by Claire Anderson
Is your dog fearful, anxious, or reactive? All of the above? When you go to a movie, do you check your phone every 30 minutes, afraid you’ll get a call from the neighbors that your dog has been crying, or worse—jumped out the window? Is every walk a struggle because your dog lunges at people or other dogs, or cowers behind you in fear at the noise of motorcycles passing? Do you avoid having friends over for fear that your dog will tremble in fear or bark at them? Is your dog simply overly cautious, seemingly scared of everything? If any of the above sounds like a day in your life with your pooch, they are suffering from excessive, unhealthy stress, which can also put your dog’s physical health at risk.
The worry and frustration that you experience is felt by many dog owners all over the world. That stress is felt ten-fold by your pup. Some stress is good and a necessary, an inevitable part of your dog’s experience. However, an excessive level of psychological stress is damaging and unhealthy. This is where you, as your dog’s leader and support system, come into play in a major way. In his essay Stress and Dog Training, Dreyton Michaels says1:
I couldn’t agree more. So, humans, help those pups out: remove, redirect, and reinforce your dog when they're stressed by a situation. Here are some easy things you can be doing right now to help relieve your sweet pup’s stress.
1. Create a sense of safety
Dogs do really well with a simple, predictable schedule. By providing your dog with predictability, you are reducing their stress significantly. This does not mean every day needs to look exactly the same for you, but you should try to keep your nervous dog’s schedule regular. Find a schedule that works for you and your pooch and stick with it—consistency is key. For example: if your pup can rely on a 20 minute walk or play session, followed by a snack and time to relax in their crate or bed around the same time each day, they will not be stressing about what might happen next.
You can also create predictable outcomes to certain situations. If your dog is nervous about people entering his home, develop a system that works for him and use it every time. This might mean bringing him into the bedroom with a kong before the guests enter. Or maybe it simply means bringing your dog outside to meet the guests, then entering together but keeping him attached to you on leash. Whatever the case may be, stick with it so your pup know what to expect.
2. Relaxation exercises for your dog
You know that feeling you have right after a massage or a nice, hot bath? Well, you can give that feeling to your pupper and you can enjoy it too! I use this technique with many of my separation anxiety clients and they end up loving the activity! It's a wonderful exercise for every dog, not just anxious ones and will help bond you with your dog.
Here’s what I do with my guys:
Each night, I plug in the diffuser with lavender essential oil in it. (You could also just put a few drops of lavender on a towel near you if you don’t have a diffuser.) I turn on calm, classical music, sit in a comfortable position with my dogs on their beds and softly, slowly pet/massage* them. Turns out, it's a relaxation exercise for me as well! We do this for 10-20 minutes each evening.
*Touch can be very stimulating for some dogs. If it seems to be working against you because your dog is not settling, try not touching him and just sitting near one another. If you do massage him, keep your movements slow and gradual, with light pressure. Avoid a lot of face and head touching and do not hug your dog as this can increase his stress.
3. Dog chew toys
Chewing can be very soothing to pups, so providing them with safe chewing opportunities is essential. I recommend giving one frozen Kong dog toy or Westpaw dog toy per day. You can fill it with an assortment of ingredients like: yogurt, Answers raw cow’s milk kefir, peanut butter, pumpkin, veggies, blueberries, their food, etc. Or use other chew options like antlers, raw marrow bones, bully sticks, Nylabones, and Benebones. It's important to provide your dog with safe chewing options and those options might look different depending on your dog. Always supervise when they are chewing on a bone to prevent injury. Avoid rawhide as they are dangerous and toxic.
4. Try window clings!
Your dog's stress levels significantly increase when they bark, whine, or scratch at the window when another dog or person walks by. For most dogs, watching the world outside their living room is perfectly fine and healthy. But for other dogs prone to anxiety and stress responses, your living room window/door is adding a constant stream of triggering stimuli. There's an easy way to manage this aversive stimuli: either prevent access to the windows themselves, or you can add frosted window clings! The window clings still allow light in, but obscure your dog’s view of the outside. Since your dog is shorter than you, you can put it only on the lower half of your window and you can still see out. I use these frosted window clings on all of my windows and I love them!
5. Learn to read the signs
As dog owners, we spend a lot of time trying to communicate with ours dogs, usually to no avail. We get frustrated when they don’t understand what we are trying to tell them, like: “I’ll be back in two hours, George! Please don’t eat the dry wall!” The truth is that dogs are actually excellent communicators and they are communicating with us all the time, and many times without success. It doesn’t take much to learn how to read a few signs that will help you understand your dog better.
We specifically want to pay attention to the body language and signals your dog is using to communicate that they are unsure or insecure about something. As a dog trainer, I see these signs constantly—not only from my own dogs and my clients, but many of the dogs I see out in my neighborhood. Here are the signals I see most regularly:
- Lip Licking
- Averting Eye Contact or Sniffing the Ground
- Brow Furrowing
- Hyperactivity or Hypervigilence
If a dog’s stress signals are regularly ignored, they may stop using these signals all together and jump directly into much more severe stress behaviors, like aggression.
If you notice your dog using calming signals, it is important to help them out by addressing their fear. For example: if George begins panting, pacing, and trembling when bicycles approach him, the best thing you can do for him is give him space when someone with a bicycle approaches. For you, this means that you have to be your dog's advocate and ask for space, or physically removing you and your dog away from what he is perceiving as a threat.
6. Good diet (and supplements) goes a long way
If you are living with an anxious dog, you have likely purchased countless “miracle cures” for anxiety. The truth is that some of them might help reduce stress, but they will not work for a severely stressed out pup solely on their own. Here are some great homeopathic supplements* I recommend to my clients to help reduce stress, but always along in combination with a behavior management and modification plan:
Along with these supplements, it's best to have your dog on a healthy diet as well. I recommend feeding a raw diet supplemented with raw goat’s milk, kefir, and fish stock. The best raw products come from Answers Pet Food. If you prefer feeding dry food, just make absolutely sure you are feeding a grain-free, high-quality food. Orijen, Acana, and Ziwipeak are our favorite options*. If your pup isn’t feeling well, he may not act like himself. Think about how you would feel if you ate fast food on a daily basis and apply that to your dog.
*Consult with your veterinarian before any added supplementation or diet change.
7. Exercise your dog
Physical and mental exercise are necessary to your dog’s well-being, I promise. This is the first thing I discuss with all of my clients. Exercise is extremely important, and it might look different for each dog. What is great exercise for my pit bull does not work for my dachshund. A minimum of 30 minutes of physical exercise per day for your dog is a great place to start, but if you have a more active dog, then you may want to boost that to 60 minutes. This can be in the form of a brisk walk, hike, a game of fetch/tug of war, or hide and seek!
Mental exercise is just as essential to your dog’s well being. Play brain games like scentwork, the shell game, or “Which hand is the treat in?” Puzzle toys are such an excellent tool for mental exercise that we even wrote a blog post about it! Nina Ottosson's dog toys are our favorite, but you can also make your own out of supplies found in your own kitchen! Also, every day should include a bit of basic obedience training!
8. Train with a Pro
I know that having an anxious pup in your life can be frustrating—trust me, I’ve been there. My rescue dog, Ziggy Starpup, is an anxious dog due to a rough start in life. No matter how stressed you feel at any given time, your dog is feeling it too. The absolute worst thing you can do is to add aversive training techniques that scare and intimidate your dog. At the very least, this means no bark collars, no prong or chain collars, and certainly no physical punishment. Instead, focus on management, prevention, and positive reinforcement training!
Your dog needs your support. Training—done the right way—can be a great relationship builder!
The first thing we need from any dog is focus, but especially an anxious dog. This simply means teaching your dog to check in with you regularly and to look to you when presented with something that makes him feel anxious.
Here’s a technique to get you started!
You will need:
- A clicker or your voice!
- Patience and positivity!
First, toss a treat on the ground directly in front of you. Your dog will go to retrieve it and then will look back up at you for more. The exact moment he looks at you, click or say “yes!” and then toss another treat on the ground. Repeat this 10-15 times in a low distraction environment like your house.
Do this exercise two times per day inside the house until your dog is a superstar and looking right back up at you! Next, you can start tossing the treat further away so your dog needs to move away to retrieve and and then come back to you. Finally, when this has become a fast, easy, and reliable game and your dog is looking right back up to you, you can move outside at non-peak times to work. This is a very fun game to build focus on you, despite distractions. Looking to you will also become a default behavior, which is the goal!
Optional: Add a cue. If you want to put it on a verbal cue, simply say “look” or “watch” as your dog looks in your direction, then click or praise.
If you are feeling helpless and frustrated with your fearful dog, we can help! Contact a force-free, positive reinforcement trainer today!