Dogs become anxious for many reasons. Loud noises, new situations, car rides, vet visits, separation, and certain objects can all cause anxiety. Unsocialised puppies can be nervous around new dogs or people. And pups from puppy mills may fear enclosed spaces.
If you want to help an anxious dog, there are many natural ways you can try without having to visit the vets. In this article, we examine ways to help an anxious dog, and which methods work well with particular fears.
How to help dogs with general anxiety
1. Start with the basics
What would happen if you gave your child fizzy drinks, junk food and no exercise? They’d be full of nervous energy and bounce off the walls. Well, dogs are the same. If you feed them cheap food and don’t exercise or stimulate them enough, their energy will build. This can become nervous energy and turn into anxiety.
Decent food and lots of exercise burns off this energy, resulting in a calmer dog. Exercise and spending fun time with your dog makes them tired, content and happy.
Grooming can promote happiness by releasing feel-good hormones. The brain releases endorphins (our natural mood-boosters) in times of stress. Stroking or grooming your dog will instantly calm them down. Grooming also produces oxytocin. This is the hormone released when mothers give birth to help the bonding process and when couples have sex. Oxytocin reduces stress and anxiety in humans and dogs.
3. Calming foods for dogs
Feed your dog food with naturally calming effects.
Beef: Beef contains minerals and essential fatty acids, but also vitamins B6 and B5, which reduce anxiety.
Blueberries: Blueberries contain essential minerals, vitamins and antioxidants that help reduce stress.
Brown rice: Brown rice slows down digestion, allowing the body to absorb tryptophan. This helps produce serotonin. Serotonin is a natural mood-booster and a stress reducer.
Kale: Leafy greens like kale and spinach are full of magnesium, which reduces anxiety and helps produce a feeling of calm.
Oily fish: Oily fish like salmon contain omega-3, which not only helps reduce anxiety but is a mood-booster too.
Sweet potato: Cooked sweet potato is packed full of natural goodness, including calming antioxidants and vitamins B6 and C.
Turkey: Ever wondered why we feel drowsy after Christmas dinner? It’s the tryptophan. Tryptophan is important because it promotes serotonin.
Turmeric: Turmeric has many health benefits. It has anti-inflammatory properties and increases the body’s antioxidants. Studies also show the active ingredient in turmeric reduces anxiety and lifts depression.
How to help an anxious dog with phobias, fears or trauma-based anxiety
4. Behaviour modification
Dogs sense anxiety, so if you’re nervous, your dog will pick up on it. You must change your behaviour to help your anxious dog. For example, if your dog is afraid of fireworks or thunder, it can be tempting to comfort and reassure them. It’s natural to give them a cuddle or speak softly to soothe their anxiety. This is the worst thing you can do. Effectively, you’re telling your dog there is something to be afraid of. You are rewarding their nervous behaviour with attention.
On the other hand, if your dog is so anxious, they’ve resorted to barking or messing indoors, you may get frustrated and punish your dog. This just increases their anxiety and can make their behaviour worse. If you act naturally, you send the message that everything is OK. You are the pack leader, remember? Your dog looks to you for guidance and reassurance.
Next time there’s a thunderstorm, or someone is letting off fireworks, act as if nothing is happening. It’s tempting to comfort your dog. But speak in your normal voice, go about your usual business, and ignore the anxiety.
If your dog gets anxious at the vets, ask if you can bring them in and just sit in the waiting room. Perhaps the receptionist can give your dog a treat or fuss over them once when they are calm?
Introducing your dog to a fearful situation gradually can help reduce anxiety. For instance, some dogs are afraid of getting into cars, others are nervous around people. As with behaviour modification, your actions must be calm and deliberate. Introduce the fearful situation in stages.
So, if your dog hates cars, walk them around the car, rewarding them when they are relaxed. Next, open the car door, again, rewarding them for relaxing. Carry on until they are in the car, fully relaxed. You can’t push these things, so be wary of becoming frustrated or trying to rush the process.
You can introduce your dog gradually to most situations, including new people, new dogs and new situations.
How to help dogs with separation anxiety
6. Combine the basics and desensitisation techniques
Estimates show around 14% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. There are many reasons for this; pups from puppy mills or rescue dogs are vulnerable. Moving house or the death of an owner can also produce separation anxiety. Start with the basics, giving your dog plenty of exercise and stimulation. Wear them out by the time you have to leave them.
Once they’re tired and happy, step out of the room they are in for a few seconds. Reward them if they don’t follow you. Gradually increase the time spent away; go upstairs or into the garden. Step out of the front or back door. Each time reward them when they are relaxed. Continue until they are happy to be left alone.
According to the RSPCA, you should not leave your dog for longer than 4 hours a day. In fact, they won’t re-home dogs to anyone who has to leave their dog for longer than 4 hours. We all must go out and we cannot always take our dogs with us. Chewing releases endorphins which calm the body. So, leaving them with something to do helps counteract separation anxiety. Try them with one of our boredom busters or a Licki-Mat smeared with doggy peanut butter.
How to help dogs with age-related anxiety
7. Keep to a routine
Our dog has declining mental health and gets anxious if he can’t see us. He’s deaf, going blind, and has dementia. Many older dogs suffer from age-related anxiety, whether it’s dementia or illnesses. If you suspect your dog has an age-related problem, get them checked out by a vet for a proper diagnosis. Like humans, dogs can suffer from ‘sun-downing’, when their symptoms worsen as the evening approaches. Keeping to a strict routine helps older dogs with dementia. Feed them and walk them at regular times.
8. Add brain-boosting foods to their diet
There are also medications available, but you can help by adding a few of these antioxidant rich foods to your dog’s diet:
Apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries. Cooked sweet potatoes, yellow squash, carrots, artichokes. Steamed broccoli, red cabbage, spinach, kale, green beans.
Dogs get anxious just like humans. With the above tips, we hope we can help your anxious dog relax and enjoy life.