know about her past? Was she abused or neglected? Is she stressed mainly around men or kids? Other dogs?

How to Know if Your Dog Is Feeling Stressed

Ten classic signs of stress in dogs include:5

  1. Nose/lip licking
  2. Yawning
  3. Panting
  4. Reduced or absent appetite
  5. Diarrhea
  6. Tail lowered or tucked
  7. Ears pulled or pinned back
  8. Cowering/crouched body posture and/or hiding
  9. Trembling/shaking
  10. Increased vocalizations – whining, howling, barking

Tips to Calm a Stressed-Out Dog

1. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, playtime, mental stimulation, attention and affection. Daily rigorous exercise is one of the most overlooked, free and effective treatments for reducing stress that very few pet parents take advantage of.

2. When your dog will be home alone, leave him with an article of clothing or blanket with your scent on it and a treat-release toy, place small treats and his favorite toys around the house for him to discover, and put on some soothing doggy music before you leave.

3. Also play calm, soothing music before a possible stressor occurs. This may relax your dog and have the added bonus of drowning out distressing noises.

4. If you've adopted a dog who may have had a rocky start in life, I highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which is designed to help rescue dogs and their adopters learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond.

5. If your dog responds well to pressure applied to her body, invest in a wrap like the Thundershirt; also consider Ttouch, a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets.

6. Consider adding a probiotic supplement or fermented veggies to your dog's fresh, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate whole food diet, as studies show probiotics reduce stress-related GI disturbances in dogs.

7. Consult a holistic or integrative veterinarian about homeopathic and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) remedies, Rescue Remedy, or other specific Bach flower remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your dog's intermittent stress. Products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include homeopathic aconitum (or whatever remedy fits the symptoms best), Hyland's Calms Forte or calming milk proteins (variety of brands).

Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that can be of benefit include holy basil, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile.

The essential oil of lavender has been proven to reduce the stress response in dogs. Place a few drops on your pet's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs or diffuse the oil around your house. There are also great oil blends specifically for calming animals.

Also consider adding a flower essence blend like Solutions Separation Anxiety to her drinking water and invest in an Adaptil pheromone collar or diffuser.

8. If your dog's anxiety seems to be getting worse instead of better, consider an individualized approach to managing her stress by allowing her to choose what best soothes her via applied zoopharmacognosy (self-healing techniques offered through a trained professional).