Here’s some scenarios you might be familiar with when it comes to your pup.
If you leave home, sometimes even just for 5 or 10 minutes to take out the trash or do something in the backyard, you can hear her howling and whining. If you ever leave for longer, you might find her broken out of her crate and the entire house looks like a small cyclone ripped through it.
Your pooch behaves great most of the time. But taking him to the vet or the groomer? Forget it. Sometimes it’s hard to even get him through the door. The vet and the groomer have both told you that he acts extremely scared, won’t hold still for anything, and they even had to muzzle him to trim his nails last time.
Your pup is fine around you, but if anyone walks by the window, a tremendous barking event occurs. If someone comes to the door? He barks more and even growls. The same thing happens if approached by unfamiliar dogs or people out on walks. He does great for grooming appointments, but when you go to the vet with him, he growls and even tries to bite anyone who comes close to you.
Your dog is the calmest pooch. She actually loves going to the vet and can’t get enough of other people and dogs out on walks. But if a car backfires or the garbage truck comes by, she’s nowhere to be found. The worst is during the summer with thunderstorms and July fireworks. You’ve found her cowering in the closet, shaking and unwilling to come out.
These are all very different scenarios, but you might have already guessed what’s common among them: stress, fear, and anxiety.
Many dogs experience these emotions and responses to some degree and in some form. In this article, we’re going to discuss how to recognize if your dog may be stressed or fearful during certain events, as well as some strategies to work with your pup to help him out.
What’s Stressing Out My Dog?
There’s two big steps you need to take to help your dog cope with the stress, fear, or anxiety he may be feeling. The first is to actually recognize when he’s showing signs of stress. The second is to also recognize the situations or environments in which he’s exhibiting these signs.
While some unfortunate pups are stressed and act fearful all the time in multiple situations, most have very specific triggers. If we can identify these triggers and recognize a pattern, we’ve taken the first steps on the path to helping.
How Can I Tell if My Dog is Stressed?
When many folks think about a stressed or anxious dog, they think about a poor pup cowering in the corner, shaking and trying to hide. This is most certainly how a fearful pup may look, but there are actually some far more subtle signs we have to be able to recognize.
Some signs may also be pretty blatant, but we don’t recognize them as associated with stress or fear and instead confuse them with signs of excitement, outright aggression, or just plain “bad behavior”.
Here’s a list of some of these signs, starting with the most subtle, and working up to the most visible.
This is the one very few recognize as a sign of stress in dogs, but it absolutely is, in the right environment. When your pup wakes up in the morning, yawns, and stretches, is that normal? Absolutely.
But if she yawns several times during the course of a vet appointment even if she’s not showing any other signs of anxiety, she’s not bored. This is most certainly a sign that she’s a little stressed out. I always keep an eye out for this clue, indicating that a couple extra treats, praise or positive attention might be in order.
Shake It Off
Let’s say you have some friends or family over that have two small children. They absolutely love doggies, so naturally the first thing they do when they arrive is seek out your pup. The ritual hugging, squeezing, patting and other attentions ensue.
Your sweet pup remains still and stoic throughout. When the kids are finally finished, you notice your pooch trot into the next room. Just before he does, he does a whole body shake, as if he was trying to shake water off after a bath. This is also a sign that something he just went through stressed him out just a little. We see the same thing in dogs at the vet who have just finished being held or restrained for their exam and vaccines.
You can take in a lot of signals a dog is showing by looking at the position and movement of his tail. This could be considered a language all on its own, and being able to master the subtle differences can take some time, but here’s the basics.
For most dogs, a tail directed horizontally is one in a neutral position. If the tail is directed slightly more vertically, this denotes a higher degree of alertness to surroundings and what is going on. An extremely vertically-oriented tail can indicate dominance or aggression aimed at the focus of a dog’s attention.
Now contrast this with tail positioning in the opposite direction. A tail positioned just below horizontal may be associated with passive curiosity or a little bit of uncertainty about what’s going on. A tail that is tucked up underneath a pup is a clear sign of submission and fear.
We do have to consider that there are differences depending on breed, so always take your pup’s “normals” into account. For example, sighthounds like Greyhounds and Whippets usually have low-slung tails, even when they’re happy. The Eskimo breed often have their tails vertically-oriented and curled. The same is similar with Terriers.
Tail movement is also very important. A tail vigorously wagging in broad sweeps is a sign of excitement and happiness. Some pups, especially ones with shorter or docked tails will include a little (or sometimes hilariously pronounced) butt wiggle in there too.
Shorter, slower strokes can be more associated with a pup who is pensive or unsure about things, but is hopeful they’ll turn out okay. This may quickly turn into a big tail wag with some extra treats or a toy, or may go the other way if presented with a stimulus the pup perceives to be threatening.
A straight or vertical tail that is completely still or appears to be vibrating can be a sure sign of impending aggression towards a target. Combine this sign with other clues too though, like the hairs of the tail and along the back being fluffed up (which is called piloerection), barking, growling, etc.
There is one more set of tail motions to look out for that can indicate a dog’s state of being. According to a 2011 article in Psychology Today, we can detect some emotions a pup is feeling based on whether the tail moves more to the right or to the left. If a pup wags his tail with a bias more towards his left side, this denotes a more negative response or desire for avoidance of a stimulus. Conversely, tail movement more towards his right side is associated with more positive vibes.
This is one I see often in practice with nervous patients. Dogs have great memories of certain environments and locations. And unlike us, they don’t just utilize visual memories. They can use their excellent sense of smell to recall a place too. If there is a negative association with a place, like at the vet clinic where stressful things like shots, nail trims, and bloodwork are performed, a pup may have a high sense of anticipation that one of these stressful things is going to happen.
It can be common to see a stressed pup who is really stiff and stoic flinch with even a gentle touch on my part. She has so much tension because of anticipation. Some dogs with really bad fear anxiety may even turn to nip or bite with the slightest touch. This can sometimes be confused with a painful response by concerned pet parents. Your vet can typically interpret the difference based on other body signal cues, and it’s important to recognize the difference yourself.
Excitement doesn’t always stem from happiness. We can also see excitement that results from overstimulation in environments that are contributing to stress and anxiety. Let’s take the example of two separate responses to a vet entering an exam room to illustrate the difference.
The vet walks in. Your pup’s tail wags vigorously, she runs up to the doctor, who crouches down, prompting your pup to give her caregiver a nice wet lick on the face. She then sits next to the vet panting and expectantly looking for a cookie that she knows is somewhere nearby. She sits very well for her exam and when it’s over, spins around in circles, wagging her tail, then sits waiting for another cookie. This is happy excitement.
Now let’s look at the other version. The vet walks in. Your dog immediately barks, runs up for a quick sniff, then darts away quickly, then proceeds to trot around the room in circles, barking continuously. He may repeat brief excursions towards the doc but generally continues pacing, barking, and maybe jumping on you, the counter or exam table, the door, etc. Attempts by the doctor to examine your pup are met with escape attempts, further barking, jumping, and pacing. This is excitement, but is stemming more from overload from a stressful environment.
Signs of Aggression
If your pup is one who growls, lunges, or even tries to bite people or other dogs if they approach, it’s important to understand in what situations these reactions occur (which we’ll be covering next). In the right environment, like the vet clinic, these can actually be signs of fear aggression, which is very different from a dominant or territorial aggression. Dogs may also be fearful for their own pup parent’s safety and can act aggressively towards anyone approaching their human companion. This is what's called protective aggression.
Several of my examples involve vet visits, because as a vet, this is when I see a lot of stressed and anxious pups. But the vet isn’t the only place where dogs can feel stressed, and it’s important to realize that physical places aren’t always triggers. Situations and events are too, especially ones that occur in otherwise familiar and “safe” surroundings.
Recognizing in what places or situations your dog’s stress, fear, or anxiety is being triggered is vital for knowing what intervention methods will be most effective.
Physical places are most often the easiest to recognize. Common locations include the vet clinic or groomer, but may also include less obvious places. Some pups hate car travel. Being forced to move at high speeds in a small enclosed space can be pretty scary.
Or perhaps your pup had a bad experience with another dog at a particular dog park and will be wary or fearful of approaching that location again. Dogs have such an excellent sense of smell, that you might find your pup trying to avoid a location even though you’re not sure why. It’s possible she detects the scent of a more dominant dog in the area she would like to avoid, or has just picked up a displeasing scent she associates with danger to herself or her human companion.
Is your dog just fine when you're present but has clear signs of stress and anxiety when you’re gone? Separation anxiety is one of the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders in dogs, and is one that is discussed in more detail in the article How to Help Separation Anxiety in Dogs.
Conversely, perhaps you find that your dog acts more standoffish only when he’s with you. Protective aggression is a behavior we recognize, where a pup feels the need to defend his human companion from perceived threats, especially ones that he himself sees as scary. This might be other dogs, strangers, or even the vet. This can range from excessive barking at anyone who comes near, to biting or lunging behavior.
Dogs have an amazing sense of hearing. Their cup-shaped ears with canals much longer than our own are designed to receive and amplify sound. So it’s not too surprising that really loud noises like construction, garbage trucks banging cans around, fireworks, and thunderstorms can be very startling and scary.
These are just some examples of triggers and there can be many more. Keep any eye on your dog's body language to be able to tell if he might be "triggered" by a location or event.
How to Calm a Stressed Dog
After you’ve been able to recognize the signs of stress your pup is exhibiting and have paired it with a triggering location or event, you can now start to develop a strategy to intervene on your pup’s behalf and try to keep him calm.
There can be a multitude of triggers that lead to stress, fear, and anxiety in a pup, including combinations of different triggers. For that reason, we can’t discuss every single individual response and how to address it, but there are 3 main general guidelines you can follow.
Know Your Pup’s Limitations
There’s an old school strategy that dictates addressing fear and anxiety by exposing the fearful individual to high levels of a trigger, thereby desensitizing the individual to the trigger itself.
This is akin to taking someone afraid of the water or swimming and “throwing them in the deep end”. But what do we know about this strategy? It usually results in drowning or at best, further avoidance of swimming.
Exposing a dog openly to something she’s afraid of will not teach her to not be afraid of it. I can attest to this in my own experience by seeing dogs develop worse fear behaviors over time as they come in for an exam, blood sampling, vaccines, or a nail trim.
It’s really important to understand where a dog’s comfort level starts to peter out and when it actually ends. From here, we can decide how best to help a pup overcome that threshold, or at least make the level of stress he experiences better for him.
Also consider if it’s possible to avoid a fear trigger entirely. If there’s a route on your walk with lots of construction going on and the loud sounds terrify your pup, plan to take a different route until the construction is over.
Avoidance of triggers is sometimes all that is necessary to solve the problem. But unfortunately, there are many trigger situations or locations that simply can’t be avoided.
Know What Your Dog Responds Positively To
For many years now positive reinforcement has been proven through research by behavior experts to be the most successful approach in promoting behavior change.
When first assessing a fearful dog, a good trainer will look first for what makes that dog happy. It might be food rewards like treats or even just verbal praise. Like a human toddler, some pups develop a strong emotional attachment to a stuffed toy and carrying it around helps them feel more secure. One of the veterinary nurses in my hospital has a dog with severe separation anxiety, who in addition to other strategies, is far calmer if she can carry around her oversized stuffed llama toy and have it in her kennel with her.
We may also find that being with or without their pup parent can help a dog cope with stress. Some dogs are far calmer with their parent nearby.
But it’s also true that the presence of a parent may actually induce a more robust response to triggers. This may be out of a desire to protect their companion from perceived “dangers” or could be that they sense their human’s anxiety, which drives up their own.
Find out what your dog loves, look for patterns, and include this in your approach to helping him overcome fearful or stressful situations.
Introduce Small Stressors Combined with Positive Experiences
This kind of combines both of the above strategies. If we know what a pup’s limitations are, we know when to stop pushing full force.
But we can utilize small levels of a trigger and combine this with positive rewards and experiences. For example, if a dog has a terrible fear of the kitchen blender and runs to the top floor to hide under the bed if it comes on, consider starting with a lower blender setting. At a much lower setting, the dog may not be triggered as much.
We leave the blender on at that low setting, and have her approach with praise, treats, or whatever positive experience she enjoys. After some time, she may learn to be comfortable with the lower blender setting. When we see that, we can try to experiment with progressively higher settings using the same process.
Another example is for dogs afraid of the vet clinic. If the only reason a pup comes into the clinic is for vaccines, nail trims, blood draws, and the like, it’s not surprising that some would only associate the clinic with stress and fear.
One strategy I employ is to use “happy visits”. This typically involves having the pup enter the clinic, but having no painful or stressful things done at all. Depending on the situation and what triggers fear for the dog, this might still include a brief exam, being put onto the weight scale, or even just a brief sojourn in the lobby for ten minutes for a meet and greet with some staff members.
We keep in mind what an individual pup’s limitations are, and stop there.Then, we employ lots of positive experiences, like treats and praise. If we can outnumber the negative experiences at the clinic with positive ones, we can see some dogs who would “put on the brakes” at the front door at least manage to calmly enter the building.
Unfortunately, some triggers are all or none. You can’t control the volume level of fireworks and thunderstorms, and you can’t make a vaccine injection completely painless, even with the smallest needle size. For some of these triggers, we have to employ additional methods to reduce the physiological response a dog is having to a fear trigger.
Medical Strategies to Help a Stressed Dog
There are many situations where we might consider medical options to help a pup suffering from stress, fear, and anxiety. If we’ve tried desensitizing strategies, positive reinforcement and if avoiding a trigger is not possible, something to help your pup calm down is probably needed.
You may also find that, if you adopted an older dog who was not well socialized or had a rough background, that medical therapy will be necessary to help. Behavioral therapy is still important to employ, but you may find for a pup with years of ingrained fear-related behaviors that you’ll need to involve more professional help, which we’ll discuss soon.
There are two main categories of medical therapy for anxiety. The first is supplements and the second is prescription medication.
There are a couple of supplements that can promote a calming effect without being considered prescription strength.
Many supplements will be most effective when given long-term to pets that experience generalized stress and anxiety. They may be less effective if given shortly before a stressful event, but there are some noted exceptions.
I consider supplements like these for milder cases of stress, fear, and anxiety where maybe we just need to take a little bit of the edge off.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. The gland stimulates its production based on night/day cycles to help prepare the body for rest and sleep. Supplementing it can help promote a sense of calm. Lower dose supplements like Calm Down with Ginger and Melatonin can be a good place to start. Higher doses purchased from the drug store should be first discussed with your veterinarian for proper dosing.
Melatonin can be useful as a short-term supplement. Responses can vary, but I’ve seen successful use when it’s given anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours prior to a stressful event.
Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
Thiamine is sometimes called the “anti-stress” vitamin. Also called Vitamin B1, thiamine is one of the essential vitamins the body needs. When supplemented, some studies in people have demonstrated thiamine’s ability to help the body fight stress and develop a positive mental attitude. As a water-soluble vitamin, any excesses are peed out, which makes it pretty safe. It can often be found in combination stress-relief products like Quiet Moments or Calm Down.
L-theanine is an amino acid found naturally in green tea that can create a non-drowsy state of relaxation. There are a couple of commercial supplements available for pets specifically that are developed around l-theanine as a main ingredient.
Most l-theanine products recommend consistent use for 30-60 days to start, making it more successful as a long-term, consistent product. However, some pet parents have appreciated short-term use benefits.
Casein is a protein found naturally in human and cow’s milk. A more specific derivative of casein, called alpha-casozepine, has shown to promote relaxation in human babies and it has also been used for several years as an anxiety supplement for pets. Like l-theanine, it provides a non-drowsy state of relaxation.
This is another supplement most often used long term for generalized anxiety. However, it can be successful for planned stressful events, like fireworks on the 4th of July. For situations like this, I typically recommend starting regular use one week in advance of that event for the best results.
When folks think of tryptophan, many think about eating a lot of Thanksgiving turkey and then passing out shortly thereafter. While it doesn’t truly have this degree of effect (passing out after eating is more likely from the hefty blood sugar spike from all of the other food you eat), there is some truth in its ability to promote rest. L-tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that promotes a sense of wellbeing and happiness. Serotonin, as it happens, is also a precursor for melatonin.
There are numerous plants that are purported to promote rest and relaxation. Some of these include magnolia, phellodendron, ginger, chamomile, passion flower, and hemp seed. Like many supplement ingredients, some studies in people are promising, while others are conflicting.
While I can’t attest to the full efficacy of each one, there is likely some truth that they can have some beneficial effects, and even some synergistic effects when used together. While I wouldn’t go out and buy each one from the drug store and start adding it to your pup’s food, smaller doses are fairly safe when found in combination products approved for pets.
There are products available that contain synthesized versions of natural calming pheromones, which come in either a plug-in diffuser form or a "calming collar" that your dog wears all the time or only during stressful situations.
I've seen these products work fairly well, but more for the milder cases of stress and anxiety.
The Thundershirt looks kind of like a fabric lifevest or sweater that your dog wears. It works on the principle, as has been found in humans with autism, that constant pressure hugging the body can promote a calming effect. The name, as you might have guessed, is derived from the fear that many dogs can have to thunderstorms.
I have certainly seen the Thundershirt work for some dogs. If you're interested in trying a completely non-medical route, it's certainly worth trying.
In situations where anxiety is severe or if milder cases haven’t responded well to supplement therapy, your veterinarian may wish to discuss prescription medication options with you.
Some dogs with generalized anxiety or who are fearful of environmental triggers that are unpredictable may need long-term medical therapy, and sometimes in combination with short-term medications for extra-stressful situations.
The two most common classes of long-term medications used are tricyclic antidepressants like clomipramine, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine. These types of medications are typically started, with benefits and effects monitored for a few weeks. The thing to remember with these is that they can take some time to reach effective levels and they cannot simply be stopped and started again.
Because they do take time to be effective, we often don’t use these for pups that only have specific triggers to planned events. For these situations, it’s far more common to use short-term medications by giving them an hour or two before. These can include medications like trazodone, alprazolam, gabapentin, and acepromazine.
We won’t go into much further detail with drug classes and the like, since it’s most important for your vet to decide what is best for your pup and to share in that decision process with you. In the same vein, it’s extremely important to never share any medications with your dog that you may have at home.
But it is important to talk about what our goals are when prescribing these medications for pets. It’s most important to utilize the lowest effective dosage and frequency that makes a difference while incorporating the most effective behavior modification strategies.
For example, if a trigger can be avoided, then no medications are needed at all. We simply avoid the trigger.
If triggers are inherent in the environment, like noisy planes, trains and automobiles, loud neighbors in the apartment upstairs, or a new baby, long-term medication may be most helpful.
But if triggers are specific, like the nail trim at the vet, a grooming appointment, fireworks, or an impending thunderstorm, short-term medications may be all that’s required.
Lastly, it’s crucial to understand that medication should never be done in place of training and working hard at behavioral modification. Medication can actually improve the success rate with behavioral training, so it’s important to still consider and discuss with your vet. If a pup’s fear or anxiety level is reduced below a certain threshold with medication, he may be far more open to attempts at reconditioning him to being less fearful and reactive to situational triggers.
And if we can use medication to help training and reconditioning to be more effective, the long-term goal may be to eventually rely solely on the positive training experiences and get a pup off meds altogether.
In some cases with pups that have multiple fear triggers or just very severe fear or anxiety to a specific trigger, this process can take months or even years. The best outcomes will develop from a good working relationship with a professional. This professional may be your own vet, or it could be a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist that your vet has referred you to.
When to Get a Trainer or Veterinary Behaviorist Involved
So how do you know if or when you need extra help?
This can depend on how old your pup is, how long you’ve had him, and what the specific triggers are.
If you have a young puppy showing signs of fear to certain triggers, you may have the best success at overcoming these triggers, but you also have a shorter time period in which to expect positive change.
Many behaviors in young dogs can be “locked” in by a year of age and we have to work very diligently to promote positive change before then. If we’re noticing signs of fear escalating and not improving, by 4-6 months of age, it’s important to consider professional assistance.
If you’ve just adopted an older dog who has very clear fear triggers, we already know this is going to take time. It’s reasonable to try some basic behavioral techniques perhaps combined with some supplement options first and see if this helps.
But if you’ve tried some strategies out for a few weeks and don’t seem to be getting anywhere, get in touch with your veterinarian. Your vet may want to see your pup for an exam, or may be willing to discuss options over the phone if he’s been seen recently.
Your vet can often be the best judge of whether or not it’s time to get a trainer or behaviorist involved.
Trainer vs. Behaviorist: What’s the Difference?
A trainer is typically a non-medical person certified in dog behavior and training. In-home trainers that make house calls are often the best to utilize, since they provide the best one-on-one guidance with family members.
Trainer’s cannot prescribe medications, but a good trainer will know if adding one may help make training sessions more successful. Because of how interactive trainers are in coming to the home or accompanying you to a trigger location, they are usually my first go-to, especially for more difficult cases.
A veterinary behaviorist on the other hand, is a veterinarian who has completed advanced residency training in animal behavior and is board-certified as a specialist in the field. Veterinary behaviorists are invaluable for advanced cases of fear-related behaviors, especially when a balance of behavior modification techniques and medication are needed.
In most cases, appointments with a behaviorist will be at their office, the same as with most doctor visits. A behaviorist will collect a very thorough history of what’s been happening and what techniques have been tried so far. They will then examine your pup and discuss a plan of techniques to work on at home, along with any medication recommendations if needed.
Some benefits to behaviorists include being able to diagnose specific behavioral disorders and grading their severity. As doctors, it is also their role to provide a second opinion about whether something is truly behavioral or if another underlying medical cause may be related.
It’s not uncommon to have both a trainer and a behaviorist involved with some cases. In addition to their own approach, a good trainer will also incorporate a behaviorist’s recommendations and help you to implement those techniques at home.
Patience and Persistence
There’s three main takeaway principles to help a pup overcome, or at least cope with, any true behavioral disorder.
Don’t wait to see if a behavioral issue goes away. The longer it persists, the more the behavior will become ingrained in a dog’s psyche and the harder it will be to overcome. This is especially true of puppies and young dogs. If you’re not sure if a problem is really present or not, start by asking your regular veterinarian his or her opinion.
Working on any kind of behavior modification requires patience. It’s likely there will be setbacks. This is especially true with “all or none” triggers like shots at the vet and fireworks. You can’t tell the vaccines to be less uncomfortable and you can’t ask the fireworks to please take it down a decibel or two. Like we talked about with determining the threshold at which your pup can tolerate a stimulus, you may have to back it down a little, like turning that blender down to a lower setting for longer before trying again at a higher setting.
Behavioral change can take weeks, months, or even years to achieve, so set your expectations to be in it to win it. You may also have to learn to tolerate a certain level of “normal” for your pup during triggering events. If he gets really fearful and stressed when you have a lot of guests over but does just fine if you move his crate upstairs to a dark, quiet bedroom during a party, you may just have to accept that he’s just not going to be a social party dog.
Lastly, be persistent and consistent. Working diligently on training techniques for a week or two and then becoming lax or giving up will not only frustrate your efforts to achieve change, but will also confuse your pooch. Dogs rely a great deal on consistent signals from their family members. If your instructions are inconsistent, your pup will have a hard time knowing what’s expected of him.
But the good news is, cases of fear, stress, and anxiety are mild in most dogs and can be overcome with avoidance, positivity, and sometimes a little medical intervention. If you find yourself getting frustrated, don’t let this affect that special bond you share with your furry friend. Make sure to reach out to your vet for some extra help.