Your pup’s pacing through the night and acting restless during the day. They seem anxious, but it’s tough to tell what’s going on when there’s no immediately apparent cause for the unease. If only our dogs could talk!
Sometimes, there’s a clear precedent to anxious behavior: a thunderstorm, a windy day, or a strange new guest. Zoe, my majestic lab, who is unafraid of strangers, finds the wind to be an incredible invisible foe. Buzzing insects are equally frightening to her.
Regardless of the cause, pet anxiety is stressful for both dog and owner. How can you identify the symptoms of anxiety in your pup? Is there a root cause to address? But most importantly, how can you fix the problem so you and your fur pal can sleep through the night uninterrupted?
According to the American Kennel Club, there are a variety of anxiety-related symptoms that dogs may exhibit, including:
Accidents (whether it’s poop or pee)
Compulsive behaviors (e.g., obsessive licking)
You’re probably thinking, but my dog has definitely done something on this list at least once in their life. How can I tell whether the root cause is anxiety?
Certified Dog Trainer and Counselor Kristi Benson, who has experience working with fearful dogs, explains that paying attention to body language is vital, but it’s also possible for symptoms that appear to be anxiety-based to be the result of illness or physical ailments. She recommends consulting a professional trainer with experience treating fear and anxiety issues and making an appointment with your trusted veterinarian to assess and handle potential nervousness.
Jessica Char, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, who owns Canine Engineering, says that dogs, in addition to exhibiting the symptoms listed above, may also stay glued to their owners, find places to hide, or avoid specific triggers in anxious moments.
There are a few reasons your dog may be experiencing discomfort and anxiety.
Pups with anxious parents are at higher risk of developing anxiety as they mature. The behavioral experts I contacted for this piece say that anxiety can crop up at any time during a dog’s teen years — until the dog is about two or three. “In adult dogs, sudden anxiety may be a sign of a medical issue and should be first checked by a vet,” says Char. Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinarian with extensive experience with dog anxiety, shares that certain breeds are also prone to anxious behavior. For example, hunting dogs who are bred to be at constant attention are predisposed to nervousness. He concedes, however, that dogs are a lot like people. They’re all different!
Dogs may become anxious for a number of other reasons. Separation is a common cause of anxiety in dogs, but anxiety that happens when a dog is separated from their favorite person, says Dr. Richter, usually only occurs during the time they’re left alone. Trauma is another root cause of dog anxiety. A dog who has experienced an abusive past or has been suddenly abandoned is a lot more likely to be fearful and jittery than a dog with an uneventful upbringing. Poor socialization is also a potential reason for anxiety. Physical and environmental causes are also possible. Loud noises or a raucous crowd at a house party are all possible reasons for your dog’s unusual and anxious behavior.
In some cases, pain may be causing your dog to exhibit signs of what looks like anxiety, but in reality they’re experiencing discomfort. If your dog is acting strange and it seems to have come out of nowhere, a visit to your trusted vet may be in order.
As pet owners, we hate to watch our furry friends in distress. It’s heart-wrenching to watch your usually happy-go-lucky pup cower in fear at things we typically treat as benign — construction noises, holiday gatherings, and loud music, for instance.
How can you help your dog through these anxiety-laden periods? Char dissuades owners from enacting any kind of punishment. Don’t yell or scold your pet. They’re struggling and feel uncomfortable. They don’t need additional stress at the moment. What does she suggest instead? A form of bribery, of course!
Expose your dog, in small doses, to the fear-inducing object or situation (if possible) while also supplying delicious, irresistible treats. It’s a process that requires a lot of patience and often the help of a trainer, says Char, but it can help change your dog’s feelings toward something they’ve feared.
Both Char and Benson agree that you should comfort your dog in times of stress. Parents don’t ignore or scold their children who jolt out of bed because of nightmares, so why would you do the same to your favorite non-human companion? It’s not a solution to the anxiety, but there’s no downside to comforting a nervous animal. Be sure to give your dog space, too. If your fur pal wants to run and hide, don’t force them to stay in the area or close to the thing that’s making them uncomfortable.
Dr. Richter shares that having more than one dog may soften the blow of being left alone, “being in a 'pack' can help them feel more secure.” He admits that there’s no quick fix for dog anxiety problems, but with the help of training and veterinary assistance, your doggo can overcome their nervousness. While he points out that anti-anxiety concoctions are available over the counter, Dr. Richter also says that “supplements or medications are designed to complement the training, not replace it.”
The bottom line? Support your pet to the best of your ability, whether that involves petting them during Fourth of July fireworks, consulting a behavioral specialist to address extreme separation anxiety, or visiting the vet to rule out harmful illnesses.