Stress-busters for dogs

Destructive stress based behavior in dogs

We all take out stress one way or another... read on to prevent THIS from happening to you!

In a recent post, we wrote about the most commonly observed symptoms of stress in dogs, to which you might rightly be thinking: “Yeah… thanks for leaving me hanging. So now that I’ve identified that my dog is a bona fide stress-case, what do I do about it?!”

And right on cue, we’ve got a follow-up post to answer this very question, in order to address the more important issue here: how you can help soothe the anxiety in your little furry worrywart!

One thing that should help put your mind at ease when you consider your dog’s general mental state: Dogs are masters of living in the moment, so any scary or otherwise negative past experiences can be quickly forgotten, as long as you use consistent and calm training methods going forward.

Of course, if the stress is manifesting in fear-based aggression or other uncontrollable and scary behaviors, and/or there is a history of prior abuse or lack of socialization, it’s best to consult a veterinarian as well as a professional dog behaviorist to help with these more serious and deep rooted problems.

Problem: General, nonspecific anxiety and separation anxiety:
Solution: Ensuring that your dog gets regular exercise and mental stimulation can help with many different types of anxiety and fears. Try to stick to a consistent daily exercise routine, where your dog can expect one or two daily walks or runs at about the same time each day. Dogs are creatures of habit and also masters of time, so they’ll quickly come to anticipate their daily outing with you, which will help take their mind off of any separation anxiety or other concerns that may be on their mind.  A great time to go for a walk is before you leave for work, as the exercise will help tire out your dog, both mentally and physically, and settle her down for a nice nap in your absence. Similarly, rewarding your return home with a walk, run, or play time is also something the dog will learn to associate with your absence, rather than a general, nonspecific sadness, loneliness, and anxiety in being separated from you. We’ve also learned through neuroscience research that exercise is a natural mood-booster, through raising serotonin levels in the brain: thus, a 30-60 minute daily or twice-daily walk will help to relieve stress levels for both of you!

Environmental enrichment is also important to keeping your dogs calm and happy. You might think your dog is perfectly content to lay around all day on your couch, but the truth is that dogs weren’t meant to be couch potatoes, and this sloth-like activity will end up creating anxiety and boredom in your dog, manifesting in behaviors you’d probably rather not witness. Feeding your dog through puzzle toys will amuse him, challenge his mental skills, and will also help with weight control by slowing their rate of eating. Water fountains are entertaining for both cats and dogs, especially those that turn their nose up at “stale” water in bowls! Finally fresh air and sunshine are good for everyone’s mood, cats, dogs, and humans alike. Make sure your dog gets enough “outside time” each day, and can also look out the window so it can observe the world going by.

Problem: Loud noises
Solution: Desensitization
: Noise phobia can be traced to a specific initial bad experience of a startling noise or event, but more likely than not, the origination of the noise phobia is unknown. Where one dog cowers at every thunderclap, another dog might be able to sleep through an entire fireworks show. But gradual desensitization to the noise can help extinguish a stress response over time. For instance, dogs that get stressed by thunder storms can benefit from listening to recordings of thunder. In order to effectively desensitize the dog to the noise, first play the recording at a very low volume for brief periods while distracting the animal with a chew toy, puzzle game, or game of fetch while playing the recording. Watch for signs of stress and turn off the recording when you see any anxiety manifesting. Keep this up until the animal displays little to no response to the recording, and then gradually increase the volume, rewarding the dog with games and treats all while the recording is playing, until the dog no longer pays attention to the noise. With lots of practice, eventually the fear will disappear thanks to this well-documented behavior modification technique.

In addition, keep in mind that your own anxiety levels can influence your dog’s anxiety levels. If your dog senses that you’re upset by a novel noise or stimulus, he will think there is something to really be afraid of. Likewise, if he senses calm from you, he’ll be reassured that there’s nothing to fear.

Similarly, lots of owners try to comfort their fearful dogs by holding them, cooing to them and generally encouraging the behavior, even unwittingly. The dog interprets this kind of response as confirmation that there really is something to be afraid of, and also sees it as a positive reinforcement for their reaction.

Non-prescription calming products including natural herbal formulas that contain valerian and chamomile (Ultra-Calm® Bites) and the homeopathic Bach’s Flowers Rescue Remedy also work very well in some dogs. A new product on the market, Pheromone Plug-Ins, claims to release “Dog Appeasing Pheromones” into the air that reduces and prevents stress-related behaviors such as barking, whining, chewing, and soiling through “mimicking a new mother’s natural pheromones.” We haven’t tested it out, so can’t claim its effectiveness, but it’s on the market in case you want to try it!

Problem: New people, visitors, and children terrify my dog.
Solution: Consistent socialization and “desensitization to children practice”. Most dogs view any new people in their territory as intruders: unwelcome and possibly threatening, until proven otherwise. By the very nature of being children, with a boundless store of energy, rapid, unpredictable movement, loud noises, and small dog-like stature, children are typically the most threatening “people” to many dogs. Dogs that aren’t used to children or visitors may either act shy, go into hiding, bark incessantly, or even growl and become aggressive. The best way to deal with this is to socialize your dog to children and strangers. But don’t expect an overnight miracle. This takes consistent and persistent effort over a period of several weeks or even months.

Consider trying the following:

First, have one person come over that your dog knows and likes. Have this person come to your door, ring the doorbell, and give your dog a treat and quietly pet the dog. Then have several people the dog knows all come over at once, so he’ll get used to a group. (Consider throwing a party for your dog; i.e. only invite people over that your dog knows and likes, but may not necessarily have greeted all at one time in your home). If this works well, next time you throw your “get to know my dog” party, add one person that your dog doesn’t know, all the while praising him and giving him treats when he shows good behavior with guests. A third time, add a child to the mix, and eventually: more children until the dog is familiar and calm around any group, whether they are made up of adults and/or children.

Always supervise children with dogs. They can be unpredictable, which can unleash unpredictable behavior in your otherwise predictable dog.

Problem: Separation anxiety
Solution: Unfortunately, the solution for separation anxiety varies depending on the severity of the anxiety. A dog with separation anxiety becomes abnormally anxious when separated from his owner. Separation anxiety can manifest in behaviors that range from initial whining, pacing, salivation, barking, and howling, to the more destructive scratching, chewing, digging, or even urinating and defecating, to destroying personal items or household objects. For milder cases, try:

  • More exercise – Go for more walks and play fetch in the yard more often. Tired dogs are naturally less stressed out.
  • Leave and return calmly – This teaches your dogs that it’s no big deal that you’re leaving: you’ll return, and both are unexciting events.
  • Practice with short departures – This is teaching your dogs to become desensitized to your absence. Stage several short departures and arrivals throughout the day, gradually lengthening each absence as your dog adjusts.
  • Give them an activity – Many owners will leave their dogs with a Kong or similar “puzzle” type toy, filled with their kibble or peanut butter, or a favorite bone or chewie, so that the dog will be so preoccupied with their “task” – and getting rewarded the entire time – that they won’t have even noticed that you left. Chewing is also a stress-reliever for dogs.
  • Non-prescription stress reduction products – As discussed above, the herbal supplements and pheromone plug-ins can be used in your absence to help calm your dogs down generally and help them adapt to your absence with a minimum of anxiety.

Problem: Vet-related anxiety or travel
Solution: Treats, a vet your dog likes, and Bach Flowers. Unfortunately, since going to the vet is such a rare occurrence (hopefully), it doesn’t really make sense to employ desensitizing techniques for the vet’s office. The best you can do is to try to find a veterinary office that is calm, quick, and gets you and your dog in and out with a minimum of waiting, and a maximum of kindness, calmness, and love. Many people do administer homeopathic stress-reduction extracts to their dog’s water or a few drops just under their tongue prior to a visit to the vet or a long journey that could be stressful for the dog. For truly stressful experiences, like a plane ride, consult with your vet on the best type of calming supplements and potentially anxiety-reducing medications to use.