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A Guide to Using Enrichment For Anxious Dog Owners

Animal Behaviour and Enrichment Expert. She believes that enrichment should be a part of every day life for all animals.

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Common Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs

If you do not know the cause of your dog’s anxiety, your attempts to calm them may end up aggravating the situation. As such, it is best to try and determine what is triggering your dog’s stressed-out state. Below are some common causes of anxiety in dogs.

  • Boredom: It may seem like an odd concept, but boredom can trigger anxiety. A lack of mental and physical stimulation leads to pent-up energy, which in turn raises a dog’s stress levels.
  • Frustration: If a dog is frustrated in its endeavors to obtain something that it wants, the dog can work itself up into a frenzy of nerves and energy, trying to achieve its purpose.


  • Sounds: Loud or strange noises are a very common cause of anxiety in dogs. Loud sounds can be associated with fear if the sound once caused your dog to get a fright. Doorbells, thunderstorms, car engines, etc., are things that your dog may fear and respond with anxiety symptoms. Strange noises can be perceived as threatening, and if your dog can’t see the threat, they will feel unprepared to handle it, and therefore, anxious.


  • Social situations: Some dogs feel very overwhelmed by crowds. They may be anxious due to fear or simply the overstimulation from so many sights, sounds, smells, and movements. Other dogs can become anxious in the presence of strangers, whether they be human or dog. In this case, even one or two people can trigger anxiety.


  • Changes: Some dogs are incredibly adaptable and take everything in their stride. More often, however, change will trigger an anxious response in a dog. Changes like moving houses, getting another pet, having a baby, a new work routine, etc., can make your dog feel unhappy.


  • Separation from the owner: Dogs who are deeply attached to their owners can respond to separation with anxiety. This is more common if a dog is left alone for many hours at a time or if the owner’s schedule changes and the dog is suddenly left alone or left alone more often.


  • Cognitive Dysfunction: When dogs age, their cognitive functioning decreases. This can cause them to feel lost, unsettled, and anxious. It is similar to human dementia.

Common Symptoms Of Anxiety In Dogs

Sometimes, the symptoms of anxiety in dogs may seem like normal behavior, but when you know your dog and are familiar with its habits, it’s easier to tell when something is just not right. Other times, the symptoms are quite blatant and easy to recognize. Common signs of anxiety in dogs include:

  • Increased vocalization (whimpering, whining, growling, barking, etc.)
  • Restlessness and pacing
  • Drooling, yawning, and lip-licking (acute response)
  • Cowering or hiding
  • Trying to escape
  • Trembling
  • Abnormal urination and defecation patterns (such as accidents in the house)
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive grooming
  • Shedding (long-term)
  • Destructive behavior (chewing, scratching, digging, etc.)
  • Tail-chasing
  • Aggression

Enrichment Techniques For Calming An Anxious Dog

Kongs, Peanut Butter Jars, Or Similar Items

Giving your anxious dog a Kong containing treats and plugged with peanut butter can help to distract them and cause the release of endorphins. If you do not have a Kong, an almost empty peanut butter jar will work just as well. One caution: make sure the peanut butter does not contain Xylitol as this is toxic to dogs.

Kongs, peanut butter jars, and any other stuffables are great options for anxiety caused by boredom, frustration, sounds, and social situations.

Training

Taking your dog first to obedience classes and later to specialized courses, such as good citizen training, or canine sports training, help to alleviate anxiety in many ways.

  • Attending training classes will expose your dog to other people and animals. This is a form of socialization, which should have started when your dog was a puppy. Training classes are neutral environments; the space does not belong to your dog, nor another dog, and the classes are also usually held out in the open. This might make your dog feel less responsible to defend its territory and less claustrophobic, reducing anxiety as they learn how to interact with strangers.
  • When you are at training, your dog is focusing on you and the task, and they are receiving your undivided attention. Over time, your dog may learn to associate crowds and strangers with attention and pleasant stimulation. Furthermore, if your dog is anxious over separation from you, this special time together can strengthen your bond and bring reassurance.
  • You are teaching your dog new skills. These skills can be used to distract them in other anxiety-triggering situations. For example, if your dog is frightened of cars, then when you take them for a walk, you can ask them to do some tricks while the vehicle passes, redirecting their focus from the scary sound. Or if your dog is frustrated because they cannot chase the squirrel sitting outside in a tree, then you can ask them to do a few tricks to take their mind off of their obsession.
  • At training classes, you are working with someone who knows (or at least should know) a lot about canine behavior. If your dog displays signs of anxiety during the training, you can ask for advice on how to handle the situation.


  • Training can be an excellent tool for handling anxiety caused by boredom as it provides both mental and physical stimulation to your dog.


A Special Place

Provide your dog with their own special place in the home where they can go when they feel anxious. This could be:

  • A dog crate (if they are crate-trained and so feel happy being in it). The dog crate should be off-limits to children and other pets.
  • A comfortable bed of blankets and cushions in the corner of the kitchen, office, or wherever you spend most of your time. This makes them feel included in your life if they struggle with being separated from you.
  • A place in the closet or under the bed where your dog can feel safe and hidden during parties or storms. Make sure that the door to this room is always open.
  • A doghouse in the garden where they won’t be disturbed by guests or children.

Everyone in the house should know that the dog’s space needs to be respected.

Toys And Playtime

Giving your dog toys to play with can help to prevent anxiety caused by boredom.

Frustration-caused anxiety can also be lessened through games. If they can’t chase the rabbit, they can at least chase a ball!

Dogs who are anxious around strangers may be convinced to approach them and relax if the stranger engages them (calmly) in their favorite game. There are dogs who want nothing to do with their owner’s guests until the guest shows themselves a proficient soccer player or tug of war partner.

Of course, your dog may use the toy to help them ignore the person as well. In this case, trying to play with them will not be the best option.

Designated playtimes can be used to burn off excess energy and reduce boredom. It also provides bonding time with owners, and a play session before you leave the house can reassure them of your affection and tire them out so that they will go to sleep when you leave instead of stressing.

Exercise And Treats

When people get anxious, some choose to go for a run or swim; others break open the chocolate and crisps. Exercise and treats can work the same for dogs. Exercise helps dogs to unwind and use their pent-up anxiety energy. Treats are comforting and can release endorphins.

Conclusion

Dogs can be anxious for a number of reasons, and some of those reasons cannot be eliminated. For example, a new baby can upset your dog, but you can’t take the baby back to the hospital!

In cases where the stressor cannot be removed, you don’t have to go straight to pharmaceutical solutions. Enrichment is often the answer to anxiety in dogs, and it includes Kongs, training, designated safe zones, puzzles,toys and playtime, treats, and exercise.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Sarah-Jane White

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