How to deal with dog anxiety if your pet gets freaked out every time you leave the house
Dog lovers know all too well how much a pup can turn a rough day around; in fact, studies have shown “man’s best friend” can actually be a form of therapy, with dogs helping to decrease our anxiety just by being around us. But that doesn’t mean pets themselves are always feeling 100 percent.
“Anxiety, to some degree or another, is seen a lot in dogs,” Dr. Gary Richter, veterinary health expert with Rover, tells Mic. In particular, separation anxiety — which, Richter says, “occurs when dogs become upset because of their owner not being present” — affects an estimated 14 percent of dogs, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC).
And just like with humans, there are various causes for anxiety in dogs. “Anxiety is partially a genetic issue,” Richter explains. “Similarly to how some people are more anxious than others, the same is true of dogs. Breed can [also] be a determining factor, and life experiences can play a role as well. [And] as you might expect, dogs that have lived through trauma may be more prone to anxiety.”
Whatever the reason, if you think (or know) that your dog experiences anxiety, here are some ways to help them cope.
1. Learn the signs
It’s difficult to address your dog’s anxiety if you don’t know if or when they’re feeling anxious — so it’s important to learn the signs and symptoms. “Elimination [urinating or defecating], destruction, and vocalization are the most commonly reported behaviors associated with anxiety,” Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mic. “Less obvious signs of distress include withdrawal [such as not interacting with you], inactivity, salivation, whimpering and pacing.”
According to the AKC, repetitive or compulsive behaviors can also be signs of anxiety. Your dog may also convey their distress through their body language, so taking note of their behavior and movements during stressful moments can help you sense when your dog is getting uncomfortable before the situation escalates. “Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable or scared can help you avoid negative experiences or use them as a positive training moment,” the AKC notes on its website.
2. Work with a professional
It’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about any anxiety-related issues, starting with the diagnosis. “The best way to know if your dog is experiencing anxiety is to talk with your veterinarian about your dog’s behavior,” San Filippo says. “Your veterinarian can determine whether this falls within the normal range of behavior or if this is a more serious behavioral or emotional issue.”
From there, he adds, you can work with the vet to “tailor a specific plan of action” for your pet, which “could include training, reinforcement and other behavior modification techniques, as well as medication.”
Richter also suggests working with an animal behaviorist — a trainer who specializes in behavioral issues — to help treat your dog’s severe anxiety. If you’re not sure who to call, ask your vet for a referral to someone they trust.
3. Maintain your dog’s health
Plenty of studies have shown that a healthy diet and exercise can help curb anxiety in humans, and the same goes for dogs. According to the AKC, regular exercise and stimulation (think: games and toys, like those with hidden treats, that challenge your dog mentally as well as physically), as well as good nutrition, can ward off destructive behaviors that are symptomatic of anxiety. If you’re not sure what your dog should be eating, make an appointment with your vet to figure out a diet that both includes necessary nutrients and fits your pet's specific needs.
4. Consider medication
It’s possible your dog’s anxiety may warrant some type of medical help. Depending on the symptoms and cause of the anxiety (like if it's more general, or triggered by specific situations), the AKC notes your vet may prescribe your dog something like benzodiazepine and/or an antidepressant.
There are also over-the-counter supplements, "like Rescue Remedy or essential oil preparations containing [ingredients like] lavender [and] chamomile... that can help with anxiety,” Richter says. “However, just like in people, anxiety is frequently difficult to control and usually needs more than a simple over-the-counter supplement," he adds, such as "stronger herbal formulations" that's geared towards your dog's specific needs.
Richter also notes that recently, more pet owners have turned to CBD products to treat their dog's anxiety. That said, these treatments are relatively new and there aren’t yet clear medical guidelines on safe and effective dosages, so tread carefully and consult your vet if you choose to go the CBD route.
Regardless of the treatment method you use, Richter cautions against relying solely on that product. “Supplements or medications are designed to complement...training, not replace it,” he says.
5. Get them used to your routine
If your dog’s issue is separation anxiety, Richter suggests going through a process to “desensitize [them] to your coming and going." For instance, “when you leave the house and when you come back, ignore the dog until they calm down,” he explains. “Once they are calm, you can interact with them."
Richter also recommends going "through the motions like you are going to leave the house," such as putting on shoes and grabbing your keys, but not actually leaving. "The goal is for the dog to no longer associate those activities with something stressful," he explains.
Ochoa also advises slowly building up to longer separation periods by first leaving your dog at home for a short time (even just five minutes), and then increasing the amount of time you’re gone with each departure. “Gradually working up to longer times gone will show your dog that you are going to come back home and not leave them,” she says.
Even outside of separation anxiety, the AKC notes that proper obedience training and socialization (“introducing your dog to new people, dogs, animals, places and experience,” as the site explains) are crucial to both preventing and managing your dog’s anxiety.
6. Adjust their environment
“A dog’s environment can affect stress and anxiety levels,” Richter says. “Dogs living around loud noises or stressful environments can develop greater anxiety.” Take stock of the places when your dog seems to experience the most anxiety, and, as much as possible, work to minimize those triggers — whether it’s loud noises or large groups of other dogs.
Beyond that, make accommodations as best you can to improve your pup's surroundings. “Most dogs with separation anxiety will be left in a crate,” Ochoa says. “Make this space fun and reward them for going into the crate. [And] give them a blanket or old shirt that smells you, [which] will help your dog remain calm while you are gone.”
Richter says leaving the radio on a low volume while you’re gone can help as well. He also recommends giving your dog “a chew toy, kong [a specific rubber toy], or bone [to] help alleviate the urge...to gnaw." Basically, he adds, "anything safe that they can hold and lick can be helpful.”
If your dog’s anxiety stems from situations like fireworks or storms, Ochoa says a Thundershirt can be a great purchase, noting that the “snug-fit shirt” will allow your pup to “feel more calm, similar to a security blanket for people."
7. Remain calm
If your dog is exhibiting signs of anxiety during a high-stress situation that has you frazzled as well, it’s important to keep your cool, as that will "let your dog know it is OK,” Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian and veterinary consultant for DogLab, tells Mic. “A dog sometimes will sense fear off of their owner; and if you are afraid... they [will also] be afraid.”
8. Be patient
While all the above tips should hopefully make a difference in your dog's anxiety, it's important to remember that just like with humans, "there is no easy fix" for the condition, says Richter. The issue likely won't be resolved in just one day, or even one week, so as you work with your pup to treat and overcome their anxiety, make sure to manage your own expectations; it'll make the whole process far less frustrating.