Is Your Dog Suffering From Anxiety?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog with anxiety

Story at-a-glance -

  • Anxious dogs suffer from a level of stress that left unchecked can negatively affect their health and lifespan
  • There are several common canine stress triggers, including sudden loud noises, punishment-based training methods and lack of opportunities to express normal species- and breed-specific behaviors
  • Signs of anxiety in dogs include trembling, a lowered or tucked tail and nose or lip licking
  • While some things that may cause anxiety in your dog are outside your control, there are many steps you can take to reduce stressors in your pet’s daily life

Sadly, many dogs today are prone to anxiety, and research suggests that the stress of living with a fear or anxiety disorder can negatively affect dogs’ health and even how long they live.1

When a dog feels anxious, his body releases an excessive amount of norepinephrine, the fight or flight hormone, which can alter gut bacteria and interfere with gastrointestinal (GI) tract motility.2 This flood of norepinephrine can result in physical symptoms like diarrhea, and when a housetrained dog has an accident indoors, it only intensifies his stress.

Some dogs experience short episodes of stress, while others suffer chronic stress. The more you know about what triggers your pet’s anxiety, the behaviors he tends to perform when he’s anxious, and the effect of stress on his health, the better able you’ll be to identify the signs and take action to minimize or eliminate stressors.

It’s also important to recognize that while from your very human viewpoint, the environment you provide for your dog is stress-free, dog stressors can be quite different from human stressors.

8 Common Canine Stress Triggers

Some of the causes of stress in dogs are species-specific, while others are triggers that can cause anxiety in humans as well. And just like sensitive people, sensitive dogs tend to be more susceptible to stress. Some common triggers include:

  1. Sudden loud noises (e.g., fireworks, thunderstorms)
  2. Punishment-based training methods involving yelling, hitting, shock collars, etc.
  3. Adverse relationships with other pets or humans in the household
  4. Unwanted attention such as being randomly awakened from a nap, or being forcibly hugged, kissed or held
  5. Lack of opportunities to express normal species- and breed-specific behaviors such as running, retrieving, hunting, herding, etc.
  6. Exposure to the strange and unfamiliar (objects, animals, people, etc.)
  7. Changes in housing, household routine, or household members
  8. Separation from family members, including other pets

As you attempt to identify the triggers for your dog’s anxiety, also consider her history. If you adopted her as an adult, what do you know about her past? Was she abused or neglected? Is she anxious mainly around men or kids? Other dogs?

Appropriate and thorough socialization occurring between 3-14 weeks also plays into how a dog copes and handles stressors throughout life. If your pup had poor or incomplete social experiences during this important sensitive period, it can negatively affect his ability to cope with life experiences going forward. Many dogs lack the coping skills necessary to effectively manage stress and anxiety due to early-age experiences (or lack of experiences).

Some of the things that cause anxiety in dogs can be unavoidable, such as thunderstorms or a move to a new home. However, there are several things you can control to minimize stress and improve your dog’s quality of life. Examples:

  • Use only relationship-centered, fear-free behavior training/trainers.
  • Help everyone in the family understand and respect your dog's need for uninterrupted sleep and human handling he feels comfortable with.
  • Increase your dog’s daily physical activity level, since the vast majority of dogs, especially large breeds, don’t get nearly enough. Daily movement is extremely important in mitigating your dog’s stress response.
  • Dogs left alone for several hours during the day get lonely and bored. If there's often no one home to keep your dog company, recruit a friend or neighbor or hire a dog walker to take him for a stroll around the block, at a minimum. An alternative is doggy daycare.
  • Engage in brain games, sniffaris or nose work on a daily basis. Most dogs are mentally under-stimulated. Giving dogs fun jobs, tasks and mental exercises that engage their senses promotes healthier brain chemistry and more balanced behavior.
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How to Tell If Your Dog is Anxious

Estimates are that about 30% of dogs show signs of anxiety, identified by either body language or behaviors such as obsessive licking. Since each dog has his own communication style, it’s important to learn your pet’s signals that he’s feeling nervous or stressed. There are many signs of anxiety in dogs, and they can change over time. Some of them include:3

Lowered or tucked tail

Trembling/shaking

Ears pulled or pinned back

Increased whining, howling and/or barking

Yawning or panting

Diarrhea

Nose or lip licking

Reduced or absent appetite

Cowering, crouched body posture and/or hiding

Destructive behaviors

If your dog is showing one or more signs that he’s anxious, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with your veterinarian for a wellness checkup. It’s important to rule out an underlying medical condition that may be the cause of or a contributor to the anxiety.

Suggestions to Help Calm an Anxious Dog

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

2. Consider adding a probiotic supplement or fermented veggies to your dog’s fresh, nutritionally optimal, species-specific whole food diet, as studies show probiotics reduce stress-related GI disturbances in dogs, builds the microbiome and positively influences the gut-brain axis.

3. 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.

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

5. Add a flower essence blend like Solutions Safe Space for Dogs to her drinking water and invest in an Adaptil pheromone collar or diffuser.

6. Consult an 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 and ashwagandha. In one animal model study, Bacopa had anti-anxiety effects comparable to prescription medication.4

7. 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.

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).

9. 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.

10. Work with a force-free behaviorist or trainer to help identify anxiety triggers and develop a behavior repatterning protocol that can help reduce the level of stress your dog experiences when events occur. Some good resources to investigate are:

Fear Free Pets Directory

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (C.C.P.D.T.)

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (I.A.A.B.C.)

Karen Pryor Academy

Academy for Dog Trainers

Pet Professional Guild