The Andersons’ new dog, Reggie, seems afraid of certain people and things. They are wondering what causes anxiety in a dog. Joe’s dog, Sadie, becomes upset when he leaves the house without her. She’s a dog with separation anxiety symptoms.
Dogs evolved from wild animals, which have much to worry about—finding food, becoming another animal’s food, threats from humans, protecting their territory and pack, and more. For wild animals, fear warns them to stay away from what causes harm.
In the safety of your home, those worries sometimes carry over. But without the outside world’s threats, legitimate fears become baseless anxieties. For some dogs, it’s simply a matter of adjusting to a new, safe home. But for others, the anxiety runs much deeper.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is similar to stress, which is a reaction to an actual stimulus. But anxiety, which originates internally, is the anticipation of a perceived, impending threat.
A dog like Reggie may become anxious over a suddenly opened umbrella or a person who looks, sounds, or smells like someone who mistreated him. Sadie may be terrified that Joe will never come home. Intense, prolonged anxiety is mentally exhausting and may lead to unhealthy, destructive, even dangerous behaviors. So it’s crucial to understand how it works.
What Causes Anxiety in Dogs?
Anxiety represents a broad category of causes and resultant behaviors. Each dog’s experience is different. For example, some dogs love to travel, but for others, it can be a nightmare. Here are some everyday anxiety-producing situations:
- Thunderstorms, fireworks, loud noises
- Visits to the vet
- Crowds and unfamiliar social situations
- A change in environment, such as a new home
- A lack of socialization
- Separation from the parent or pack
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, notice what these things have in common—a disruption in the dog’s predictable and safe routine, or perhaps a reminder of a past, negative experience.
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
The final bullet above represents separation anxiety, a common fear triggered by being left alone for many dogs. What for Joe is a quick trip to the store, for Sadie is time left in a vulnerable position without the safety of her pack. She has no idea when Joe will return. If she is new to Joe’s home, she may need some time to adjust. But if she has a history of abandonment, she will need help.
What Does Dog Anxiety Look Like?
Anxiety symptoms in dogs are just as varied as the causes. For example, if your dog has separation anxiety, you may come home to a pile of foam and fabric swatches that used to be your lovely sofa. Another dog may bark incessantly. Reggie, whose anxiety is triggered by umbrellas, may run to a safe spot when the Andersons prepare to walk him on a rainy day.
Some common anxiety symptoms include:
- Excessive barking or whining
- Trembling, panting, drooling
- Urination or defecation in the house
- Hyperactivity or lethargy
- Running away or hiding
- Not responding to commands or training
- Destroying things in the house
How to Stop Anxiety in a Dog
For dog separation anxiety, help may mean changes in your own behavior. It may mean that you’re leaving your dog alone for too long and too often. Joe, for example, can try spending more time playing with, exercising, and training Sadie, giving her more things to do, enrolling her in daycare, hiring a pet sitter, or getting another dog. Also, if Joe doesn’t make a big fuss over Sadie when he leaves and returns, she won’t get so excited and anxious.
If anxiety has suddenly appeared when nothing in the environment has changed, have your veterinarian find or rule out any medical conditions contributing to the anxiety. The veterinarian can also help you better understand the problem and treatments.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Your dog needs to unlearn the “anxiety trigger = harm” equation. Desensitization progressively decreases sensitivity to that trigger. For example, Joe can ease Sadie’s separation anxiety by calmly carrying out portions of his leaving-the-house routine and leaving for a few minutes, gradually increasing his time away.
Counterconditioning changes your dog’s response to the trigger from anxiety to desirable behavior. For example, the Andersons can gradually connect the umbrella to something positive for Reggie and reward him for increasingly positive behavior.
A professional trainer may be the best solution for a complex case of anxiety. The trainer will address the core of the problem and teach you how to deal with it. Ask your veterinarian or other trusted dog parents for recommendations.
We have found success with homeopathic remedies from plants and minerals. Homeopathic remedies, safe and free of harsh side effects, include Aconite, Ignatia, and Phosphorus. They are available in some supermarkets and health food stores. To find a veterinarian trained in homeopathy, visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP)
DAP, a product that mimics a lactating female’s natural pheromones, encourages a sense of well-being and reassurance. Studies suggest that this is effective for about 75% of separation anxiety cases. DAP is available in pet stores and catalogs.
Reggie, Sadie, and most dogs can be freed from anxiety through behavior modification, homeopathic remedies, and a lot of patience. However, if you’re unsure about what to do or if the anxiety is severe, seek help. A trainer and your veterinarian have the expertise to help you improve your dog’s mental health.