We’re at that time of year when storms produce earth-shaking thunder and people detonate home-rattling fireworks – both of which are common anxiety triggers in dogs.
Many situations can make a dog fearful: loud noises, unfamiliar environments, new people, and strange animals. Dogs are perceptive to the nuances in their environments; make a change and they will notice, sometimes responding in fearful ways. It’s up to you to teach your dog how to cope with stress and become calm when faced with anxiety.
A dog’s body language can reveal to its owner that it’s feeling anxious. You may notice your dog tuck its tail, hold its ears tightly back against its head, or begin to tremble. It may look at you with worrisome eyes or seem frozen in place. It may be so scared that it urinates or defecates inside your home. Contrary to this, your dog may become active as if someone sounded an alarm. It may bark or growl.
Its hair along its back may bush up with aggression, and it may begin to pace from door to door or window to window, as if ready for any kind of intrusion. Try caging or chaining up an anxious dog like this, and it may break free and possibly run off. Some dogs will even pant or drool when they are feeling anxious.
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The triggers that cause anxiety in dogs are often things that we humans are either used to (like storms or an approaching garbage truck) or enjoy (like gathering with friends or setting off fireworks). We can plan ahead for some of these situations and make it so the dog isn’t even present when these times come. Avoidance isn’t always an option though.
Counterconditioning is one technique to try when a trigger abruptly occurs. For example, if thunder has conditioned your dog to become fearful, counter that behavior by shifting the dog’s focus to something else. You could call it to your side and command it to sit. You could grab its favorite toy and try to distract the dog in play. Through counterconditioning, the dog’s attention moves from the trigger that causes fear to a trigger for pleasure or happiness.
Desensitization is another useful method that works well when you can cause the trigger to come about at will. Vacuums are one type of trigger that makes a good number of dogs fearful. Let the dog smell this scary sounding object when it is off. If the dog is reluctant to go near it when powered down, try leaving it out around the home for a day or two so the dog can become used to it.
Techniques for Nervous Dogs
When that point is reached, have someone use the vacuum in a room far from the dog. While the dog hears it, try counterconditioning techniques. Gradually begin using the vacuum closer and closer to the dog until it no longer perceives it as a threat. No matter what, don’t make it a threat! Some dog owners think it’s cute or funny to tease their pets with the things that scare them.
Do that and you will most likely have a pet that neither trusts you nor feels calm in the presence of anxiety triggers. Slowly introducing the trigger into the dog’s environment can help create a natural calmness.
Giving your pooch proper exercise, nutrition, and training can be done on your own or with the help of a professional so that you have a dog with a well-balanced disposition even when the environment may be a bit stressful.
Consider using a leash, harness, muzzle, or Thunder shirt if your dog still doesn’t seem to respond well to triggers after trying the aforementioned techniques. Be sure your dog has a “safe” place of its own to go to. It could be its bed or kennel, but make sure it has its favorite toys or blankets nearby.
You must also ask yourself how calmly you are handling the situation. If you yourself have anxiety because of the trigger or because of your dog’s behavior, your anxiety will probably upset the dog, too.
Ask for Help
If you feel like you are failing to calm your dog on your own, ask your veterinarian for help. Prescription medication, natural supplements, and even CBD oils have worked for some dogs. You may find the problems your dog seems to have are typical to its breed or common among senior dogs. Keep your cool and continue working to find a solution to your dog’s unwanted behavior.