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10 Calming Tips for Anxious Dogs
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10 Calming Tips for Anxious Dogs

1. Confirm Anxiety

In order to help an anxious dog, you first need to be absolutely sure that he is indeed anxious, and that any unusual behaviour is not manifesting as a result of a medical problem such as neurological or thyroid disease. Although a trip to the vet can be stress inducing in itself, it is very important to rule out medical conditions because some symptoms of anxiety can be very similar to some of those displayed by a dog that is physically unwell. These may include vocalising more than usual, hiding, trembling and showing a reluctance to indulge in normal behaviours such as playing. Excessive grooming/licking and inappropriate urination may be signs of anxiety, but can also be symptomatic of other conditions such as allergic skin disease (over-grooming) and urinary tract disorders (inappropriate urination). Once your vet has diagnosed anxiety, referral to a qualified canine behaviourist may be suggested. This can be very beneficial especially if you are not sure what is the root cause of your dog’s heightened stress.

2. Establish the Root Cause

Look at all possible reasons why your dog may be feeling anxious. Keeping a diary can be helpful. Have there been any changes to his daily routine? Sometimes it can be easy to establish why a dog is stressed; e.g. the arrival of a new pet or a new baby. Other times it can be difficult because the stressful events may be happening out of sight; e.g. something that has or is happening when your dog is left at home without you. Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety affecting pet dogs. Sometimes a single event that has frightened the dog can develop into a persistent and excessive fear known as a phobia. It may be that related events can act as triggers. For example, similar sounding noises may act as a stimulus to a dog who is phobic of thunder storms. Associated events or anything that triggers a memory of the storm may also trigger anxiety even if there is no storm. The most common phobias affecting dogs are related to noises.

3. Nutrition & Behaviour

Diet can affect canine behaviour. Have you changed your dog’s usual food lately? Dogs digest, metabolise and utilise different diets to different degrees of efficiency and sometimes a product with alternative ingredients and/or a different nutrient balance (the way in which the protein, fat and carbs are balanced) will alter the blood sugar, serotonin levels and rate at which energy is released. If your dog was previously behaving normally on his original food, try changing it back to see whether his behaviour reverts back to normal. Irregular food intake can also cause fluctuations to the blood sugar, so make sure your dog is eating sufficiently and at regular times. Anxious dogs may not want to eat, and this can heighten symptoms because of the drop in serotonin levels. Certain chemical colourants and preservatives have been proven to contribute to learning difficulties and hyperactivity in humans. Just like very sensitive children reacting badly to certain additives, dogs can suffer from some adverse responses (although this is largely based on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence).

4. Pheromone Therapy

Pheromone therapy can be an effective way to help appease an anxious dog, although it must be emphasised that this does not negate the need to try to establish the root cause of the problem and eliminate or minimise where possible the stressful events. Pheromone products contain adaptil, which is a synthetic copy of the natural comforting pheromone that a dam releases to reassure her puppies. You can choose from adaptil sprays (to use on bedding), collars and diffusers.

5. Behavioural Modification

Taking active steps to help your dog to relax is very important. Remember that every dog is different, the cause/s of anxiety can be very variable, and the most effective methods to help to calm the dog will vary again depending on the individual. Some dogs for example feel very safe in a crate, whilst others may panic if confinement is enforced. It is not generally advisable to reassure the dog mid-panic, because this can reinforce and reward the behaviour. It is better to try to pre-empt the fear, and settle the dog as best you can before the event. Never punish anxious behaviour. This can make it much worse. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning are most effective in dogs that have only recently started to suffer from anxiety. Desensitising describes the repeated exposure of the dog to the stimulus that provokes the fear, but at such a low level that it fails to provoke a nervous response. Counter-conditioning describes training the dog to perform a positive behaviour in place of the negative behaviour; for example sit and stay rather than disappear. Desensitising CDs are available for dogs that are fearful of fireworks and other noises. These are sound based treatment programmes that use specially recorded sounds alongside simple training methods.

6. Separation Anxiety

As mentioned, separation anxiety is common in dogs, and it is the most common specific anxiety that affects them. Make sure you are spending adequate quality time with your dog. This means setting aside special time for grooming and playing games, but don’t focus your attention on the dog all the time you are home as this can make the problem worse. It may help to leave your dog for short periods if possible to start with; and before leaving the house or returning home, ignore him. Make sure the environment he is left in is suitable, with safe toys (e.g. a stuffed Kong to keep him occupied) and a comfortable bed. Some dogs like to observe the outdoors through a window (although others may become nervous or over-excited at passers-by). Some may feel more settled if a radio is left on low for some quiet background noise. Help from a behaviourist may be required if your dog suffers from separation anxiety, and medication could aid in conjunction with behavioural therapy. A well socialised puppy is less likely to suffer from this condition. In a dog who already suffers from separation anxiety, helping him to become less dependent or fixated or one person (if he has a favourite family member) may be beneficial, so if there is someone else who can take over feeding and grooming duties sometimes, this can strengthen bonds between the dog and other members of the household and help increase his confidence with them and lessen his reliance on you.

7. Medication

Canine anxiety is serious because it is an unpleasant condition for both the dog and owner to have to deal with. In cases where a dog is suffering from prolonged periods of stress, or he is demonstrating problem behaviours such as aggression or inappropriate urination; prescription veterinary drugs can be very beneficial. Medication must only be used under your vet’s guidance, and may not be suitable for dogs with hepatic or renal dysfunction. Some drugs (e.g. benzodiazepines) are only suitable for short term use as they can affect the memory and cause lethargy. Benzodiazepines reduce the dog’s fear response, and have an immediate calming effect. Azapirones may be used to treat phobias and fear aggression. They are not helpful for panic disorders, but may be effective in cases of more generalised anxiety. Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) may be used for anxiety, panic, phobias, and compulsive behaviours such as chasing shadows or excessive licking. They are sometimes used to treat help aggressive behaviours caused by underlying anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are longer-acting and considered safer than TCAs. They affect the dog's serotonin production and can be helpful for compulsive behaviours and aggression. Drugs should be used in conjunction with, not instead of behavioural therapy.

8. Natural Remedies

There are a number of natural remedies available that may help appease anxious dogs. These include Adaptil tablets, which contain a combination of GABA, L-trpyophan, L-theanine and B- vitamins, and are a non-pheromone calming tool that can be used to support dogs during stressful events. Another option is Kalm Aid, which contains L-Tryptophan and L-Theanine.L-Trytophan is a precursor to serotonin (the happy hormone), whilst L-Theanine stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for confidence and a sense of well-being. The efficiency of flower remedies is debatable, but Bach Rescue Remedy Pet is an alcohol-free safe option for dogs. Thunder Shirts are not a remedy as such, but come under the “natural care” umbrella. These work by applying gentle, constant pressure on the dog’s torso, and many owners report this has a calming effect.

9. Minimise Stress

Many dogs can be perfectly happy most of the time, but may not cope with certain stressful situations that happen irregularly. Examples may include firework phobia, fear of storms, travelling or visiting the vet. It goes without saying that it’s vital to keep your dog safely indoors when there are firework displays or stormy weather. Behavioural modification and/or medication may be necessary if your dog becomes severely stressed. Desensitisation is effective for many dogs, but it needs to be started early to be effective.

10. Keep Calm

Try to keep calm yourself. Dogs are very sensitive creatures and soon pick up on how their humans are feeling. Try to ignore any unacceptable behaviour as much as you can, because attention in itself is a reward. Try to pre-empt your dog’s behaviour and distract him before he can engage in an undesirable one. This can really help because the familiarity of a set routine can reinforce certain behaviours. By doing something different (e.g. instigating a new game or asking him to do something for you such as “sit” or “lie down”) rather than simply anticipating the behaviour can be beneficial. Punishing the dog will not work, and may make things worse because this increases the unpredictability of the environment and can result in heightened fear, which in turn can damage your dog’s trust in you and cause or worsen aggression.

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