Understanding Dog Anxiety (And How To Help Your Pup Feel Better)

How to help her feel more confident 💕

It can be super upsetting if your dog’s acting anxious to the point where it’s preventing you from doing fun things with her.

Dogs can totally experience anxiety, and just like people, some dogs can be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

If your dog has an anxiety disorder, she doesn’t just experience anxious feelings occasionally — she probably has severe or chronic symptoms that need to be addressed by a veterinarian.

We reached out to Dr. Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City, and Dr. Cherice Roth, chief veterinary officer at Fuzzy, to learn more about dog anxiety, including what causes it and how to treat it.

What causes anxiety in dogs?

Anxiety can be caused by many things. “Most canine anxiety is directly related to a lack of training and comfort within a space,” Dr. Roth told The Dodo. “Other causes may include previous trauma, such as abuse or neglect, food or affection scarcity, or territorialism.”

If there are multiple animals in a house and your dog doesn’t have her own protected safe space, for example, she may become anxious simply due to a lack of control over her space.

Your pup could also be anxious due to a traumatic experience she’s had in her past, like if she came from an abusive situation.

Dog anxiety symptoms

Anxiety does not present the same in every animal.

“Some dogs’ personalities may be more prone towards vocalizations and aggressive behavior when anxious, where others may be more timid, reserved and favor isolation,” Dr. Roth said.

Dog parents should pay attention to context clues and body language if their dog is exhibiting any of the following signs of stress or anxiety:

  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal
  • Lack of appetite
  • Licking, chewing or scratching

Destructive habits

This includes damage to furniture, property, isolated areas or home items.

Some other anxiety symptoms include:

How to help a dog with anxiety: 8 vet-recommended steps to take

Anxiety can be frustrating and tough to handle, but the good news is that it’s manageable. “At the end of the day, a dog wants their owner to be happy with them just as badly as a pet parent likely wants the dog to stop engaging in noisy or destructive behaviors,” Dr. Rorth said.

Depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety, you may need to consider a variety of different approaches.

Here are some recommendations for helping an anxious dog:

1. Remove the trigger

If your dog’s anxiety is being triggered by something in her immediate environment (or a recent change in their environment), try to remove or lessen the effects of the stressor.

For example, if your dog’s freaking out over a new cat, try to give her plenty of space to get adjusted to her new sibling rather than forcing them to be together.

2. Give her a safe place to retreat

“Provide a ‘safe space’ for your dog to relax — a cozy crate in a quiet corner of the home works well,” Dr. Richardson told The Dodo.

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A comfortable space where your pup can easily retreat to if needed is a crucial part to managing anxiety. “This is where crate training can be helpful for pet parents,” Dr. Roth said. “The dog will recognize the crate as their safe, comfort space and can willingly relocate themselves to it if they need to calm themselves down.”

3. Give her more enrichment

Make sure your dog gets plenty of mental and physical exercise throughout the day. “A dog with excess energy will often channel it into nervous energy, so it’s important to make sure they have enough exercise, toys and playtime each day to keep them in a calm and happy state of mind,” Dr. Richardson said.

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Also, make sure your pup has treats and toys to chew and lick. “Chewing and licking are self-soothing behaviors for anxious or stressed pets, and a safe, accessible toy like a KONG is an effective anxiety reliever,” Dr. Roth said.

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4. Consider calming aids

Pheromone diffusers, chews and collars can help calm and reassure anxious dogs.

“VetriScience are vet-recommended calming chews pet parents can use before leaving the home or during times when a dog is showing signs of anxiety,” Dr. Roth said. “These are best recommended and used in conjunction with training rather than as a single attempt at symptom resolution.”

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5. CBD might be an option

Some dog owners find CBD to be helpful in managing anxiety. “However, it’s worth noting that there is currently no scientific research on the effectiveness of CBD to treat anxiety, and CBD products are not yet regulated,” Dr. Richardson said. “If you want to try giving CBD products to your dog, speak with your vet first, and ensure you buy from a reputable brand.”

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6. Try desensitization training

Desensitization is accomplished through repeated, controlled exposure to your dog’s specific fear or anxiety stimulus in small doses and at a low intensity.

“For example, if your dog is afraid of fireworks, play the sound at a very low volume while they are in a calm state to help them become more accustomed to the noise,” Dr. Richardson said.

7. Try counterconditioning training

Counterconditioning teaches your dog to change her response to the anxiety stimulus.

“If your dog is afraid of other dogs passing by on the street, distract them by asking them to sit and giving them their favorite treat,” Dr. Richardson said.

Over time, this redirection will help to lessen the effects of the trigger until your pup’s no longer anxious.

For any training, Dr. Richardson said it’s important to always work at a sub-threshold level. This means training your dog in an environment that doesn’t cause your dog any fear or stress (which would be counterproductive).

“Watch your dog’s body language cues carefully, including their ear and tail positioning, and stop while they are still calm,” Dr. Richardson said.

When watching your dog’s ears and tail, you want to make sure they stay in a relaxed position.

Ears: Relaxed, forward and tilted slightly out
Tail: Loose, not stiff or sticking up

If your dog’s showing signs of anxiety, you should put a pause on the training session until next time.

If you need extra guidance during desensitization or counterconditioning, a certified dog trainer or behaviorist can help.

8. Try anti-anxiety medications

While prescription medication shouldn’t be your go-to when you first notice that your pup’s anxious, it’s still something that can help for more severe cases.

“If a few months of work in both training and supplementation have still not helped to reduce or manage a pet’s anxiety, pet parents may explore stronger prescription medications with their primary veterinarian,” Dr. Roth said.

How to prevent anxiety in dogs

It’s important to socialize your puppy when he’s young to avoid anxiety triggers from developing.

The ideal period of socialization is usually between 3 and 16 weeks old, but you can still do this if adopting an older dog — but just bear in mind they may be more fearful in some unfamiliar situations.

“Try to expose your puppy to lots of different people, pets and different situations to get them used to different sights, sounds and smells,” Dr. Richardson said.

Some examples include:

  • Meeting and being petted by strangers, children, men with beards, people

wearing hats, etc.

  • Meeting vaccinated adult dogs (and dog-friendly cats!)
  • Experiencing visitors arriving and leaving your home, as well as you

visiting other people’s homes

  • Traveling in a car, on a bus or on the subway
  • Hearing loud noises, such as the phone, the buzzer, music, TV, laughter

and clapping

  • Walking on busy sidewalks next to trucks, bikes, scooters and buses
  • Hearing thunder, fireworks and sirens
  • Getting her paws wet, taking baths and becoming accustomed to water
  • Spending increasing amounts of time alone until she’s used to being alone for several hours at a time

If you properly socialize your puppy (or work on socializing your older dog), you should be able to help build that confidence in her to be comfortable in all kinds of situations.

If you notice your dog showing signs of anxiety, it’s easiest to treat it as soon as possible, before it worsens. Consult your veterinarian or a behavior specialist for advice if needed.

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