One of life’s great pleasures is sharing it with a beloved dog. A dog rewards your affection with undying loyalty and unconditional love, and it’s little wonder that they’re called man’s best friend. But even your best friend can feel the blues, and anxiety in dogs is a real problem.
Everyone knows the discomfort of anxiety, whether it’s in anticipation of a job interview or because you know you’re going to be late for a date, and for dogs, it’s no different—although probably not for the same reasons. Dogs show anxiety in several ways, and some aren’t obvious.
Anxiety triggers for dogs
If you suspect your dog is anxious, it’s helpful to note what could have influenced your dog’s state of mind. There are a few common stressors that cause anxiety in animals, and each one can cause slightly different behavioral changes.
- Fear of a specific thing or situation: Stress or anxiety caused by loud noises or going to the vet, for example. Strangers, other dogs, and heights can all be scary too.
- Separation anxiety: Around 14% of dogs experience separation anxiety at some point, which affects them when left alone at home.
- Medical issues: Hormonal issues caused by thyroid disease or vision loss are a couple of illnesses that can trigger anxiety.
- Generalized anxiety: Chronic anxiety caused by prolonged periods of stress, abuse or neglect.
Signs of anxiety in dogs
Just like humans, dogs sometimes shake if they’re scared or anxious. This can result from a single event, such as hearing fireworks, or a symptom of chronic anxiety. Your dog might have waves of shivering and trembling, accompanied by a cowering posture.
2. Excessive yawning
Anxiety makes both people and dogs feel breathless, which can cause excessive yawning. Dogs nap a lot during the day, but when they’re anxious, they might yawn a lot more than usual.
3. Excessive panting
Similar to yawning, some panting is normal for dogs, especially when they’re exercising. But it can indicate anxiety if they pant, even when they’re cool and haven’t been physically active. Restlessness often accompanies panting.
4. Hiding or moving away
This can be a part of the classic “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. When dogs feel scared, they might run or slink away in a cowering posture and with ears flat against their heads. This is a flight response to perceived danger. Situations that can trigger this include loud noises, meeting a stranger, or other anxiety-provoking objects or situations. One well-known example is the tendency of dogs to hide in reaction to fireworks or thunder.
5. Standing or walking stiffly
If your dog is standing rigidly, it can often be a sign of fear or anxiety—the typical “freeze” response. This is a way of attempting to avoid notice when they perceive a threat; an evolutionary response to facing a predator.
6. Causing physical harm to themselves
Licking their paws or legs, scratching excessively or biting their fur or skin are examples of anxiety-related behaviors. Dogs can cause quite severe physical damage to themselves, and this type of behavior is usually because of chronic, lower-level anxiety rather than a sudden trigger.
Dogs can also experience depression, which may stem from prolonged anxiety or repeated traumatic or triggering stimuli. You might not notice that your dog is self-harming until they have a hot spot or a bald patch in their fur—a spot vulnerable to infection.
7. Destroying furniture
This behavior is often the result of separation anxiety, where a dog will chew furniture or other household objects when they’re left alone. A more extreme version of this is attempting to escape the house by jumping through a closed window. Dogs with separation anxiety can also bark incessantly, sometimes without the owner’s knowledge.
How to deal with an anxious dog
If a person experiences anxiety that interferes with their daily functioning, they can seek medical advice and get treatment. This treatment is either some kind of therapy, medication or a combination of the two. Treating anxiety in dogs is similar, although obviously they wouldn’t be able to have psychotherapy.
There are various ways to address your dog’s anxiety, ranging from changes you can make at home to medical intervention.
1. Changes at home
Making some adjustments at home can alleviate anxiety for some pets. For example, if someone in the household has an explosive temper and has loud outbursts, a dog might experience the loud noises as scary and develop long-term anxiety or an increased fear of noise. Noting what makes your dog anxious can show you what you need to change.
2. Desensitization and training
If your dog’s anxiety is not too severe, then it might be treatable through desensitization—exposure to a trigger in a controlled environment in different degrees of intensity. An example of this would be treating separation anxiety by leaving a dog alone for a very short time—even minutes—to desensitize it to that trigger and gradually increasing the time spent away. This approach is best implemented with the advice of a trainer or animal behaviorist when possible.
Counterconditioning is another behavioral approach that involves redirecting the anxious dog’s attention to a positive behavior, such as sitting or lying down, and rewarding them for that rather than trying to stop their reaction to a trigger
There are various medications available that can treat anxiety in dogs, including those for acute and more generalized anxiety. These can be useful in the short term, but to address the issue more comprehensively, pharmaceutical intervention should accompany behavioral tools.
There are also more natural remedies available. Hemp-based CBD oil and treats are a popular choice with dog owners who prefer a more holistic approach. Just like in humans, CBD has a calming effect, and although it won’t solve the issue of anxiety, it will alleviate it to some degree.
When dealing with an anxious dog, there are many ways of moving forward. But if your pet starts exhibiting anxiety with no obvious cause, it’s strongly advised that you seek advice from a vet or experienced animal behaviorist. They can guide you to a solution that will address the issue, and hopefully return your dog to its usual happy, tail-wagging self.