Healthspan November 06, 2017

A life of sleeping, playing and eating - how could our dogs possibly be anxious or stressed?

Often our dogs are anxious or stressed because they don’t understand what’s happening around and perceive a threat, even though actually there probably isn’t one. Their stress and anxiety is not only unpleasant for them but also often manifests in disruptive or destructive behaviour, including inappropriate urination or defecation, barking or howling, pacing, chewing or drooling. Some dogs even try to escape, so we need to make sure we’re managing our dog’s anxiety for their own safety as well as their wellbeing.

1. Home alone

There seems to be no simple answer as to why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others do not. Like humans, dogs can go through similar experiences and react completely differently. One apparent pattern, however, is that dogs who have been adopted from shelters or have lived with different families are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety than dogs who have been kept by a single family since puppyhood.

For a dog with separation anxiety, even an hour left alone can feel like much longer. They might even wonder if you’re ever coming back. Your ultimate goal is for your dog to enjoy time spent on their own, or at least to tolerate it.

One of the most popular tips for dogs with milder forms of separation anxiety is to treat them to something really good (and time-consuming!) when you leave the house; for example, a Kong toy stuffed with low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter (make sure it's Xylitol-free). Always take the toy from them when you return, so it’s a real treat for when they’re left on their own. For serious cases, consulting an expert might be the best thing as this anxiety is often deeply engrained.

2. That’s new…

Dogs value routine and familiarity so while a new house, a spot of DIY or new house guests might be exciting for you, your dog might need a little help adjusting. Dogs who, on the whole, have an established routine and are handled with consistency tend to deal much better with new things that come their way in comparison to those who don’t know what to expect one day to the next. This includes their feeding, walking and toileting routine as well as their training and handling.

Of course seasonal changes are somewhat inevitable (the timings of walks and your routines during the day and evenings, for example) but if possible, all changes should be introduced gradually and also try to only change one thing at a time. Assess how your dog is coping on an ongoing basis and make sure all family members encourage and discourage the same behaviours.

3. Today’s the day

Booked your pet’s appointment with the vet or groomers? These experiences can make many a dog anxious and actually it’s easy to see why. With anything, it’s the element of the unknown; what will happen this time? Will they hurt me? What are they doing? Why are they doing this?

It’s often helpful to stick with the same practice and vet or groomer, so your dog can build up a relationship with the staff and be treated and fussed over. As they become more familiar with the scents, people and place, their fear of the vet’s or groomer won’t be as frightening either. It’s also helpful to get them into the routine early; if your dog is used to having their nails, paws and ears touched, they’ll be a lot more comfortable at when they get to the groomer.

Noisy events like Bonfire Night, a notoriously unenjoyable week for dogs, also call for you to keep your calm; making a big fuss only reinforces the fact that there is reason to panic. Nevertheless, our dogs have strong senses, so take practical measures to ensure they’re as comfortable and sheltered as possible:

  1. Close all windows and doors and draw the curtains – this will help to muffle the noises and block out flashes (as well as preventing them from fleeing in panic).
  2. Turn on the TV or radio and give them their favourite toy to keep them distracted.
  3. Make sure they have a safe space – move their bed somewhere sheltered or build them a little den with their favourite bedding inside.
  4. Don’t punish them for being scared but reward them for calm behaviour and cuddle them if they look for it, otherwise leave them in their den.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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