Helping your anxious dog starts with determining what’s upsetting her in the first place.
Dogs get stressed just like we do. The difference is, we can usually pinpoint what it is that makes us tense and anxious, be it family problems, work deadlines, money or health worries. With our dogs however, it’s more difficult. They can’t verbalize their concerns, so we may not even be aware of, much less understand, what it is that’s making them skittish and fearful. And that can make it harder to alleviate their stress.
Symptoms may not always be obvious
The first step is to recognize when your dog is stressed out. Obvious symptoms include fearfulness, aggression or destructiveness, but other signs may not be as clear. You need to be tuned in to your dog’s personality and behavior so you’ll notice if he starts acting differently. Restlessness, hiding, excessive sleeping and other uncharacteristic behaviors can sometimes go unnoticed, especially if you lead a busy life and/or are out a lot.
Any unexplained change in the way your dog acts, even if it’s subtle, is a red flag. Start by taking him to the vet for a physical checkup to ensure he isn’t ill or in pain. If he gets a clean bill of health, then something in his environment may be stressing him out.
What causes stress in dogs?
Numerous things can make your dog feel anxious and fearful, and not all may be factors you would consider stressful yourself. So again, you need to be observant and pay attention to how your dog reacts at certain times or in particular situations. “Dogs have an increase in stress hormones when life is uncertain,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, adding that the following situations are among the most stressful for dogs:
• Going to the veterinarian
• Being left alone at home
• Loss of a canine companion
• Separation from the family
• Introduction of a new animal
• Moving house
• Children returning to school on Monday or after holidays
There are many additional causes of stress, and how your dog reacts to them can vary depending on his temperament. For example, the noise and upheaval of a home renovation project might not affect a laidback animal at all, while a more sensitive one might start displaying stress-related behaviors such as hiding, whining or pacing.
Once you have determined that your dog is experiencing stress, and what the causes are, it’s time to do something to help alleviate his fear and anxiety.
Look at the big picture
While some sources of stress can be eliminated or minimized, others cannot. Veterinary visits and bereavements are just two stressful situations that usually can’t be avoided. However, there are ways to help your dog react to these events in a healthier manner.
“If we want to support ‘good’ stress response in our dogs, I believe the best method is a holistic approach that considers all the factors – major and minor – that enable a ‘good’ versus a ‘bad’ response,” says dog behaviorist Karen Rosenfeld.
“To understand how we can best support ‘good’ stress response, we need to consider factors that contribute to stress reactivity. These include inherited and acquired traits, environmental influences (animate, inanimate), previously conditioned behavior, communication, diet, physical and mental health, psychology, emotional intelligence and physical capacity.”
By addressing as many of these factors as possible, you can help your dog learn to cope with stressful situations in a less fearful way.
Combating stress with diet
Ensuring your dog stays in good overall health is one important way to help him deal with stress. A proper diet is key.
“If his food does not support good gastrointestinal, glandular and brain function, the ability to cope with stress is adversely affected,” says Karen. “Real food (not highly processed), combined with herbs and nutraceuticals, form the basis of a diet that supports good physical, physiological and mental health. Add some real meat and bone broth to your dog’s food, especially if you are feeding him a dry diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important.
Choose a fish oil sourced from wild-caught fatty fish, or use organic hemp oil.
“Coconut oil in combination with turmeric is another valuable addition. Include a good source of vitamin C and look after your dog’s gastrointestinal flora by adding some plain organic kefir, yogurt or fermented vegetables to his daily diet. Raw unpasteurized honey is also a good source of prebiotics and probiotics, while fresh pureed papaya is an excellent source of digestive enzymes.
“You can also consider adding some dog-safe foods that are high in tryptophan, such as pumpkin seeds, bananas, eggs, turkey, and kelp.”
Herbs and homeopathy can help
A variety of homeopathic remedies and herbal tonics can help calm overly stressed dogs. “They are best used as secondary support in combination with a proper diet and behavioral mentoring,” says Karen. Work with an integrative or holistic veterinarian when choosing an herbal or homeopathic remedy for your dog, since his individual situation and needs have to be taken into account.
“Organic chamomile and ginger are two readily available herbs that can be added to food in tea or powder from,” adds Karen. Flower essences, in particular Bach Rescue Remedy, are another simple and effective way to help your dog de-stress.
Exercise and environmental enrichment
Regular physical activity is one of a dog’s most basic needs. “Exercise minimizes stress,” says Dr. Dodman. “Dogs should run, swim, or participate in aerobic exercise like flyball or agility. Exercise has both calming and mood-stabilizing effects.”
Dr. Dodman also suggests creating an enriched environment for your dog. Helping to keep him busy, engaged and mentally stimulated can calm negative stress reactions. Consider adding the following to your canine companion’s environment.
• Interactive toys
• Dog TV
• Windows with a view so he can watch birds feeding or squirrels playing
• Food puzzle toys
If you have a dog with a nervous or fearful temperament, either because of his breed or because he was abused, neglected or improperly socialized, positive training and behavior modification might need to be added to his de-stressing regimen. It’s also vital to assess your own stress levels since dogs are very intuitive and will respond to how you’re feeling in any given situation.
By taking the time to pinpoint and understand your dog’s stress triggers, and using a well-rounded approach to improving his response to these triggers, you can help him deal much better with life’s ups and downs.