Just like us, our pets can experience anxiety. It’s normal for dogs to get nervous in new or stressful situations from time to time. But frequent episodes may require special attention from you and your veterinarian. Without your help, behaviors caused by anxiety may even put your friend in danger.
If you’re here, you may be hoping to learn how to help your anxious pup. Are medications and training worthwhile? What about CBD for dog anxiety?
Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to manage your dog’s anxiety. Understanding how anxiety develops, then responding appropriately to your dog’s behaviors can go a long way.
Let’s discuss causes, symptoms, medications, complementary strategies, and more.
In dogs and people, anxiety relates to fear and worry. These feelings can occur before or during a specific event or be generalized to multiple settings.
Common Triggers for Dog Anxiety
Not all dogs exhibit anxiety in the same situations.
Common triggers for dog anxiety include:
- Unfamiliar dogs or people
- Loud sounds (fireworks, thunder, trucks)
- Car rides
- Being left alone (separation anxiety)
- Visits to the veterinary clinic, groomer, or other locations
- Certain surfaces (grass, linoleum, tile, steps)
While some of these triggers may seem unreasonable or even silly to us, they are no laughing matter for an anxious dog. Patience, reassurance, and understanding go a long way for nervous pets.
The Fear Response in Dogs
Since our pets can’t tell us what they’re thinking, we have to become keen observers of dog behavior to detect signs of fear. Dogs rely strongly on body language to communicate with people and other dogs.
Key signs that your dog may be having a fear response include:
- Tail tucked under the body
- Increased panting
- Pacing or circling
- Turning the head or body away
- Whining, barking, or other vocalizations
- Puffed-up fur (“raised hackles”)
You may notice that some dog anxiety symptoms don’t seem to go together. This contrast relates to the two typical behavior styles associated with fear, also known as the “fight-or-flight” responses.
“Flight” in Dogs
When confronted with a scary situation, some dogs may choose avoidance or escape as their primary strategy. This “flight” response can include movements away from the source of fear and using dog-specific body language like yawning and licking the lips. While these behaviors are easy to miss, they are vital signals that your dog may be distressed or uncomfortable.
“Fight” in Dogs
When we miss these avoidant cues and dogs cannot escape the anxiety-inducing situation, they may resort to a “fight” response. Most dog aggression comes from a defensive reaction to fear (1).
Unfortunately, aggression is also the most dangerous symptom of dog anxiety. Animals whose fearful aggression is not carefully managed are more likely to lash out, introducing an avoidable source of danger to children, adults, and other pets.
Symptoms of Dog Anxiety
Generally, dog anxiety is a repeatable fear response associated with specific places or events.
Let’s use a visit to the grooming salon as an example.
On the first visit, your pup may have initially experienced the fear response symptoms described above. The unfamiliar surroundings, strange people, smells, and loud sounds are overwhelming.
On the day of the second visit to the groomer’s, your dog anticipates feeling unsure again. They become fearful much earlier — maybe in the car — and remain afraid no matter how much reassurance you and the salon employees offer.
Telling the difference between acute fear response behavior and anxiety in dogs can be tricky. Your veterinarian is the best person to help determine whether your dog is experiencing anxiety or something else.
Signs that your dog’s fear may have developed into anxiety include:
- Excessive barking
- Repeated pacing or circling
- Destroying furniture, woodwork, or other household items
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
- Bathroom accidents in the house despite being potty-trained
Our four-legged friends can develop anxiety at any stage of life. Sadly, behavior problems are the number one reason people give up their dogs to shelters. Whether you’re caring for a newly-adopted pup or a beloved pet of many years, it’s crucial to remember that anxious dogs are not “disobedient” or “misbehaving.”
Like people, dogs want to feel safe and secure. They lack the capacity to misbehave “out of spite;” dogs simply react to the present based on previous experiences.
Some resources for anxiety in pets point to a lack of discipline as the root cause of all undesirable behaviors. While specific training strategies can help redirect anxious dogs and improve their confidence, pure obedience training is rarely the solution.
If you’ve ever taken a pop quiz or had a stern teacher, you know that being scared interferes with learning! A dog that is actively afraid will struggle to obey no matter how much they would like to please you.
Always respect your dog’s mental state when they are fearful.
Remember: you are their greatest advocate. Finding ways to help your dog cope is much more effective than punishment for reducing anxiety.
The first step to helping your dog overcome anxiety is to visit your veterinarian.
Your provider can support you in identifying settings and objects that frighten your dog. They can also suggest confidence-building training strategies and prescribe medications to promote calm.
Do all dogs with anxiety need medication? Not necessarily! If your dog’s anxiety is mild, they may be able to improve without a prescription.
Still, when managing a fearful pet, there is nothing wrong with getting a prescription. These medicines can “take the edge off” during situations your dog finds stressful, making it easier for you to redirect their attention during training. Starting from a calmer baseline can help you replace your dog’s negative association with a positive one.
Breaking the cycle of fear is a critical step in reducing your pup’s anxiety, and a prescription could help. Because of this effect, some dogs may only need anxiety medication in the short term. Others may need more time.
Either way, consult your veterinarian to determine whether anxiety medication could help your dog. Your vet will check for underlying health problems and work with you to develop a custom management plan.
Most of the time, medication alone is not the best way to address anxiety in dogs. This statement is especially true if the situation your dog fears is an everyday occurrence, or if they become aggressive.
Fortunately, you’re never alone when it comes to helping a nervous pup. There are a variety of professionals who specialize in working with anxious dogs.
One group is the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) (2). Members of this society are veterinarians who have undergone three years of extra training to specialize in animal behavior. You can search for veterinarians in your area who specialize in behavior online.
After ruling out any underlying health problems with your regular veterinarian, another option is to work with a dog trainer. The right trainer can help your dog feel safe and face their fear in a productive, healing way.
Choosing The Right Dog Trainer
However, always use caution: some dog trainers use strategies that could worsen your dog’s anxiety (3). There are certifications for dog trainers, but not all certified trainers use evidence-based methods backed up by research.
Make sure to ask a prospective trainer specific questions about their philosophy and approach before signing up. Ideally, observe them train a different dog to get an accurate picture of their methods.
In general, avoid dog trainers that employ methods in these categories:
- Use of choke, prong, pinch, or shock collars as part of basic obedience
- Use of pain, intimidation, or force (toe-pinching, holding dogs to the ground, scruffing, yelling, “submission,” or frequent yanking on the collar)
- Encouragement of “dominant” or “alpha” behavior towards the dog
You are in charge during any training exercise. If your dog shows signs of aggression, pain, or other concerning symptoms, end the session and consult with your veterinarian.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a natural compound found in cannabis hemp plants. Unlike its chemical cousin THC, CBD does not cause psychoactive effects (a “high”). Because of this property, pet owners have shown increasing interest in CBD for anxiety in dogs.
It’s necessary to mention that CBD has not been approved to treat any medical conditions in pets. While some people taking CBD have reported calming benefits, we can’t be sure if the same is true for animals.
Fortunately, CBD’s popularity has led veterinary researchers to start studying its safety and effectiveness (4). However, the jury is still out on whether CBD affects anxiety symptoms in dogs.
If you are interested in trying CBD oil for your anxious pup, it’s best to reach out to your veterinarian.
Whether your dog fears car rides, being home alone, or something else, your vet can help you determine whether CBD is appropriate. They can also go over potential side effects to watch for, proper CBD dosages for your dog’s weight and health status, and more.
Because CBD products fall into a regulatory gray zone, finding a high-quality product can be a challenge. Unlike prescription medication, the concentration and purity of CBD products are not guaranteed.
If you’ve spoken to your veterinarian about CBD and want to try it for your dog,there are a few “green flags” to look for:
- Independent third-party testing: A third-party tested CBD product has undergone concentration and purity testing. Untested products may contain significantly more or less CBD than the label indicates; they could also contain soil contaminants like heavy metals. Look for a page on the company’s website where you can view laboratory test results for specific product batch numbers.
- CBD for dogs, not people: It’s best to look for CBD oil and other products formulated specifically for pets. CBD products made for people can sometimes include ingredients that are dangerous to your dog, like the artificial sweetener xylitol.
- Formula strength options: As you might expect, an appropriate dose of CBD for a Chihuahua differs from that of a Great Dane. Finding a company that offers multiple concentrations or “strengths” of CBD oil can be helpful. You can find the total mg of CBD per bottle and per milliliter (mL) on the label. Always decide on a suitable starting dose for your dog with the help of your veterinarian.
Once you’ve ruled out underlying health issues as a cause for your dog’s anxiety, it can be hard to know what to do next. Fortunately, you can take steps at home to promote calm and prevent further worsening of symptoms (5).
Our tips for helping your anxious dog at home include:
- Pay close attention to body language.
- Stick to a structured daily routine for your dog’s meals, walks, and other activities.
- Provide appropriate exercise based on your dog’s breed and age.
- Use rewards and positive training methods (ignore or redirect unwanted behaviors rather than punishing).
- Start small when it comes to situations that trigger your dog’s anxiety.
Like people, a lot of dogs experience anxiety at some level during their lives. Not every nervous dog will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but knowing the symptoms, causes, and treatments can help you support your pet.
Understanding your dog’s nervous behavior can help you advocate for them in stressful situations. Knowing when to seek professional advice is also crucial for treating anxiety in dogs.
If you’re concerned that your dog may have an anxiety disorder, consult your veterinarian. Your vet can provide a specific diagnosis, check for contributing health issues, and work with you to develop an effective anxiety treatment plan.
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Dr. Nicole Wanner
Dr. Nicole Wanner is an academic research veterinarian studying CBD and DNA. Her research has been published in trusted international research journals. Dr. Wanner is passionate about pet wellness and has professional interested in genetics, behavior, and healthy aging. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and reading sci-fi novels. She shares her home with her husband Evan and their two mischievous rescue cats, Sylvie and Nemo.