Our dogs are living their best lives full of naps, playtime, walks and food. What could there be to sigh about? Well, in reality, it's not always sunshine and roses. This is because many dogs have anxiety, just like humans. In fact, one study showed that over 70% of nearly 14,000 dogs had some type of anxiety. And while dog anxiety can't be cured, it can be managed to allow your dog to still live a happy and fulfilled life. That's why it's important to be able to identify the symptoms and learn about the causes, so you can look into treatment and management options. Here's all about anxious dogs, the most affected breeds and how to help dogs with anxiety.
Types Of Anxiety In Dogs
Dog anxiety comes in a wide variety of forms. For example, it can be situation- or event-based, like noise sensitivity (e.g. fireworks or thunderstorms) and separation anxiety. It can also be fear-based, such as fear of the unfamiliar (e.g. strangers, other dogs, new environments, etc.) and odd surfaces (e.g. uneven, reflective, etc.). The study mentioned above where, performed by University of Helsinki canine geneticist Hannes Lohi, found that as many as 72.5% of dogs had anxiety with the following breakdown for types of anxiety they suffered from:
- 32% suffered from noise sensitivity (with fireworks being the most common)
- 29% were fearful of unfamiliar triggers (with 17% fearful of other dogs, 15% fearful of strangers and 11% fearful of new situations)
- 24% were fearful of heights and surfaces
- 5% had separation anxiety
A few important notes: 1) This study involved self-reporting, which isn't always accurate. That being said, the volume of participants (nearly 14,000 dogs across more than 250 breeds) can mitigate that bias. 2) It is based on frequency, not severity, of a dog's anxious response. 3) Some dog behaviorists question the results, as they suggest 5% having separation anxiety is too low (as well as 17% showing compulsive behaviors, which is found in the next section, is too high).
Signs Of Anxiety In Dogs
Anxiety in dogs can manifest in a variety of different ways, from small behaviors to larger problematic ones. Some of the most common signs of dog anxiety include:
- Howling and barking
- Whimpering, whining and crying
- Pacing (in circles or straight lines)
- Attempting to flee or hide
- Licking paws, lips or other things
- Yawning or air sniffing
- Destruction, digging, chewing and scratching
- Hyperactivity, restlessness or fidgeting
- Peeing or pooping in the home (even if potty trained) or developing diarrhea
- Withdrawing, inattentiveness or avoiding eye contact
- Shaking or trembling
- Obsessive compulsion or repetitive behaviors
- Barring teeth, growling or aggression
- Self-inflicted injury or trauma
The same study by Lohi found the following in terms of how dogs reacted when anxious:
- 20% were inattentive
- 17% engaged in repetitive behaviors (like chewing or tail chasing, often when left alone)
- 16% were hyperactive or impulsive
- 14% were aggressive
Interestingly, it also showed that large breeds and small breeds differed in their anxious reactions. For instance, Miniature Schnauzers showed aggression toward strangers 10.6% of the time, while Labrador Retrievers did so only 0.4% of the time.
Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs
Although anxiety can affect all dogs, studies have shown certain breeds to be more at risk. But breed predisposition is just one of many factors in dog anxiety and a combination of several is very possible. These include:
- Genetics and family history
- Trauma or traumatic events
- Insufficient physical exercise and mental stimulation
- Lack of social time or socialization
- Changes to daily life or lifestyle (e.g. moving or traveling)
- Fear-related (e.g. loud noises; unfamiliar people, animals, things (like hats or umbrellas), new or strange environments and surfaces (like shiny tiles), specific situations (like the vet or car rides), etc.)
- Illness, disease and physical health issues
- Previous abuse, neglect or abandonment
*The specific breeds that are prone to anxiety are at the end of the article after how to treat and prevent dog anxiety!
How To Help A Dog With Anxiety
Even though dog anxiety can't be cured, it can be managed so your dog can live as happy and fulfilling a life as possible. There are lots of ways to address it, from exercise to anxiety dog training to medication and beyond. It's not usually one-size-fits-all, so you may need to do some trial and error to find what works. And, in most cases, multiple methods are needed. Also, several of these take time to work, so it's important to be patient and avoid giving up too early. Here are some of the most common methods to help dog anxiety:
Exercise And Engagement
Even though dogs sleep for about half of their day, they need exercise and engagement to be happy and healthy - even lazy breeds. One of the most important ways to help dog anxiety is by keeping your dog active. Ensuring they receive enough physical exercise and mental stimulation can help channel excess energy into more positive ways. This is especially important for more active breeds. Some ways to meet your dog's activity and engagement needs are through walks (with lots of sniffing time!), runs and brain games.
For situation-based anxiety, getting your dog some extra exercise before the event can also be helpful. Exercise helps your dog feel happier, more relaxed and tired - and thus less reactive. An extra long walk or a second one altogether, some fun in the dog park or a game of fetch can all help your pup later on. It's most important to give your dog extra exercise the day of the stressor, but try doing it the whole week.
Evaluate Your Routine
Dogs don't just need routine, they thrive on it. And sudden changes to it can trigger anxiety. So you may want to take a look at your routine and assess whether it could be improved. Overall, it's best to create a consistent routine for dogs with anxiety so that there's predictability. And for those times where sudden changes are inevitable, you can look for ways to mitigate anxiety. For instance, if you used to work from home but are now going into the office, a dog walker, pet sitter or doggie daycare may be a good option.
Manage Their Environment
It's also helpful to create a calm, predictable environment for dogs with anxiety. This can include having one or two walking routes you use for every dog walk, keeping their dog bed and other belongings in the same place throughout the house, ensuring they know where they can access their toys, and limiting unexpected, loud and unnecessary noises.
Pro Tip: Using their environment for puzzles and brain games can also make them feel better in their environment.
You can also create a "safe space" for them, perhaps using their crate or a room they like to spend time in. Some even prefer a makeshift hideout (like the closet or bathroom). If your dog likes to be with the family, don't separate them as that will only increase distress. You can put their dog bed, blankets and toys with them for extra comfort and don't forget a water bowl!
Another option is soothing music. Playing sounds has been shown to help calm and distract your dog, both of which can help their anxiety. You can try music, television, talk radio, a white noise machine or even a fan.
Pro Tip: Try classical music called "Through A Dog’s Ear," which has been shown to have calming effects for dogs, according to certified behavior consultant and professional dog trainer Jenn Stanley.
Soothe Your Dog
Sometimes you can help ease a dog's anxiety through physical contact and companionship. Gentle pets, loving eye contact and speaking out loud are not only soothing and express affection to dogs, but scientifically shown to help.
Studies have shown that simply touching your dog releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and other helpful neurotransmitters in both dogs and humans. You can go one step further and gently massage your dog's ears, which are packed with nerve endings and feeling receptors that send impulses through the body. So rubbing their ears results in the release like oxytocin as well as endorphins (which relieve pain and promote feelings of pleasure).
Pro Tip: Hugging can also be an effective way to soothe your dog but not all dogs like hugs, so make sure yours is one that does before doing so.
Research has also shown that making gentle and loving eye contact releases oxytocin as well. Just be careful because forcefully staring into a dog's eyes can be interpreted as a challenge or aggression. So it's usually best to pair loving eye contact with gentle pets and praising tones (MRIs have shown that dogs experience the most happiness when they hear speech in a praising tone or actual words of praise). You can also try "baby talk," which research shows dogs enjoy, or read to your dog, which has been shown to calm anxious or high-energy dogs and help shy dogs open up.
Pro Tip: Dogs are very observant, especially when it comes to their humans. They can pick up on changes in your behavior and emotions. This is why it's important to remain calm when your pup is stressed so as not to add to their anxiety and reinforce their behavior.
Pet Calming Products
You can also try calming products made specifically for dogs. There's a wide range of options from consumable supplements to physical gear. A few options include:
- Calming supplements
- CBD products
- Essential oils that are safe for dogs (like chamomile oil and through a diffuser)
- Calming clothing, vests and jackets (like the Thundershirt)
Pro Tip: It's always a good idea to talk to your vet before adding anything your dog would digest. Also, it's important to note that there's no scientific research or data on CBD for dogs and it's not regulated, which means that purity and consistency aren't checked by an outside source.
Dog Anxiety Training
One of the best long-term methods for helping dog anxiety is through training. This is because it targets the source of the anxiety and focuses on behavior modification. Here are three methods for dog anxiety training:
Counterconditioning aims to replace your dog's anxious response to a trigger with a calm, neutral or positive one. It's done by associating the trigger with something your dog enjoys - like a treat, ball or other favorite toy - to flip your dog's perception of that trigger. It can also be done by asking them to do something for a reward (like sit, focus on you, other tricks, etc.), which uses distraction and reward to keep your dog's mind off their trigger and replace their negative response. For example, if a dog is afraid of other dogs, you can provide treats at the sight of one and eventually, they should see them as a chance to earn treats rather than have a fear response. It's important to be consistent and always pair exposure to the trigger with the reward to successfully modify the association.
Desensitization works to reduce your dog's anxious response by slowly introducing small doses of the trigger and rewarding them when they don't respond or do so positively. Once your dog has successfully done so, you repeat the process while gradually increasing length of exposure (e.g. using a sound recording of thunder at low volume levels and slowly increase the volume as your dog progresses).
Pro Tip: this tends to work better with controllable issues like noise sensitivity and separation anxiety.
Breed specific training refers to training specialized and tailored for specific dog breeds. Studies have shown that certain behavioral traits are linked to breed. For example, Border Collies were shown to be the easiest to train, guard dogs (and particularly German Shepherds) displayed the most stranger danger and Greyhounds were ranked highest in chasing behaviors. So guard dogs and German Shepherds may need more socialization training than other breeds, while dogs with high prey drive like Greyhounds may need more self-control training. In addition, studies have shown that brain size affects learning. Specifically, that animals of the same species with larger brains have an easier time learning, higher self-control and better short-term memory. So larger dog breeds tend to learn more quickly than smaller ones. Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, but breed-specific training takes all of this into account.
Get Professional Training
If your dog's anxiety is moderate to severe, worsening over time or not improving with the previous methods, it may be time to find a trainer. Trainers and behavioral consultants are experts when it comes to managing dog anxiety and fearfulness. They can also give advice on your routine or ways to create less anxiety in the home. Plus, they train you as well as your dog, which can make a big difference moving forward in managing and reducing your dog's anxiety. If you don't know where to start looking for one, consult your vet. They often have a list of recommendations for dog training, boarding and more.
Consult Your Vet
If nothing seems to truly be helping and your dog's anxiety is impacting their quality of life (along with yours), talk to your vet. Especially if your dog's is suffering more often than not, they're turning to destruction or self-injury, or it's causing health issues like vomiting and diarrhea (which can lead to being weight loss and malnutrition over time). Also, it's best to go before the behaviors become habit. Your vet should be able to help identify your dog's type of anxiety as well as specific causes and triggers, recommend trainers (as mentioned above) and come up with a treatment plan. They can also rule out underlying medical conditions and prescribe your dog medication if need be.
Many dogs, like humans, benefit from anxiety medication. Some medicines are as needed (like before a thunderstorm, fireworks show or car ride), while others are more long-term. The former include medicines like trazodone, benzodiazepine or mild tranquilizers, while the latter includes SSRIs and antidepressants like fluoxetine (prozac) and clomipramine. In addition, selegiline has been given to older dogs with cognitive dysfunction, which is used for treating chronic anxiety in Europe but can help reduce some CDS symptoms. Just make sure to only go through a vet and use vet-prescribed medications.
How To Prevent Anxiety In Dogs
Preventing dog anxiety, particularly if it's generalized or genetic, isn't necessarily possible. But there are ways to limit the development and onset in more specific situations, especially if you adopt a dog as a puppy.
- Socialization can help prevent the development of anxiety in dogs, especially fear of the unfamiliar. Introducing your dog to a variety of new people, dogs, places, situations and experiences can help them become well-adjusted and have less extreme responses later on. The earlier the better for socialization!
- Obedience training is useful for many parts of dog ownership. But it can help limit dog anxiety by building trust between you and your dog while also allowing you to have more control over them when they are anxious (which can give you a leg up on counterconditioning and training).
- Exercise and engagement, as previously mentioned, allow dogs to channel their energy in healthy ways and reduce the chances of extra energy manifesting in anxiety and anxious behaviors.
- Reading your dog's body language is an important skill for dog parents in general, but can be especially helpful for dog anxiety. Knowing the signs of discomfort or fear in your dog allows you to avoid a negative experience or effectively use that moment for positive training.
- Avoiding certain situations may be a necessary to prevent certain anxiety issues in dogs. For example, it's a good idea to avoid dog parks if your dog is anxious around other dogs. Of course, this only works in truly avoidable situations.
Breeds Prone To Dog Anxiety:
Australian Shepherds were bred for herding, so they have very high activity needs. This means it can be easier for them to get insufficient physical exercise, mental stimulation and general activity, which can lead to boredom and anxiety. In addition, they tend to bond deeply with their owners, which can make them more prone to separation anxiety.
The Bichon Frise was bred to be a companion dog. This means they can become extremely attached to their people and are thus quite prone to separation anxiety. If left alone too often or for too long, they may become problem barkers or destructive. And, eventually, unaddressed anxiety and loneliness can turn into depression.
Pro Tip: Desensitization and counterconditioning are said to work well for Bichons.
Like Australian Shepherds, Border Collies were bred to work. They are extremely intelligent, high energy herding dogs. But because of this, it's easier for them to get inadequate exercise and mental stimulation. This can lead to boredom, general anxiety and eventually depression. These can manifest as destructive behaviors (like ripping up furniture and scratching doors) as well as nipping at the ankles of children, adults and people in the home. They are also social dogs and thus prone to separation anxiety as well.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is another companion dog, bred to be lap dogs for the noble. Because of this, they bond tightly with their humans and are prone to separation anxiety if left alone too often or for too long. They're also believed to be slightly more prone to general anxiety, which can manifest in problematic barking, territorial behaviors and more. If not addressed, their anxiety can too turn into depression.
Cocker Spaniels are energetic and intelligent hunting dogs that require proper physical exercise, mental stimulation and general activity. They were also bred to work closely with their hunting companion, which makes them more likely to bond deeply with their people. As such, they can become hyperactive and hyper-attached, both of which can lead to anxiety and separation anxiety, respectively.
Pro Tip: For overly attached Cocker Spaniels, the hyper-attachment likely needs to be addressed first.
Like other herding dogs on this list, German Shepherds thrive on having a job to do. These highly intelligent dogs require sufficient physical exercise and mental stimulation, otherwise they can suffer from anxiety. They also bond deeply with their people, which can make them prone to separation anxiety, even if activity needs are being met. Furthermore, they are naturally aloof to strangers, which can contribute to anxiety as well.
German Shorthaired Pointer
German Shorthaired Pointers are bird dogs bred to hunt with humans. Because of this, they are active, energetic, intelligent and social. This means they can be prone to general anxiety, as well as separation anxiety, if not adequately exercised or socialized. They do best with a good amount of activity and mental stimulation, as well as human companionship and attention. Otherwise, they may turn to destructive or noisy behaviors and eventually become depressed.
Jack Russell Terrier
The Jack Russell Terrier was bred for rodent control as well as hunting small animals and critters alongside a companion. Similarly to the German Shorthaired Pointer, they are active, energetic, intelligent and social. Jack Russell Terriers can become bored and anxious if physical and mental activity needs are not met. They also need companionship, attention and engagement from their owners to thrive. This is why they can suffer from separation anxiety as well. Anxious Jack Russell Terriers can be quite destructive and vocal, despite their size.
Labrador Retrievers were bred for hunting with companions but quickly became a top choice for a family dog thanks to their temperament and devotion. But because of their active, energetic, intelligent and social nature, they can be prone to general anxiety and separation anxiety. Also, their popularity has led to a rise in unethical breeding, which can produce more anxious Labs due to genetics. Labs need lots of physical exercise, mental stimulation, companionship and attention - otherwise their anxiety can manifest in destruction and other problematic behaviors.
The Lagotto Romagnolo is a bearded dog breed from Italy, developed as a lowland and marshland gun dog and water retriever. Research has shown that they are one of the most anxious dogs, with high rates of thunder fear and other noise sensitivity (like fireworks, gunshots and even loud children and music). Because they are intelligent and bred to work, sufficient physical exercise and mental stimulation are important to provide proper outlets for their energy and reduce the likelihood of anxiety.
Miniature Schnauzers were developed from the medium-sized Standard Schnauzer who hunted, herded and guarded. Eventually, farmers bred them down into compact rat hunting dogs to focus mostly on rodent and vermin control. Because of their background, they are active and alert dogs who bond with their people but can be wary of strangers and protective of the home. Miniature Schnauzers are not only prone to general anxiety, but also potentially have an increased risk of developing separation anxiety. This can manifest as destructive behaviors, excessive barking and even aggression. In fact, research showed that Miniature Schnauzers were one of the more aggressive breeds when feeling anxious. For example, they more often showed aggression to unfamiliar people.
Shetland Sheepdogs are energetic, smart, alert, playful and attentive herding farm dogs. Research shows that they are prone to anxiety, particularly fearfulness of strangers and heights or surfaces. Because of their herding background, adequate physical exercise and mental stimulation is important to curb their anxieties. Otherwise, their energy can turn into anxiety and manifest as destruction, jumping and nipping.
Pro Tip: Early socialization with strangers and new people, especially coming into the home, is recommended for Shetland Sheepdogs.
Spanish Water Dog
Despite its name, the Spanish Water Dog was bred as an all-purpose sheepdog who also guarded property. But it also acted as gun and water dog at times, performing water retrieval for it's hunting companion. Research shows that these dogs are prone to anxiety, particular in response to their surroundings. And like Shetland Sheepdogs, Spanish Water Dogs showed a high incidence of fear of strangers as well as heights and surfaces. As an intelligent and active breed, the Spanish Water Dog needs enough physical exercise and mental stimulation to expel their energy. Otherwise, they can become anxious and clingy.
Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers were also bred to be all-purpose farm dogs who herded, guarded and hunted rodents. Research shows that they have one of the highest risks of developing noise anxiety. They may respond to repeated exposure to loud noises with excessive panting and barking. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers are also outgoing and social, so they are prone to separation anxiety if left alone too often or for too long. Adequate physical exercise, mental stimulation, attention and companionship are necessary to keep anxiety at bay for this breed.
Pro Tip: Early socialization and noise exposure is recommended for Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers, preferably with the consult of a vet or behaviorist.
Toy Poodles are small dogs that were mainly bred for companionship, so they typically need lots of attention and engagement from their dog mom and/or dog dad. Without it, they are prone to developing separation anxiety. They are also quite intelligent and can become bored easily, which can turn into anxiety without an outlet for their excess energy, like physical exercise and mental stimulation.
Vizslas were bred to hunt with their human companions. As such, they are very social and can develop separation anxiety if left alone too often or for too long. They are also active, energetic and intelligent, which can lead to boredom if activity needs are not met. This can then turn into general anxiety, so sufficient physical exercise and mental stimulation are required to keep them happy.
Mixed-breed dogs or mutts appear to have a high incidence of anxiety, particularly noise sensitivity, according to research. This is likely for multiple reasons. First, there are greater numbers of mixed breeds in many studies. Second, they have greater genetic diversity, so their DNA often includes several breeds, some of which are probably prone to anxiety. Third, mixed-breed dogs are more likely to come from a variety of backgrounds and environments, some of which are neither ideal nor safe. For example, they could have been abandoned or neglected, lived in animal shelters for a time or came from abusive homes, hoarding situations, puppy mills, etc. The Lohi study didn't take exact lineage, history or background into account, which very likely play a major role in anxiety among mixed breed dogs.
Older dogs can be more prone to anxiety, especially noise sensitivity (and thunder), which the Lohi study also found to be true. This is likely because they can't hear or see as well as they used to, are experiencing more pain or aren't as sharp mentally. Also, some dogs will get cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), which causes a decline in memory, learning, perception and awareness. All of that can easily lead to confusion and, as a result, anxiety. This is why it's important to continue socializing an adult or senior dog, keep an eye out for signs of aging and talk to your vet as much as needed.
Small Dog Breeds
Some research has shown that smaller dogs are more anxious and fearful. And vets have said the same thing, citing breeds like the the Chihuahua, Miniature Pinscher and Shih-Tzu. A study from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna involving nearly 1,300 dog owners found that small dogs (those under 44 pounds) were more easily spooked in unfamiliar situations, when exposed to loud noises (like thunder and fireworks), and stressed around strangers. Theories as to why include that, more often: 1) small dogs feel threatened due to their size and become defensive, 2) owners are protective of smaller dogs and don't socialize them as much and 3) owners engage in fewer activities with them because they feel their small dogs don't need as much training, playtime, exercise, etc.
BUT! All Dogs Can Have Anxiety
Knowing whether or not your dog is predisposed to anxiety is helpful but it’s important to remember that any dog can get anxiety, no matter the breed. It's also important to note that just because your breed is prone to it, doesn't mean they will have anxiety.