7 drug-free ways to treat your dog's anxiety

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My former roommate’s dog is terrified of high-pitched beeping; I realized the vast depths of his fear one afternoon a few months ago. My then-roommate was at her office job and I was working from our home, an our landlord was testing our carbon monoxide alarm, filling the apartment with its deafening beeps. As soon as the landlord opened the door to leave, the pupper bolted outside. I chased him around the block, plying him with a jar of peanut butter, and finally coaxed him back into the apartment nearly an hour later. Obviously, he had anxiety, but it wasn’t debilitating enough to warrant medication. It was then that I wondered if there are dog anxiety treatments that don't involve drugging your pet up.

As it turns out, there are plenty. Mic turned to expert sources, including two veterinarians, to highlight some of the ones most likely to soothe your Very Good, but very high-strung, boy or girl:

1. Learn to spot the signs of anxiety early on

This way, you can address your dog’s anxiety before they get too stressed and less receptive to your attempts to intervene, says Karen Sueda, a veterinary behaviorist at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. An anxious dog might have a crouched posture, lowered tail, dilated pupils, and ears pressed against their head. They might yawn or lick their lips. Some might avoid eye contact with whatever is making them nervous, while others might stare at it.

2. Comfort your dog when they’re anxious — don’t ignore or scold them

It’s a myth that petting your dog when they run to you in fear will only reinforce their attention-seeking behavior, Kristi Flynn, an assistant professor at University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, tells Mic. Remember, “fear is an emotion, not a behavior.” Plus, if you ignore your dog’s pleas for comfort, they might notice the odd change in your behavior, which may just worsen their anxiety. The same goes for disciplining or reprimanding your dog, according to the ASPCA.

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Instead, Flynn suggests consoling your dog so that they associate whatever triggered their fear —such as thunder or fireworks — with something positive. Sueda adds that an enjoyable activity can also redirect their attention away from the Scary Thing. Try talking to your dog in a cheery tone and encouraging them to play with a toy or eat treats, she suggests.

3. Try mat training

Find a specific mat and reward your doggo for lying calmly on it, Flynn says. “As we get better at that, we can do it in the anxiety-producing situations,” like when you have guests. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” though, she notes, so start by teaching it to your dog when they’re relaxed.

4. Provide your dog with plenty of mental and physical enrichment on a regular basis

“Training classes that use positive reinforcement techniques can increase a dog’s confidence interacting with the world,” Sueda says. Indeed, positive reinforcement is key. In a recent study, levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of dogs enrolled in reward-based training programs remained the same whether they were undergoing training or at home, Science reports. Meanwhile, salivary cortisol levels were higher during training in dogs enrolled in program that used negative reinforcement, like yelling, than when they were at home. They also engaged in more stress behaviors, like crouching and yawning, during training.

While exercise doesn’t “cure” anxiety, it can provide an outlet for your dog’s energy, Sueda says.

The ASPCA also suggests walking on routes you’ve never tried before, engaging in interactive games, and folding more aerobic exercise into your schedule. While exercise doesn’t “cure” anxiety, it can provide an outlet for your dog’s energy, Sueda says.

5. Try pheromones, probiotics, supplements, and/or essential oils

Sueda says pheromones—chemical substances animals emit that can affect the behavior of another animal of the same species— could help quell anxiety in your pupper. Research has shown dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) to lower anxiety stemming from several causes, such as separation or a new environment. Some companies have developed synthetic analogues of DAP, and you can buy collars that diffuse them. Alpha-casozepine and L-theanine supplements, as well as probiotics, may also help reduce stress and anxiety, Sueda says.

Flynn adds that lavender essential oil could have some benefit, too. One small study found that when dogs were exposed to an ambient lavender scent, they spent less time vocalizing and moving while riding in their human’s car.

While these methods often aren’t enough to alleviate anxiety individually, they might work in combination with each other, and in addition to training and behavior modifications, Flynn says. “There’s no harm in trying probiotics and things like that.” In other words, they may or may not help your dog when paired with other approaches, but they probably won’t harm them, either.

6. Play calming music

As Mic reported, a 2017 study found that reggae and soft rock in particular were associated with more relaxed behaviors and longer intervals between heartbeats — a sign of reduced stress — in kenneled dogs. What’s more, switching up the genres played may minimize habituation, or the phenomenon of having a dampened response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to it.

7. Walk away from an anxiety-inducing situation when you can

Remind yourself that it’s totally fine and normal if your dog isn’t down to greet every single dog or human they encounter — much like you probably don’t want to socialize with everyone you walk past, Flynn notes. If you notice your dog getting nervous about another dog 10 feet away, “it’s ok to do a U-turn in the other direction,” she says. “Sometimes we have this desire to work through it in the moment, but we’re actually more likely making it worse for the future.” For instance, next time, they might react to a strange dog from an even greater distance. “It’s okay to say, ‘Not today,’ and get going,” Flynn tells Mic.

These techniques could work in dogs like my old roommate’s pupper, whose anxiety didn’t seriously impair his day-to-day functioning. Some dogs’ anxiety, though, may be so severe, they could end up harming themselves, Flynn says. (For example, a dog with intense separation anxiety may injure themselves in trying to escape, per the ASPCA.) If you think your dog has severe anxiety, Flynn suggests meeting with a veterinarian and discussing medication.