This article was written by veterinary clinician Kirsten Ronngren (DVM MRCVS) with contributions from certified canine behaviorist and trainer Adem Fehmi (BSc MCFBA)
Understanding our pets’ behavior is a complex undertaking – one that has long interested and overwhelmed owners. We love our pets like family, so it makes sense that their emotional and mental well-being has come to the forefront of our minds.
Pet behavior has been an even more popular topic over the past few years, as the ability to socialize pets became severely limited during the pandemic era. Veterinarians had already been seeing a high volume of pets with phobias, aggression, and anxiety, but these issues skyrocketed starting in 2020. Now more than ever, we need to understand and manage behavioral conditions in our pets if we’re to provide them the best quality of life we can.
Canine anxiety is a complex issue. It would be wonderful if there were an easy fix, but as an experienced veterinary clinician I can tell you that’s simply not the case. Some dogs have fears or phobias that can be more readily managed with desensitization training or minor modifications to their routine. But many dogs struggle with more complex anxieties. These can only be addressed when we dig into the problem and develop a long-term management plan.
Over the course of this article, I’ll lay out the best strategies for training an anxious dog — and for learning what’s making them anxious in the first place. I’ll draw from my own clinical experience, as well as a recent discussion with certified dog trainer Adem Fehmi (BSc, MCFBA).
These are the most important points I’ll emphasize:
Every dog is unique when it comes to their anxiety.
When addressing anxiety, pet owners should consider factors relevant to their dog’s daily routine and lifestyle.
Treating and/or managing your dog’s anxiety (or any other behavioral condition, for that matter) requires time and consistency.
Signs Your Pet May Be Anxious
When trying to classify whether a dog has a behavioral condition such as anxiety, it’s important for pet owners to recognize the signs that a dog is anxious. Let’s recap some common indicators:
More frequent yawning
Mouth held in a tight line
Ears pinned back or fully upright
Increased visibility of the sclera (whites of the eyes)
Avoidance behavior (hiding, turning/looking/moving away, etc.)
Being able to identify these signs as stress can help you know when your dog is anxious. Then you can try to identify the triggers or instigators of that anxiety. Often when a dog can be classified as aggressive, what they’re actually showing is a manifestation of anxiety or fear, better known as fear aggression.
Addressing Root Causes
There are several types of behavioral conditions in dogs. These include fears or phobias (such as noise phobia), progressive anticipatory anxiety (such as separation anxiety), and several types of aggression (such as fear aggression, dog aggression, redirected aggression, possessive aggression/resource guarding, pain-induced/medical aggression, and more).
To successfully understand and improve these behaviors, it’s essential that you try to uncover what type of condition is at play, and what the underlying triggers are for that particular dog. Root causes of anxiety can include genetics, environment, previous traumas or experiences, a dog's daily routine, and even how we humans interact with them.
First, it’s important for your veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying medical conditions that may be causing your dog to display unwanted behaviors. Addressing these conditions appropriately allows you to determine if the behavior will persist even when your dog is physically healthy. If it does, you can continue to work on diagnosing and managing the issue. In some cases, prescription medication for anxiety or behavioral conditions may be warranted. (I’ll address this a bit more in the “When to Seek a Professional” section.)
There is no one perfect way to work on training or behavioral modification for an anxious dog. Training your pet isn’t like following a recipe; there’s no single formula that can work for every dog. While this can be daunting, it also means we have the opportunity to personalize this training for every dog, which increases the chance of success. It’s important to start by identifying the specific condition, then identifying the potential triggers.
Let’s use the example of a dog that barks at other dogs while on the leash. Some may see the dog as aggressive. The owner, meanwhile, may classify the dog as an anxiety sufferer. While both of these assessments could be true, let’s rewind and think about why this dog barks.
The barking could be due to many reasons. For instance:
The dog is a working or herding breed (which have an inherently higher energy level)
The dog is not receiving enough regular exercise as an outlet for energy
The dog may have been previously harmed by another dog while on the leash (i.e., fear-based anxiety)
The dog has not learned appropriate inter-dog interaction because it has not had much social experience with other dogs
The dog is responding to subtle changes in body language from other dogs that the owner isn’t picking up on (i.e., reactive anxiety)
The dog is protective of its personal space or its owner
The dog is extremely excited and/or frustrated because it’s unable to act on that excitement
That’s a long list of possibilities, which means that trying to tackle your dog’s anxiety could require a variety of different interventions.
We know that dogs respond best to positive rewards for positive behaviors. But it’s easy to make mistakes. For instance, in the scenario where a dog is barking at other dogs while on a leash, the owner may be inclined to provide extra attention to their dog in the hopes of calming them down.
But this is actually an example of rewarding negative behavior. The extra attention may come from a place of caring and a desire to decrease your dog’s stress, but this type of attention can accomplish the opposite of what we want; in other words, it will encourage the behavior by showing your dog that they’ll receive increased attention and vocal recognition when they bark.
A more effective approach would include trying to uncover why the dog is barking in the first place. If it’s because the dog has had previous unpleasant experiences on a leash with other dogs, then a reasonable place to start would be slowly introducing your dog to positive experiences with other dogs while on a leash. This may be as simple as distracting your dog with something they love (like a ball or a treat) and then providing a reward or praise when your dog doesn’t react to the other dog.
You can then progress to introducing your dog to other leashed dogs. Just make sure you do so in a way that lets your dog know they can exit the situation if they feel overwhelmed, and that leaves them feeling safe in general. This slow progression takes time and dedication on a dog owner's part. But it can be extremely successful.
An essential part of behavior modification is using what canine behaviorist Adem Fehmi refers to as a “lure.” This is an object such as a favorite toy, or a high value treat that will defuse unwanted behaviors and refocus a dog's attention in most circumstances. The lure can be used in several ways including gaining attention, granting a reward, helping to overcome a fear/phobia, and more.
The same concepts can be applied to things like separation anxiety. It’s essential in these situations to get an in-depth look at the animal’s daily routine. As people return to work or leave for more social activities, dogs that are used to having their humans around consistently will often experience new feelings of stress and uncertainty. This can manifest as destructive behavior.
Owners need to make sure their dogs get ample and regular exercise. And in general, the way you behave toward your pet when you’re at home can play a key role in mitigating your dog’s stress when you’re gone.
Behaviorists typically encourage owners to employ calm voices and behaviors prior to leaving the home, and also upon return. Routine actions like putting shoes on or jingling your keys can also stimulate the onset of anxiety once your dog begins to associate these things with you leaving.
Breaking this association and subsequent anxiety can be extremely helpful. For example, when you put your shoes on or get your keys you can give your dog a high value treat or toy and then continue doing other things without directing excessive attention toward your dog. This can help decrease the anxious link in their brain between shoes or keys and the stress of you leaving. And upon return, you should avoid excitable energy and try to remain in a calm state.
When to Seek a Professional
As I’ve mentioned, some dogs have mild fears or phobias that pet owners can address over time with things like safe desensitization. These cases require time and effort, but you can likely manage them without the help of a professional. And the earlier you intervene, the more likely it is that you and your dog will achieve success with training. (Dogs who display anxious behavior in response to a stimulus or trigger will become harder to treat — and their behaviors will become more severe — as time and repeated exposure continue without intervention.) .
There are some dogs who may need the assistance of a professional when it comes to treating or managing their behavioral conditions. These are the pets that maintain the anxiety that impacts their quality of life, their safety, or the safety of other pets and people around them, even after you’ve tried to intervene.
First, I encourage dog owners to have a veterinarian evaluate their pet’s health to rule out potential underlying pain or medical conditions (such as arthritis, thyroid disease or kidney dysfunction). A thorough physical examination and basic diagnostics such as blood and urine testing can give you an overview of your pet’s physical health. Addressing pain or disease first can have a huge positive impact on your pet’s behavioral conditions.
But if these tests don’t uncover any underlying health conditions, then setting up an in-home consultation with a certified dog trainer/behaviorist, or specialty veterinary behaviorist, is the recommended next step.
“The value of having an expert assess your pet’s daily life and routine is immeasurable”, says Adem. This allows a trainer/behaviorist to work with your pet in your pet’s own territory and help determine what the underlying triggers of anxiety are.
Sometimes an extended-duration appointment with a veterinarian with experience in behavioral modification can also help, as it’s an opportunity to discuss whether anti-anxiety supplements or prescription medications may be warranted. In severe cases, it’s not uncommon for dogs to do best with both behavioral modification and medication.
Take a Deep Breath, Let’s Tackle This
As more dogs come home with more people, instances of canine anxiety and related behavioral conditions are only going to increase. While treating these dogs can feel frustrating and daunting, there are many fabulous resources available these days.
If you get your pet as a puppy or young dog, it’s essential to focus extra attention on training, behavior, socialization, and exposure to new experiences. But don’t fret, even adult dogs can still be supported and managed to improve anxiety and related behavioral conditions.
If you’re not sure whether your dog's behavior should be classified as anxiety and treated, ask your veterinarian! Vets can help you decide if a certain behavior is “normal” — and, if it’s not, they can help you find the best resources to address it.
Our pets do so much for us, so let’s treat their emotional and mental wellbeing to the best of our ability. They deserve it.