Anxiety in Dogs: How Can You Help? By Marc the Vet

Just like us sensitive humans, our dogs as fellow sentient beings can also experience feelings of anxiety. These emotions, again much like ours, are usually part of their personalities. They develop as a result of weeks, months, or even years of situations that have moulded and defined what’s normal and abnormal to maintain a relaxed state of mind.

The behavioural template

Anything falling outside the norm may make us even more relaxed, or have the opposite effect of encouraging nervousness and even compromising our welfare. It’s a very similar situation for our four-legged friends. In fact, a puppy’s first four months are when he or she learns what’s normal, their golden socialisation period, helping form their behavioural template and a level of confidence that best prepares them to deal with whatever situations they may encounter in life. This ranges from interacting with other living things such as dogs, humans and squirrels, to what seem like simple noises to us, such as doorbells, sirens and motorbikes.

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Negative reactions to changes in our dog’s internal and/or external environment can be very obvious to even the most inexperienced of dog owners, and can include excessive barking, soiling in the house, panting or crying. But dogs can also display more subtle signs of anxiety, too, such as licking their paws, going off their food or even becoming lethargic.

Obviously, every dog owner will know their dog best, so should be able to spot any differences in mood. However, it’s important to prevent these bad feelings from occurring in the first place, spotting potential triggers before they happen and helping prepare your dog to deal with short- or long-term situations that could negatively impact their health and welfare.


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Responsible owners should always seek help from trainers and behaviourists to address anxious behaviour early on. Without support from a professional you might be tempted to treat your dog’s anxiety as ‘bad behaviour’, and use tools and techniques that make their fear-based stress worse.

Improving your dog’s mental health to help them deal with potentially negative situations will also help reduce any occasions responsible for future suffering as well. Furthermore, canine anxiety or nervousness caused by a range of potential triggers can also lead to dog bites, meaning there’s a very important human health aspect to this condition too.


New routines, new concerns

Over the COVID-19 lockdown periods there are two serious sources of canine anxiety that have influenced many dog-owner bonds. The first is the lack of socialisation opportunities, especially with other dogs and humans, when we were all told to stay at home and socially distance; the second is the potential for separation anxiety when, all of a sudden, humans were told they could go back to our offices, or to the pub, and leave our confused dogs at home alone.

As life slowly begins to return to a ‘new normal’, we should all be making sure our dogs are prepared for separation anxiety, which is a very serious condition. Every dog will react differently to this change of routine, but for some it’s a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode.


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As well as the more obvious signs of anxiety already mentioned, your dog may experience panic attacks, whining, howling or destructive behaviours such as self-harming, overgrooming or even chewing door frames and furniture. These are also often major contributory factors in neighbourhood disputes, rehoming, and even euthanasia, so addressing these problems as soon as you notice them is of paramount importance.

There are many tips for dealing with separation anxiety. These include increasing the period of time your dog is left alone stress-free; distraction with treat-dispensing toys and slow feeders; taking them for a long walk before they stay home unaccompanied; leaving them a familiar piece of clothing; or leaving the telly on. All advice should ideally come from a qualified behaviourist, and really you should start preparing your dog long before you regularly leave the house for hours at a time.


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Pet-friendly possibilities

On a positive note, in our new post-lockdown world, there now appear to be more opportunities to actually take our dogs with us when we do leave our houses, including offices being more accepting, dog-friendly pubs and restaurants, as well as pet-friendly hotels in the UK.

In fact, the growth and popularity of the ‘staycation’ in recent months, clearly influenced by difficulties travelling abroad, means that more than ever, dogs are now welcome in holiday accommodation too; but before you book, please check the small print and make sure places are fully welcoming to dogs. For example: can they share eating areas with their humans, or must they remain locked in your room?

Also, driving long distances to your destination can also be a source of anxiety for your pooch, and is a surprisingly common problem. It can be helped by taking them to fun places and favourite walks, and rewarding them with praise, treats and toys. For cases of severe anxiety you may need to ask your vet or behaviourist about calming medications or even sedatives for essential journeys; or, if that’s too terrifying, choose not to take them in a car at all.


When fireworks are on the horizon

As for what’s widely regarded by dog owners as the most stressful and scariest time of the year, with sensible planning beforehand canine anxiety caused by Fireworks Night can also be minimised, which often helps reduce us worrying about them too. Unpredictable loud noises, bangs, flashing lights and a strong smell of explosives can all unsettle our dogs.

Preparations include walking dogs in the afternoon, feeding them a large meal to encourage sleeping, getting dogs used to the sound of fireworks by playing them desensitising fireworks sounds in the day, weeks, or ideally months beforehand, shutting all external doors and windows, keeping thick curtains tightly shut, and always making sure you provide a quiet, safe space filled with favourite toys, treats and blankets.

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Distracting with TV, radio and music (reggae works well, apparently!) can also help drown out the sounds, and remember to act as if nothing’s wrong or different, while rewarding calm behaviour with special treats. Consider refocusing bouncy dogs onto toy play as a stress reliever.

For particularly nervous dogs, please contact your vet or behaviourist well before Fireworks Night for advice on safe medications, pheromone plug-ins, sprays or even anti-anxiety jackets. Always make sure water bowls are topped up, as anxious dogs may drink more, but monitor them so they don’t drink too much.

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Pets and parties

Birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and any house party can all be a significant source of stress for your dog, with unfamiliar faces entering their space and wanting to interact with them. Young children must always be supervised when approaching and playing with dogs, as dog bites and a trip to casualty will undoubtedly ruin any celebration.

Finally, as the weather turns cooler and central heating is turned on across the land, many flea eggs will be hatching in carpets, with flea infestations just about to start. We all know how stressful it can be to be irritated by something in our environment, and it’s no different for our dogs when they’re itching, scratching and biting themselves in frustration because of flea infestations. Please make sure both your pooch and house are protected against fleas using FRONTLINE PLUS® or FRONTLINE TRI-ACT®, and make sure all your pets are wormed too. For more advice about keeping your dog stress-free, always contact a qualified behaviourist, who can often be recommended by your local vets.

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