How to manage anxiety in dogs

How to manage anxiety in dogs

Nicole Rous, veterinarian and founder of Shy Tiger.

Despite persistent mental health stigma and glaring gaps in the healthcare system, awareness of psychology’s impact has come a long way.

But what about the mental health of dogs – humankind’s best friends? Dogs can’t voice when they feel depressed, unwell, or anxious. Yet, these emotionally complex creatures are capable of experiencing severe anxiety.

Nicole Rous, a veterinarian and founder of Shy Tiger, a natural health and lifestyle brand for pets, shares her expertise in how we can manage anxiety in our four-legged friends.

How do I know if my dog has anxiety?

Rous explained that even calm dogs could display anxious behaviour in specific contexts, but the anxiousness is more chronic and generalised for some.

Common anxiety symptoms include panting, barking, howling, poor appetite or emotional eating, restlessness, agitation, rigid or unusual postures, reactiveness towards people or other dogs, and compulsive behaviours like nail chewing or paw licking.

The trickier part, Rous said, is understanding if these signs reflect anxiety or general obedience and behavioural training issues. Unfortunately, there isn’t always a clear distinction between the two.

“[Well-trained dogs] have a consistent routine, so they’re at ease with predicting the day’s events,” she said.

“They are more confident in their relationship with their family as they get consistent feedback from their owner.

“You can put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel if you’re not sure when you’ll eat next, when you’ll get outside, whether someone will tell you off for something you do or cuddle you. You would end up feeling quite anxious about life.”

Offering clear and consistent boundaries and training approaches that give your pup a sense of certainty and clear expectations can go a long way in managing anxiety and improving obedience.

Why do some dogs get anxiety but not others?

The causes of mental health issues like anxiety are complex, both in humans and canines.

Fear arises from a combination of adverse life events, relationship issues, work stress, trauma, and in some cases, a hereditary or genetic component.

Rous said that research has discovered anxiety, noise sensitivity, and other behavioural traits are directly linked to some dogs’ DNA, with genetic links found in more than 50 unique breeds.

Genetic counselling to help prospective dog owners and dog breeders make an informed decision would avoid much heartache and unnecessary trauma, given that undesirable behaviour is a leading cause of premature euthanasia or surrender to shelters.

While ‘nature’ has a role to play, the nurturing or upbringing of a dog can strongly predict whether or not it develops anxiety.

Dogs left alone or chained outside for long periods can’t become socialised and may grow to fear or become aggressive towards strangers.

Regardless of the dog’s genotype, the environment has triggered this response and created anxious behaviour and aggression.

Another surprising cause of pet anxiety could be your own anxious tendencies.

“We’ve all heard that having a dog is good for your mental health, but it doesn’t always work in reverse,” said Rous.

“Humans with anxiety have been shown to develop closer behavioural bonds with their pets, and many studies now have shown an emotional contagion between pets and owners.”

These studies indicate that if we are anxious ourselves and neurotically attached to our dogs, we could pass on these emotional challenges to our beloved pooch.

While animals are a fantastic source of emotional support, it’s important not to project our attachment needs onto our pets or expect them to be a substitute for a mental health professional.

How to manage anxiety in dogs

Nicole Rous, veterinarian and founder of Shy Tiger.

What’s the best way to support a pet with anxiety?

Finding support for emotional and behavioural issues can be overwhelming and confusing, but getting assistance from a dog trainer can provide valuable guidance and expertise.

Rous said that dog training is an unregulated profession in Australia, so anyone can technically call themselves a dog trainer or behaviourist.

She recommends finding a trainer via word of mouth and referrals through your veterinarian, people you know and trust, and credible Facebook groups.

“It’s paramount if you have a dog that has anxiety that a trainer does not punish anxious behaviour,” she said. “This can definitely increase the issue.”

Rous also suggests that highly anxious dogs always have a one-on-one training session before diving straight into large obedience schools or training groups.

6 tips from a vet to soothe your dog’s anxiety

Here are six tips from Rous on how to soothe your dog’s anxiety:

1. Nosework and chewing

Dogs need an independent outlet for releasing stored energy and ‘happy hormones’ like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, with activities they can do on their own.

“If your dog only releases these hormones when you’re involved – going for a walk, receiving a pat or cuddle – then they learn to rely on you for their joy in life,” said Rous.

In contrast, if a dog knows it will still have fun when you leave the house, it will learn that it will be okay without you and feel more at ease.

Nosework is especially helpful for high-drive dogs and ‘working breeds’ like kelpies, but all dogs can benefit, Rous said. Here’s a demonstration of how Nicole uses nosework with her pups (or watch below).

2. Routine

A predictable routine is comforting and soothing for pets, like many humans.

Rous recommends keeping meal and walk times the same, so they can predict what will happen each day and feel more secure.

Don’t fret if you don’t currently have a regular schedule with your dog, as they are adaptable and will quickly learn if you’re consistent.

“Start especially slow with time apart if your dog has separation anxiety,” said Rous.

“Leave for short periods of time and build up, so they can build their confidence that you will return.”

She also recommends not making too much fanfare when you get home.

“If your dog is getting a surge of happy hormones when you return home from work, it will soon become the ‘best’ thing about their day, and they will start to bark more and get overexcited more and more,” she said.

3. Outsource

Suppose your dog struggles with lifestyle changes, like returning to work at the office. In that case, Rous suggests outsourcing the help of a doggy daycare centre or a dog walker to prevent future behavioural issues.

“If you have to leave your dog at home all day, your dog knowing someone is coming in the middle of the day for a walk will make a huge difference,” she said.

You can also ask a dog trainer to help you prepare your dog for the transition, instil training habits, and set up your home to make your dog feel comfortable with the change in routine.

4. Go natural

Rous has found dogs are often very responsive to natural remedies like essential oils, supplements, massage, and acupuncture.

Some simple strategies include soaking your dog’s food in chamomile tea or using lavender oil to promote rest. Using pure, high-quality essential oil is vital, so check any brands with your vet before introducing them to your pet.

Some dogs will also respond well to acupuncture and massage, which can reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and release oxytocin.

“As with many things, it may suit some more than others, but investing in natural complementary therapies can reduce or even eliminate the need for pharmaceutical drugs and improve your pet’s overall quality of life,” said Rous.

How to manage anxiety in dogs

Nicole Rous, veterinarian and founder of Shy Tiger.

5. Background noise

Classical music has been found to reduce anxious behaviours in dogs, and there are many playlists of calming music for dogs on YouTube to play while you’re out. It can also help drown out distressing noise like thunderstorms or fireworks, helping to alleviate noise sensitivity.

Television can also help while offering visual cues for dogs.

“They can’t see TV in the same way we do, but some dogs really seem to enjoy watching TV and find the motion, visual and auditory cues soothing,” said Rous.

6. If in doubt, chat with your vet

“As pet owners, you are solely responsible for your pet’s quality of life,” Rous said.

All doggy parents have a duty of care to do their best to soothe anxiety and give their dogs the highest quality of life possible.

It’s always worth exploring natural solutions before introducing pharmaceutical approaches, but Rous stresses that some dogs simply need medication and that there is nothing wrong with that.

“There is no shame in your dog needing a drug for anxiety,” she said.

Giving your dog the best chance to lead a low-stress, happy, and calm life is always the primary goal, whatever that looks for your unique situation.

“Dogs might be in just a small part of our lives, but to them, we are their whole life,” she said.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.