Severe dog anxiety can take its toll on both pet and pet owner. Learn how to ease your dog's anxiety with helpful tips from a professional.
Having a dog with anxiety in the family can be a bit of a nightmare, especially if that anxiety happens in situations that are hard to control, such as them getting upset every time someone new comes to your house, or when they see another dog. Dog anxiety can take many forms, and board certified veterinary behaviourist Dr. Gary Lansing, who practices in Thornhill, ON, says that almost every behavioural problem that he sees in dogs is linked to underlying anxiety issues.
Reduce your dog's anxiety
Being anxious doesn't have to be your dog's permanent state. There are things you can do to reduce your dog's anxiety. The first steps, says Lansing, are to get your dog to focus, sit, lay down and settle to commands in various environments. "You need to do consistent and positive training with your pet that can achieve the goals that you want to reach before you expose the pet to those situations where he is most anxious," he says. "You need to teach the dog the strategies that it needs to reduce its anxiety, using reward-based techniques."
Training your dog to be calm
To do this, make sure that the dog only gets rewarded for positive behaviour. The rewards in a dog's life are anything of value, says Lansing, such as your attention, every piece of food in the dog's food bowl, every treat and toy that you give, putting on the leash, taking off the leash etc. So, if your dog is not engaging in calm and settled behaviour and instead is anxious and excitable, then none of those rewarding things happen.
"This requires structure and consistency by the owners," he says. "And this also requires observing your pet and noticing when it is calm and relaxed, and rewarding that behaviour as well, not just when your pet is asking you for something."
If your pet is too distracted to learn to behave properly, then Lansing advises that you try a product like a head halter, which you can use to gently get the dog to physically focus and look at you. If you have no luck training your dog to behave more desirably, then you should consider enlisting the help of a dog trainer.
Meeting your dog's needs
All the training in the world isn't going to help your dog if he isn't getting what he needs to thrive throughout the day. "In addition to dealing with a specific anxiety, you aren't going to have a settled dog if he isn't getting his training and exercise needs met," says Lansing.
"You need a predictable schedule in your day that meets all of your dogs needs." This will vary depending on the breed of dog you have, but high energy breeds will benefit greatly from a schedule that is stimulating and that wears them out, meaning that they are naturally settled rather than always looking for something to do.
"Another way to reduce dog anxiety is through making your dog work for its food," says Lansing. "If you have a breed that traditionally would have had to spend time getting, killing or scavenging for their food, then there is no enrichment for them in spending 30 seconds eating from a bowl," he says, advising using one (or more, because dogs like variety) of the various types of mazes and enrichment toys that you can feed them with.
Dealing with your dog's anxiety triggers
Once you've got the animal calmed down, you can think about dealing with the specific problem. Lansing says that the way to deal with a specific stimuli is through controlled exposure to it, whether that be car rides, visitors coming to the house, or meeting other dogs. "For example, you might want to travel in the car with a second person; start in the driveway and see if you can get the dog to remain calm using the same training methods you used to calm them earlier, then start driving short distances to increase your pet's ability to stay calm," he says.
Sadly, there are some dogs who have such severe anxiety that they do require medication, either on an as-needed basis (for pets who get freaked out by car rides for example), or an ongoing basis because their anxiety is linked to multiple stimuli or uncontrollable stimuli (you can control a car ride, but you can't necessarily control people walking by your home). "If you aren't able to reduce your dog's anxiety either alone or with help from a trainer, then you need to go see a veterinarian about what medical solutions there might be," Lansing advises.