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Dog Anxiety Signs and How to Help Your Pup Feel Better

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David Adams

March 07, 2024

Dog Reactivity

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Just like us humans, our dogs are social mammals with complex emotional processes. And just like us, they can experience anxiety! This is especially common in our modern, human-centric world — so many parts of our pets’ lives aren’t compatible with their natural instincts and drives (like having to live in crowded cities or not do the jobs they were originally bred for).

Small amounts of anxiety can be a normal part of everyday life without lasting negative effects. A high level of anxiety, though, can become long-term problems or even indicate a different underlying cognition (like chronic pain). If your dog is feeling anxious all or most of the time, that’s going to disrupt their quality of life — and yours as their caretaker.

Anxiety might be the result of past experiences, your pup’s innate temperament (we all have unique individual personalities), age, or a few other factors.

This article outlines everything you need to know about anxiety in dogs. What are the symptoms of anxiety? What are its causes? How can you manage life with an anxious pup?

What is canine anxiety?

Dog owners (and even some dog trainers) often use the word “anxious” interchangeably with “fearful.” When it comes to the technical definitions of the terms, though, anxiety is actually not quite fear.

Let’s take a look at the distinctions.

What is fear?

Fear is an instinctive emotion animals experience when faced with an external threat (whether real or just perceived). It can be caused by specific situations, people, other pets, objects, and so on.

When our dogs experience fear, their bodies prepare for “fight or flight” by freezing and subconsciously taking inventory of the situation.

Fear is a completely normal response that’s actually essential for survival. In an evolutionary context, the ability to feel fear can greatly increase an animal’s chance of survival — hence the common phrase “healthy fear” we use when talking about things that are actually dangerous.

Some fears are abnormal, though. It’s possible to perceive a threat that isn’t actually there or to have a reaction far more intense than what the stimulus actually warrants.

(Thankfully, most abnormal fear responses can be helped with gradual, supported exposure and things like counterconditioning — more on this in our articles about fear aggression and dog reactivity.)

What is a phobia?

A phobia is a fear that is both excessive and persistent. Once a dog experiences a phobic event, they might find themselves entering a full-blown panicked response if they associate anything in the environment with its memory. Phobias often get worse over repeated exposures to the scary stimuli.

Noise phobias are the most commonly seen in pet dogs.

What is anxiety?

While fear is an emotion elicited by the present situation — things happening in real time — anxiety is defined as the anticipation of an imagined or unknown future danger. This results in a similar physiological response to fear, but on a more chronic basis (and without the survival benefits they evolved to achieve).

Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in pet canines. Dogs with separation anxiety can't relax when they aren't around their key attachment figure. You can read more in our separation anxiety article!

A stressed out, anxious dog curled up in a small position showing the whites of their eyes

Signs your dog is anxious

Because we can’t actually know what’s going on inside our dogs’ heads, we have to rely on their body language cues to try to understand what they’re feeling. For this reason, many signs of fear and anxiety overlap in our pets.

These signs of anxiety might indicate that your dog is having a hard time:

  • Excessive panting
  • Excessive barking or whining
  • Destructive behavior in the house (especially in adult dogs who aren’t teething)
  • Pacing
  • Shaking
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Urinating or defecating indoors
  • Compulsive or repetitive behaviors
  • Growling, lunging, or snapping (many fearful or anxious displays are often mistaken as aggressive behavior)

Again: It’s normal for your dog to be fearful on occasion and to display these behaviors in certain situations. Remember they don’t have verbal language like we do! 

If you notice that these signs occur excessively, though — or if you can’t clearly tell what’s causing them — it’s worth considering if your dog might be struggling with some chronic anxiety.

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What causes anxiety in dogs?

No one knows exactly what causes anxiety in dogs. Every dog is an individual — and every situation is different, too. That said, a range of things are associated with potential anxiety problems in our canine companions, from genetic conditions, problems with puppy socialization (or lack of), and age-related health conditions such as doggy dementia.

Some of the most common causes of fear and anxiety in dogs include:

  • Feeling forced into unfamiliar experiences or a stressful situation (this is one reason it’s so important to take socialization slowly, at a pace your puppy is comfortable with, and to allow environmental desensitization to happen gradually)
  • Not experiencing sufficient environmental exposure during the critical socialization window (until around 14 to 16 weeks of age)
  • Physical pain, especially if chronic
  • Illness and disease that affect your dog’s central nervous system, like viral infections or other toxic responses
  • The natural aging process that can cause confusion as your dog gets older

Is your dog’s anxiety your fault as their owner?

Many pet owners find themselves asking if they caused their dog to be anxious. Some old-school trainers perpetuate this myth, only making things worse for dog lovers who are already overwhelmed.

We’re here to tell you that your dog’s anxiety is not your fault. While it’s certainly possible that some environmental and social factors have played into their development (and that those have been influenced in some ways by you as their caretaker) there are countless variables at play. Nothing with your dog happens in a vacuum!

Say it with us: You love your dog. You do your best for them. You are not their key source of anxiety. Many dogs develop anxiety through absolutely no fault of their owners. Do not shoulder the blame for something so largely out of your control.

How to manage dog anxiety in the short term

Thundershirts or other “anxiety wraps”

Thundershirts and similar anxiety wraps apply a constant, mild pressure to the dog’s torso, in a soothing way. (Think of this like swaddling a baby — it’s a similar idea.)

Some dogs take very well to these wraps and find them effective, while others don’t. It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether they will work for your dog — but you can  always try making a DIY version to see how your pup responds. 

Anti anxiety dog beds

There are a few types of dog beds that may help with anxiety.

Bolsters

Bolsters are raised edges that run along the side of a bed (ideal for curling against or leaning on).

Burrow beds

Burrow beds or “cave-style” beds are kind of like a sleeping bag. They’re ideal for dogs who feel safest under blankets.

Do anti anxiety dog beds actually work?

It’s tough to say. One of these beds may be comforting to an anxious dog, especially if they feel particularly worried overnight and sleep in a different room than you do. However, there is no definitive data on their effectiveness.

There is little risk associated with them (they’re not going to make your dog’s anxiety worse, so feel free to give them a try), but keep in mind that many high end pet products can get expensive.

You might consider allocating your resources to professional training instead.

Dog calming sprays

Pet calming sprays use calming pheromones to help soothe stressed out dogs or cats. You simply need to spray (or use a diffuser) in the room that your dog is in. Like most products marketed for our pets' fears and anxieties, the jury is still out on whether or not they actually work.

Most of the published research has been done on Feliway (cat pheromones) and D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone). In several studies, both of these products seemed to help soothe stressed pets under some circumstances. (However, most of these studies were funded by the products' maker — so take them with a grain of salt.)

Calming treats for dogs

A variety of “calming treats” are widely available these days. These treats may contain anything from chamomile to melatonin to CBD or a combination.

CBD calming treats

CBD treats are becoming increasingly popular, and some dog parents report that they find them effective, but keep in mind that at this time, there are no FDA-approved CBD products for pets.)

Other calming treats

There is some data that Anxitane, Zylkene, Soliquin, and similar veterinary over-the-counter calming non-CBD products can help alleviate anxiety in our pets. Many of these options include L-Theanine, milk products such as casein, and herbal ingredients.

Always talk with your veterinarian before giving your dog any new medication, even if it’s sold over the counter. Remember that even if calming treats work well for your dog — and they might! — you will still likely need to use them in combination with behavior modification training.

High anxiety dog crates

Some anxious dogs, particularly those with separation anxiety, may benefit from certain types of dog crates. Dog trainers generally recommend choosing a crate that is not too big (some anxious dogs like a smaller crate for coziness), cave-like (rather than cage-like), 100% secure, and that contains nothing that can be chewed.

Keep in mind that simply putting your anxious dog into a crate will not automatically calm them down — and in some cases, being confined can make things worse. You should always take care to properly condition your dog to any tool you use and work with a professional trainer to ensure a positive experience if in doubt. This will make sure their kennel is a safe space, not a stressful situation.

Learn about crate training:

A dog happily resting in their dog crate

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How to reduce dog anxiety in the long term

Exercise

Depending on your dog’s age, breed, and health, make sure you’re providing them with adequate physical outlets. Exercise reduces stress in the short-term — just like in humans! — and can help keep your dog feel calmer overall. As a bonus, proper exercise can also help reduce destructive behaviors like digging and chewing. 

Related links:

Mental stimulation

Similarly, mental stimulation is great for all dogs — and especially for dogs with anxiety. There are lots of ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation, including games, learning new tricks, and special toys. Try to set aside some time every day specifically for cognitive enrichment!

Learn more:

Training

Ultimately: On top of meeting your dog’s basic needs (which can certainly help many pups who show symptoms of anxiety) you want to get to the root cause of your dog’s discomfort.

The best course of action is to bring in a qualified trainer who can help you understand what your dog is experiencing and develop a personally tailored treatment plan to help them feel better.

Medication

Medication can also be a helpful part of your dog’s anxiety treatment plan. Make sure to always talk with your professional trainer and veterinarian for guidance when deciding if and what type of drug is right for your dog's medical condition — and use any prescription in combination with thoughtful behavior modification training.

For more detailed information, take a look at our article on medication for anxious dogs!

You’re not alone if you live with an anxious dog — and there is hope!

Having an anxious dog can be overwhelming. With the right tools, patience, and support network, though? You can help your pup feel more comfortable and live a full life by their side!

While working with your dog, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a professional force free trainer for guidance or connect with fellow pet parents who have challenging companions of their own. We love our pets more than anything in the world — and we also need to take care of ourselves, too.

Sniffspot Dog running on field

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Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Rayanne Spence CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT
Professional Dog Trainer - Animal Medical Center of Hattiesburg

David Adams photo

David Adams

March 07, 2024

Dog Reactivity

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