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Anxious behavior: How to help your dog cope with unsettling situations

Anxiety in dogs is seldom a simple diagnosis

If your dog is nervous, and maybe even somewhat fearful at times, it’s wise to look deeply into what may be causing these behavioral issues and then devise a plan to help your dog become more confident. An anxious dog is an unhappy dog. You can change that by adding consistency and predictability to your dog’s life.

What is anxiety?

“In my experience, anxiety is used as a blanket description for anything that the dog does that the owner doesn’t like,” says Dr. Katherine Houpt, the James Law Professor Emeritus of Behavior Medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

Houpt says she almost never diagnoses anxiety by itself. Instead, there is usually something else behind a dog's anxious behavior. 

Behavioral issues 

Dogs can exhibit anxiety through a wide range of behavior problems, including: 

Separation anxiety  

The dog shows signs of distress, such as whining, howling, barking, pacing, house soiling or destroying household items after their owner leaves. While at home, dogs with separation anxiety often prefer to be in the same room as their owners, and they start becoming stressed when they see their owner preparing to go out. 

Resource guarding 

The dog growls, postures, threatens or actually bites when another dog or a human tries to approach or when they try to touch something that the dog considers valuable. Resources that are typically guarded include food, treats and toys, but dogs can also show resource guarding over a preferred resting spot or their favorite person. Resource guarding can be genetic, and it can also be a learned behavior — usually due to having to defend scarce or necessary resources from other dogs. 

Territorial aggression 

The dog lunges, growls or snaps at people and dogs who come near their territory. This behavior is usually displayed along fence lines, through windows and at doors. These dogs may still exhibit good behavior when visiting someone else’s home or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, but then they bark and lunge at anyone who comes near their own house or walks past on the street.

Sound sensitivity 

The dog reacts fearfully to loud, high-pitched or unusual sounds. Individual dogs may find different sounds scary, and these can include the noise of objects falling, phones beeping or ringing, cars idling, noisy traffic, and more. While most dogs might be startled by an unexpected sound and then move on, a sound-sensitive dog does not recover from that initial reaction, and they will continue to show signs of distress.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) 

The dog paces and pants, particularly at night, and they are often restless, not wanting to settle. They may also seem disoriented. CDS usually affects senior dogs, as a result of age-related changes in the brain. 

Behavioral modification strategies

Behavioral modification is critical to managing anxiety, but the exact strategy depends on the cause of the anxiety, as well as any other behavioral issues that are present. 

For example, if you own multiple dogs and one starts to exhibit resource guarding by preventing your other dogs (or even other pets) from approaching you, then you could start by keeping the animals separate and giving the each equal one-on-one time with you. Gradually, over time, you can start doing some activities with the dogs together again. 

If your dog has separation anxiety, you can gradually desensitize them to being left alone. Start by first just walking out of the room and immediately coming back; then gradually increase the amount of time that you are out of sight. 

Don’t expect a quick fix. An experienced, fear-free dog trainer who offers classes for you and your dog can be an excellent place to start. Good dog trainers use positive reinforcement to encourage the desired behaviors. Avoid trainers who use harsh, punitive methods such as yelling, jerking leashes, pinch collars, shock collars and so on. Be wary of any trainers who offer a quick fix. 

Consider medication

Houpt says that if you think the dog is suffering, if you are suffering or if your relationship with the dog is suffering, then anti-anxiety medications are a solid option. In her experience, by the time most owners resort to seeing a behaviorist, their dogs need medication.  

Medications might only be necessary while you're working on behavioral modification strategies, or they may be beneficial for the rest of your dog’s life. Rather than picking up an over-the-counter supplement or another other remedy from the Internet, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. 

Remember that with or without medications, it is still essential to develop a routine for your dog to help give them a more predictable, happy life. 

Ease your dog's anxiety at home 

“What seems to work best is predictability,” Houpt says. “If dog does X, then Y happens. It sounds simplistic, but it really seems to help dogs know what happens when.” 

For example, simple things like teaching your dog to sit before they get petted or asking them to offer a paw to be wiped off after a walk can give your dog a sense of control. Then they know what comes next after being asked to perform that specific behavior. 

Stick to a routine 

Schedule your dog’s meals, walks, play time and training time so that they know when to expect these activities throughout the day. You can also make rest time part of your regular routine. For example, put your dog in their crate every night while the family eats dinner, then let them back out. Then if you have company over for a meal, your dog will already be used to going to their crate. This creates a safe spot for them inside your home, especially if they are uncertain about the new people. 

Have a plan for surprises 

You also need a plan for when things don’t go as expected. “Things like holidays and mailmen cause disruption,” Houpt says. “Prepare a plan, such as putting the dog in another room or something similar, to get the dog out of the frightening situation.” 

Be sure your dog is crate-trained 

Crates can be extremely useful for riding out events that are stressful for your dog. If they are already used to spending time in their crate each day for meals or rest periods, then they will be more comfortable going back into the crate when something potentially upsetting is happening. 

Have a safe getaway plan in place 

If your dog is anxious about being approached by strangers or other dogs while out on walks, plan an evacuation strategy. Teach your dog to do a nose touch to your hand or come to your side on command. Then, when you see a potentially scary situation brewing, you can give your dog the command and provide praise for a job well done. This should help keep your dog distracted while you figure out how to avoid the oncoming trigger. Even something as simple as asking your dog to sit, then lie down, then sit again, can give your dog enough to do to take their mind off the stressful event. Eventually, your dog will learn to look to you for direction when they see a strange person or dog approaching. 

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.