Are your dog’s “misbehaviors” really signs of anxiety? Here’s what to know about anxiety and when to get help.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
October 13, 2020
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Credit: Max Bailen / Getty

When you live in a pandemic you tend to notice your anxiety more; you feel nervous, quick to anger, overly tired, or just on edge. Canines experience anxiety much in the same way we do, and being a dog parent with an anxious pup (and maybe anxious yourself!) isn’t fun for anyone.

For some dogs, feeling anxious is a passing experience, like maybe it only occurs on Thanksgiving (your relatives and their chaos bother your dog, too). But if your dog can’t be left at home alone without issues or appears distressed at any changes in their schedule, they could have a severe, diagnosable form of anxiety—and will need a good treatment plan to feel better.

Here’s what pet parents should know about anxiety and how to recognize when it’s time to seek additional help. 

What Is Anxiety?

“From a clinical perspective, there are two primary patterns of anxiety,” says Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVBM, CABC, a veterinary behaviorist at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore. Broadly speaking, the patterns break down into situational anxiety and generalized anxiety. “Situational anxiety occurs in specific situations or contexts. For instance your dog may become anxious when she’s left alone (separation anxiety) or when she is left at the boarding facility. Generalized anxiety doesn’t depend on one particular context or event.” Pachel says.

When a dog’s anxiety becomes severe and hinders their quality of life, that’s when it’s time to seek attention from a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behavior consultant.

While we’re at it, a quick note about fear: “Although fear and anxiety often get lumped together, they are actually completely separate emotional states,” Pachel says. Fear is an emotional state, something that an animal or human feels after a trigger or during an unpleasant event. Like being spooked after hearing a sudden lightning crash. Anxiety is the build-up of strong emotions and worrying about a potential threat or event. Like hearing rain drops and then worrying a big storm is coming even if there’s no sign of thunder or lightning.

What Does Anxiety in Dogs Look Like?

When a dog is really anxious, they may engage in behaviors that look like “misbehaving,” but are actually signs of anxiety. It’s important to never correct or punish a dog for being anxious.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the signs of more severe anxiety, here are some indicators that a dog is experiencing anxiety in some form:

  • Hiding/fleeing/avoidance. Attempts to hide, escape, or avoid stimuli.
  • Freezing. Becoming stiff and immobile at the sight of stimuli.
  • Heavy breathing.
  • Excessive drooling.
  • Shutting down. Lying or standing still and becoming unresponsive, even to their owner.
  • Trembling/shaking.
  • Cowering. Getting low and “small,”hunching over.
  • Attention-seeking. Attempts to be near you, “obsessing” over access to you.
  • Hypervigilance. Excessively searching, watching, and monitoring the environment.
  • Hyperarousal. Inability to relax, constantly moving.

The extent that a dog shows these behaviors—once in a while, in certain situations, or almost all the time—will be a clue as to whether you’re dealing with situational or generalized (chronic) anxiety. 

Dogs with anxiety need an owner that’s willing to do whatever they can to make a predictable environment for their dog. Owners of anxious dogs also need to constantly monitor their pet for changes in body language and behavior that might indicate the need to intervene or change the situation.

What Causes Anxiety in Dogs?

There are a lot of reasons a dog may be anxious. Research suggests that dogs, like people, are impacted by not only their genetics but also their environment, development, and learning experiences. 

Genetics:

A dog’s genetic history may play a significant role in how a dog is likely to develop, potentially based on his breed or by his parents. For example, a dog whose parents were fearful of other dogs is more likely to be fearful of dogs themselves. 

Life Experiences & Development:

Early life experiences such as maternal care, puppyhood development, socialization, and relationship building all affect the future behavior of a dog. 

Traumatic event(s):

Dogs that have experienced something traumatic, especially during the critical socialization period, are more likely to be anxious in the future and develop significant behavioral concerns. 

Lack of socialization:

Early socialization experiences affect how a dog will perceive their world. The adage “use it or lose it” applies here too: A dog that learned good coping skills in puppyhood will lose those skills in adulthood if they’re not consistently practiced.

How Can You Help a Dog With Anxiety?

The first thing to do is to ensure you can read the signs of anxiety in your dog and know the contexts in which they become anxious. Many dog owners find it helpful to keep a log or record of their dog’s anxious behaviors and what happened right before, during, and after those behaviors occur. With that context, here are some next steps:

  • Manage your dog’s environment.

You can’t always prevent every incident that causes anxiousness, but you can control your dog’s exposure to triggers like strangers and unfamiliar dogs, where you take your dog for walks, how you leave for work each day, etc. 

  • Create a doggy safe space.

Dogs, like people, need a safe space they can retreat to relax and rest. This is doubly important for a dog that experiences anxiety. Find a space in your house that your dog can access freely and where they won’t be bothered. Put comfortable bedding there, and toys your dog loves. If your dog loves the cooling air of a fan, you can turn it on and use it as a way to create soothing white noise. 

  • Maintain a relaxing home environment.

We often don’t consider how hectic our home life can be for dogs. For a dog that has anxiety issues, being in a home environment that’s busy and noisy can cause a lot more stress. Consider ways you can create more calm for your pet, like reducing the number of visitors you have or moving the dog’s food bowl to a quiet, private spot. Avoid taking your dog to locations that are crowded or unpredictable. Your dog may also find certain scent sprays and diffusers comforting.

  • Call a professional for a behavioral consultation.

Anxiety can be a complex and debilitating issue, so if your dog has severe or pervasive anxiety you’ll benefit from working with a professional. He or she can help you create an effective, positive reinforcement-based plan that incorporates desensitization and counterconditioning. You can locate a qualified professional through the IAABC’s consultant finder.

You may also read about vests, beds, and other products advertised to help your dog handle anxiety. To the extent that any of these tools help create a calm space for your dog to retreat to, they might be helpful. But the best way to help your dog is by creating an environment that eliminates stressors that might trigger your dog’s anxiousness. 

Where Can You Get Help?

“If you don't know how to proceed, please reach out to a positive-reinforcement-based trainer who can help you understand and truly address your pet's anxiety,” Pachel says. “The long-term goal should be to focus on teaching coping strategies that your pet can use in those stressful situations.”

A helpful training and behavior program will focus on reducing the exposure to potential triggers (through good management practices), creating new, positive emotional responses (through desensitization and counterconditioning) as well as teaching the dog effective coping skills. 

If your dog has severe anxiety, it’s likely your veterinarian will recommend prescription medication in combination with a positive reinforcement training program. But for dogs that just sometimes need a little extra help at specific times you can try an over-the-counter anxiety treat product like Composure treats, but be sure to talk to your vet first before introducing anything new to your dog’s body. 

There’s a lot of information you can find on the Internet, but it can be tough to find quality resources when you don’t know what to look for. Discover in-depth tips on how to recognize canine body language and signs of anxiety, by going to iSpeakDog.com.  Reading books focused on understanding your dog’s emotions and how to ensure your dog is happy are also great steps to addressing anxiety concerns.