Anti-Anxiety Tips for Dogs
by Ronica H'Hara
When they signed the Declaration of Independence, little did our country’s founders know that more than two centuries later, their revolutionary act would lead to millions of dogs trembling, cringing and running for cover. As many as 45 percent of American pet dogs are struck with “fireworks phobia”, studies show, and more dogs run away over the July Fourth holiday than at any other time of the year, report animal control officials.
The kind of situational anxiety caused by sudden loud noises can affect almost any dog, but it happens most often to those pets predisposed to anxious behavior because of breeding or troubled pasts. A new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science from the University of California, Davis, has found that even common noises such as a vacuum, microwave or beeping smoke alarm can trigger anxiety in many dogs, and that many owners don’t recognize subtle signs.
“Monitor your dog’s behavior for anything unusual, such as excessive barking, panting, shaking, trembling, licking or drooling,” advises John Woods, a New York City professional dog trainer and editor-in-chief of AllThingsDogs.com. “Also look for cues in your dog’s body language, paying particular attention to their eyes, ears, mouth and tail for other signs of anxiety or discomfort.”
Happily, research shows that a number of strategies can help soothe anxious pooches both from immediate terror and ongoing anxiety.
Turn It Around. Swiss scientists at the University of Bern’s Companion Animal Behavior Group that analyzed the New Year’s fireworks strategies of 1,225 dog owners concluded that the most effective method was what they called “counterconditioning”—turning a negative into a positive with treats. As the fireworks exploded, these owners played with their dogs, gave them chews and treats, and expressed positive emotions; their dogs were on average 70 percent less anxious. The method works best when a dog’s calmness is reinforced on a daily basis, say the researchers.
Megan Marrs, an Austin, Texas, dog trainer and founder of K9OfMine.com, lowered her rescue pit bull’s anxious behavior by giving him cold, chewable treats whenever he calmly sat on his bed and didn’t cause trouble. “This did require keeping treats on me at all times, but it worked wonders,” she says.
It’s a Wrap. The Swiss study also found that 44 percent of dogs became calmer during fireworks after being wrapped in a tight-fitting pressure vest. Sold commercially under such names as ThunderShirt and Anxiety Wrap, the vests can also be easily improvised at home by following YouTube videos. A tight wrap helped soothe the trembling of Zed, the Japanese Chin of Amy Tokic, editor-in-chief of the Toronto-based PetGuide.com. “He’s still not comfortable with loud noises, but when he’s snuggly swaddled, he doesn’t get into a panic state over it,” she says.
Play Mellow Melodies. Studies have confirmed that music can ease situational anxiety for up to half of dogs, but the genre matters: classical soothes, heavy metal agitates. Researchers at Pooch & Mutt, a British natural-health dog food maker, surveyed Spotify playlists and concluded that the ultimate calming songs for dogs were reggae and soft rock, because of their simple arrangements, minimal electronic orchestration and gentle beats that match the heartbeat of a puppy’s mother. “The wrong music or music that is being played too loud has the potential to upset your dog,” warns London veterinary surgeon Linda Simon.
The Sweet Smell of Safety. The sense of smell in dogs is 10,000 times greater than that of humans, so the right scent—like of their lactating mother—can comfort them. Pheromones are synthetic or herbal formulations in sprays, collars, plug-in diffusers or wet wipes that replicate nursing scents, and studies have found them effective for many dogs during fireworks, thunderstorms, and for mild anxiety. Jeraldin Paredes, a New York City professional dog sitter at TalkTheBark.com, suggests simply using an old T-shirt to bundle up a pooch during a high-stress situation or to put as a “baby blanket” into their favorite hiding place. “That way, no matter where they hide, a piece of you is always with them,” she explains.
Speak Straight. “Simply speaking with your pet can make a huge difference in their anxiety,” says animal communicator Nancy Mello, in Mystic, Connecticut. “Don’t just say goodbye to them, but tell them how long you will be gone and when you will be back. Use a visualization: 'I will be home at 7 p.m.,’ while visualizing your house at dark. Or say to an anxious pet, 'You are safe,’ on a daily basis. Even if your pet doesn’t get the exact wording, they understand the connotation behind it.”
More Home Remedies
Pharmaceuticals are widely prescribed by veterinarians for highly anxious dogs and have a study-proven track record, but come with side effects. For example, the sedative acepromazine (ACP) actually increases noise sensitivity in dogs while lowering their ability to respond. Another sedative, dexmedetomidine (Dexdomitor), can pose serious health risks even at low doses.
Natural remedies, although seldom backed by large, double-blind clinical studies, have done well in smaller studies, pose few potential dangers and have proven their worth to many pet parents. It may take trial-and-error to find what works, a process that holistic veterinarians can help fast-track.
These approaches may be worth trying out at home:
CBD. This non-psychoactive compound of the hemp plant, increasingly used for canine pain management, has been shown in some studies to calm dogs. It’s best to choose a high-grade, broad-spectrum, organic product in a tincture or oil form so the amount can be adjusted drop by drop, advises the American Kennel Society.
Pheromones. The collars, sprays, mists, wipes and diffusers that deliver a calming scent to a dog have been found effective for many, but not all, anxious dogs in situations of loud noises, car travel and vet’s offices. Sprays work quickly, but last only a few hours; plug-in diffusers can be effective for as long as a month. Many are synthetic, petroleum-based products. Instead, look for pheromone products that employ essential oils, with one caveat: use caution if cats are around, because some essential oils are toxic to them. For a DIY approach, dab a drop of vanilla, coconut, valerian or ginger essential oil onto a bandana and if the dog likes the scent, tie the bandana around its neck. A British study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science found those scents lowered barking and excessive activity in shelter dogs.
Fish oil. Purina researchers found that adding DHA-rich fish oil to the diet of 24 anxious Labradors for 12 weeks reduced cortisol responses and lowered their heart rate during anxiety-provoking events for 21 of the dogs; it cut by almost half the time they spent jumping, pacing, spinning and barking. A general guideline is 300 milligrams of combined EPA/DHA per 30 pounds of a dog’s body weight. Other commonly used supplements to discuss with a veterinarian are L-theanine and L-tryptophan, amino acids shown to help calm down dogs with mild to moderate anxiety.