AKC GoodDog Helpline (GDH) is our telephone and video dog training consultation service, offering live, personalized help with to answer questions about training your puppy or dog! We’re celebrating GoodDog Helpline’s tenth year in 2023, so we’ve rounded up the most common questions that our dog trainers hear from owners just like you. A common question is, “How do I help my anxious dog?”
Dogs share many of the same emotions as people, including feeling anxious. And if you’ve ever had a case of nerves, you’ll understand that dog anxiety is extremely difficult for your pet. It can overwhelm them, shut them down, and make it impossible for them to learn or respond to cues. In addition, dog anxiety is responsible for many problem behaviors from destroying the house while alone to lunging at strangers on the street.
But how do you help your anxious dog? Whether it’s fear of other dogs, an inability to be left alone, or stress during a thunderstorm, these 10 tips will help calm an anxious dog and even potentially change their emotional response from negative to positive.
1. Understand Why Your Dog Is Anxious
There are all kinds of dog fears and phobias that can lead to anxious behavior. Dog anxiety can also be caused by lack of socialization while your dog is a puppy. Even senior dogs with cognitive decline can exhibit anxiety as a symptom. Because there are so many underlying causes of dog anxiety, you can’t effectively address the problem without understanding its source. Watch your dog, take note of their anxiety triggers, and consider their past experiences. Finally, consult your veterinarian to rule out health conditions that could be contributing to the problem.
2. Recognize Early Signs of Anxiety
Although it’s never too late to help your dog, the longer they have experienced anxiety, the more challenging it can be to treat. You want to step in as soon as you can rather than letting your dog suffer. It’s also important to intervene quickly in the moment. Don’t let your dog’s emotions ramp up past the point of no return. Learn to read dog body language so you can spot the first signs of stress, such as lip licking or pulled back ears. Then, whether it’s walking in another direction or distracting your dog, you can act quickly to change the situation and relieve your dog’s discomfort.
3. Build Your Dog’s Confidence
The more confident your dog feels, the better they can cope with situations that trigger their fear. One way to build confidence in your dog includes providing a consistent routine so that your dog can predict when they will eat, take a walk, engage in playtime, etc. It’s also helpful if you don’t provide resources at random. Teach your dog how to earn what they want. For example, ask your dog to sit before you lower the food bowl, clip on the leash, and so on. It will give your dog a sense of control over their environment and therefore reduce anxiety. Finally, consider trying a dog sport like agility. Your dog will learn they can tackle greater challenges than they imagined.
4. Teach Your Dog to Settle
Training your dog to settle on cue is a practical part of teaching emotional self-control. The idea is your dog learns to relax at your request. Of course, your dog’s ability to comply will drop the more nervous they become, so either use this in anticipation of a trigger or before the anxiety level gets too high.
First, teach your dog to settle in a calm situation without any distractions. One way to do that is to interrupt a gentle play session and ask your dog to sit or lie down. When they do, quietly praise and treat them then start up the game again to further strengthen the reward. Once they have the hang of it, stop the game and wait for them to sit or lie down on their own. When they do, offer your rewards. Now that you can predict their behavior, add a cue like “settle” or “calm down.” Then it’s time to increase the duration of the settle and the intensity of the game before slowly adding distractions.
5. Create a Safe, Calm Place for Your Dog
Anxious dogs benefit from a safe place that they associate with positive things – treats, toys, or undisturbed rest. A dog bed or mat is perfect for this because it’s portable, meaning you can take that safety on the road. The mat can be used at the vet’s office, in the car, or at a friend’s home to help your dog feel calm and secure.
Once you’ve taught them to love that safe place by pairing it with rewards and pleasant experiences, train your dog to go to their place on cue. Start close to the bed in a quiet room, then slowly build the distance from the bed and the duration they will stay on the bed before adding distractions. Your goal is to have a portable relaxation station you can send your dog to whenever they are in an anxious situation.
6. Give Your Dog Plenty to Do When They’re Alone
Dogs are social creatures who want to be around their humans, and for some, being alone causes separation anxiety. Teaching your dog how to be alone can go a long way to preventing anxiety. It’s also important to give your dog lots of things to do while they’re on their own. Give them a favorite chew bone or a food-stuffed chew toy to keep them occupied. Or consider using puzzle toys that exercise your dog’s mind. Finally, some dogs like the background noise of a TV or radio so they don’t feel as alone.
7. Play Calming Games
Games can be a great way to ease your dog’s nerves and distract them from their anxiety triggers. Consider calm games that engage your dog’s brain rather than riling them up with roughhousing or high energy activities. Try scattering food across the ground for your dog to sniff out or placing treats behind furniture or pillows in a doggie game of hide-and-seek. Snuffle mats also encourage your dog to sniff out hidden food, and lick mats are particularly handy if bath time or grooming stress your dog. Finally, consider using training as a game. Exercises like nose targeting or “watch me” are easy and fun for your dog to do, so they can work well during tense situations.
8. Use Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Another way to help your dog is to change their anxious response into something more pleasant using desensitization and counterconditioning. It might be helping your dog relax around other dogs or calmly listen to fireworks – as long as you can identify the trigger, you can change your dog’s reaction from negative to positive. To achieve improvement, it’s important to proceed at your dog’s pace and break the procedure down into small steps. It’s a powerful technique so don’t hesitate to get the assistance of a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist.
9. Never Punish After the Fact
Punishment only serves to increase your dog’s anxiety. If done in the moment, such as when your reactive dog lunges at a stranger on the street, your dog can associate the punishment with the trigger. That will only convince them they were right to be anxious in the first place. So, although the punishment might suppress the lunging, your dog’s negative emotional response will have strengthened.
And punishment applied after the fact will make your dog anxious around you. For example, if you come home to find your property has been destroyed, it’s too late to do anything about it. Your dog won’t remember what they chewed up hours ago and now you seem angry out of the blue. No amount of showing your dog the damage or explaining in words will make your reaction seem any more reasonable from your dog’s perspective.
10. Never Force Your Dog to Face Their Fears
You might be tempted to force your dog to face their fears. Don’t! Known as flooding, this technique lets the dog panic until they’re too exhausted to react anymore and finally realize nothing bad actually happened. It would be the equivalent of putting a person afraid of spiders in a bathtub full of tarantulas until their phobia was gone. Sounds terrifying, right? Although sometimes flooding can be effective, it’s impossible to know that in advance. And if it doesn’t work, you’ve now made the problem exponentially worse. Instead, use the tips above to avoid the risk of intensifying your dog’s anxiety.
AKC GoodDog! Helpline is celebrating ten years of supporting dog owners. If you need support, experts at AKC GoodDog! Helpline are available by phone or video to answer any training questions that come up, from housetraining your puppy to unwanted behaviors in senior dogs. Join the nearly one million dog owners who trust AKC GoodDog! Helpline today.