Authored By: Chris Vanderhoof DVM, MPH
With spring here, more folks are coming out of hibernation and heading outdoors more, especially just for fun and recreation. More folks are also potentially getting back to work on location or traveling more with COVID restrictions being relaxed.
The combination of these changes may lead to the emergence (or return) of certain anxiety behaviors in their furry counterparts. Whether this is because pups are being taken outdoors or on trips and being exposed to new places, people, and other pets they are not used to, or whether they are being left at home more as their parents have new needs to leave the home or travel, any kind of lifestyle change can lead to stress and anxiety for dogs.
In this article, we’ll look to focus on these certain types of anxieties we might see. This includes separation anxiety for dogs belonging to folks traveling or going to work without their furry friends, and reactions to new stimuli in the form of unfamiliar locations, people, and other pets.
The General Approach to Anxiety and Stress in Dogs
It’s important to start with what our general approach needs to be in any case of stress or anxiety in dogs.
First, we always want to focus on the positive as much as possible. This has historically always shown to generate a greater and faster desired modification to behavior as compared to methods of punishment, domination, and fear.
Remember that dogs exhibiting stress and anxiety behaviors are not acting “badly”. In many cases, they are acting out of fear towards a stimulus they are either already afraid of or something they are not familiar with or do not understand.
We generally want to lessen the impact of a trigger as much as possible. We’ll discuss a couple of methods to do that. This requires figuring out what a trigger is when at all possible. Triggers may be certain locations, certain types of pets or people, or even certain noises.
Supplements and/or medications may be needed to reduce a dog’s threshold of fear or anxiety towards a stimulus. Sometimes we have to employ a supplement or medication so that a dog is more open and receptive to behavior modification strategies.
Lastly, always know that it can sometimes be a real challenge to help a pup overcome a new or ingrained behavior. If simple methods like those discussed here are not helping significantly after 4-6 weeks, it’s important to employ the help of a certified trainer, your veterinarian, or a veterinary behavior specialist.
Separation anxiety is extremely common in dogs, and is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety condition, being found in about 30% of dogs on average.
Separation anxiety can be looked at as a fear of being alone. Many dogs function best with a social companion, whether that be their human parent or one or more other pets in the home.
As we all know, dogs can be very loyal and develop strong attachments to us. When left alone, some dogs have a really hard time not being around their social group. But while some dogs may lay quietly in their crate, waiting expectantly for their human to come home, others with significant separation anxiety can show really undesirable and even destructive behaviors.
These behaviors may manifest as very loud vocalizing like barking and whining, destruction of household items like cushions, clothing, magazines, etc. Or for dogs kept crated or in a room of the house, forcibly escaping their confines at risk of injury to themselves and destruction of their home environment.
Separation anxiety may be seen at any age, but most often occurs in young puppies or in newly adopted dogs. These behaviors may manifest for a variety of reasons.
In our current time, separation may be seen more with folks going back to work where they have previously been working from home for most of the last two years thanks to COVID. During COVID, we saw an unprecedented level of new adoptions in dogs as well as the greatest puppy boom of all time.
While necessary, social distancing led to many dogs existing a lot in constant companionship with their humans. While very good for the human-animal bond, many folks are finding now that lifestyle changes occurring from the relaxation of COVID restrictions is a stressful change for their dogs.
How to Help Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The general approach to separation anxiety is to create a safe, secure space where a dog feels comfortable, and also helping her to adapt to an environment of being alone, at least to some degree.
Good crate training and crate use should be an important part of any dog’s lifestyle. Far from being a punishing sort of cage, a crate seeks to emulate a space of calm, safety, and security. You can liken it to a den that our pet dog’s wild counterparts would utilize.
If we want our crate to emulate this, then we want to make sure that a pup has ready access to the crate at all times and that he associates the crate with lots of things he likes. This means we can feed a dog in the crate, provide toys, bedding, and treats. Generally, if your dog associates the crate with all of these positive things, then being in there alone when you’re gone isn’t so scary. Having regular access to the crate also helps your dog to not associate it exclusively with your absence.
But of course, at some point, you have to leave the home. While the end goal is to just pop your pup in the crate so that you can go out, that’s not how you want to start things out.
Maybe this begins with 15-20 minutes of “quiet time”. You can give her a small meal she can eat, or a toy like a Kong, filled with a milk bone or peanut butter that she needs to work on and can be preoccupied with for that time. But otherwise, try not to give her too much attention. This helps her understand that just because the crate is closed, this doesn’t mean you’re absent.
What we want to do is start out with longer periods of crating before a planned leave of absence. You might start with 25 or 30 minutes before leaving, or you may need longer. But wherever you start, gradually decrease this time period every couple of days by about 5-10 minutes each time. Your ultimate goal is to be able to simply say “crate”, your pup will go into his safe space, you can close the door, and leave the home without a fuss.
When you arrive home, try not to give your dog too much immediate attention, as hard as it may be, especially after a hard day at work. Give it at least 5-10 minutes before opening the crate or going for that long anticipated walk.
Social enrichment, exercise, and activity can also be really important foundations for helping separation in dogs.
Sending your dog to daycare is one viable method of ensuring he has opportunities for enrichment and social interaction. However, it’s important to remember that many dogs experiencing separation anxiety show signs even when family members are gone for a very short time. To help you and your dog maintain sanity for times when you just want to go out for a short errand, you’ll still want to work on behavior modification strategies instead of resorting to attempting to ensure your dog is never alone.
If your dog shows signs of destructive behavior, like chewing up blankets and toys, make sure not to leave items in the crate that may get chewed and ingested. Durable plastic or rubber toys and rubber mats may be preferable
Some dogs respond to some background noise, like leaving on a radio or television. The sounds of people talking or some soothing music can help a dog feel less isolated.
In some dogs, these general strategies can certainly help. But separation anxiety behaviors can be very severe in some dogs, to the point that medication is needed to reduce their wind-up and anxiety level. This keeps them calmer and more receptive to our approaches.
There are medications that are actually indicated for separation anxiety in dogs. Make sure to discuss options with your veterinarian, especially if you’re struggling even after employing good behavior modification strategies.
New Places, People, and Pets
Whether you’ve found yourself indoors a lot more because of the cold of winter or if you're feeling more adventurous about travel with fewer COVID restrictions, this spring is likely to be a time for lots of pups to be experiencing new sights and smells.
Fear of the unfamiliar or unknown is one of the next most common anxieties we see in dogs. And this isn’t limited to just the vet’s office.
Let’s say that your pooch has spent most of his outdoor time with some free reign of the backyard and some short walks. With the great improvement in weather and fewer health concerns, you might decide to try out the nearby dog park.
Dog parks are super fun. But they’re also sources of tons of new smells, unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar dogs. For a dog who had the run of his own yard for several months, this new place might be a big source of new stress, at least at first.
Signs that your dog is acting stressed in a new environment or experience could include excessive barking, inability to focus on you or listen to commands, and certainly signs of growling or side-eye glances towards people or other dogs.
When fearful, dogs may act submissive, like rolling on their back to show the belly when another dog approaches. Or, they may act aggressively, like growling or snapping at another dog who comes up to sniff the rear end.
Strategies for Helping with Anxiety Associated with New Places, People, or Pets
Whether it’s a trip to the dog park we haven’t made in several months, a first-time trip to the hardware store, a new drive in the car, a new vacation spot, or just having some folks over at the home for the first time in a couple of years, here are three approaches to behavior modification you can employ to help your pup cope better with change and new stress triggers.
Counterconditioning is a strategy whereby we aim to change a dog’s emotional response to a particular stimulus. Let’s say you’re planning to host some friends over at the house once a week and your dog hasn’t been used to visitors much the last two years. Maybe he can be very anxious about unfamiliar people approaching the home, barking and growling even just at the sound of a knock or doorbell.
We would look to pair the sight, smell, and sound of the knock on the door, doorbell, and ultimately a person entering the home with a positive reward to alter the dog’s state from fear and anxiety to one that is positive. It is also crucial to avoid any negative outcomes during counterconditioning training.
A simple way to accomplish this is to initiate a command, like “sit” or “stay” to redirect your pup’s focus away from the stimulus. Then, with his attention on you, you can provide treat rewards until the stimulus passes. This might mean your visitor moving into another room.
This strategy can also work for package deliveries, other pet parents and their dogs passing by your home’s front window, or even when you’re on a walk yourself.
If you’re trying to get out more with your dog and your pup reacts to passing by other dogs out for walks with their humans, you can employ a similar strategy by obtaining your pup’s attention, and providing a positive reward with some small training treats until the other dog and parent are in the rearview mirror.
Desensitization involves gradual exposure to situations or stimuli by finding that threshold below which a pup doesn’t exhibit a fear or anxiety response.
Taking our example of visitors in the home, you might want to start with just one visitor for a short period of time, instead of having a whole gang of several friends over. If your dog does okay with one friend, try having a couple more over the next time.
Or, if you’re trying out the dog park for the first time, try to go there when it’s less busy so that your dog is only looking to interact with one or two new furry friends instead of a whole bunch.
The downside to desensitization, is that one bad experience can derail your efforts. If your one friend you were planning on decides to bring three other friends last minute that you weren’t expecting, this may not be a good start and may be overwhelming for your dog. It’s very important with this strategy to ensure that all participants are aware of your needs as much as possible.
If you’re at the dog park, even mentioning to other park goers that it’s your dog’s first time and that you’re working on acclimating him, can go a long way.
Situation avoidance is not always possible, but if it is, this strategy can go a long way towards outright eliminating situational anxiety or fear.
A common example, especially when considering walks or visits to the dog park is fear or aggression towards other dogs. While it’s not practical to remove outdoor walks from your dog’s schedule, there are ways to avoid situations that would induce a fear or aggression response towards another dog.
Unfortunately, when considering dog parks, this strategy would require you to avoid them altogether, since there’s no guarantee you’ll be there alone. You can always take the chance of a trip there and then leaving if another pup and parent pair are already there or cutting the trip short if someone else shows up.
Taking your pup to the pet store or a dog-friendly hardware store would be out as well. When on walks outside though, you can choose a route that is open and where you can see any other pup/pup parent pairs approaching.
If you do see another dog approaching on a leash with his human companion, take the initiative to cross to the opposite side of the street where they may only be able to see each other at a far distance. You can then employ counterconditioning (or desensitization if you find that no fear/aggression response occurs at a certain distance) until the other dog passes by.
What To Do When I Can’t Avoid a Location or Interaction
This can be a tough one, but necessary in some cases. Vet visits are one example. Many dogs can show signs of fear at the vet for understandable reasons. Trips in the car for vacation may be another.
In these cases, use of a medication may be really important to help things out. Avoidance isn’t possible. Counterconditioning and desensitization may be possible, but only to a certain extent. For example, you might be able to keep your dog calmer during most of a vet visit, but if a dog has a severe fear of getting shots or blood drawn, there’s almost no way to fully eliminate the fears associated.
Medication can really reduce stress levels enough so that visits to the vet don’t lead to episodes of wind-up and more stress. You can also keep visits shorter by trying to accomplish fewer stressful things at a time. If a couple of shots are due, maybe keep that stressful nail trim for another time.
Car trips can be a similar challenge. Shorter trips can play into a desensitization strategy, but if the indoor environment and vehicle movement is always too much, it may just be best for a dog to basically be drowsy for most of the trip.
Hopefully, some of these basic strategies are helpful if you're facing some changes in your dog’s routine that may require exposure to some new things. Even if that new thing just means more alone time, these changes can be stressful for both you and your pup.
Remember none of the strategies mentioned here are quick fixes. Even when medication is used, it’s only as an aid and not a cure-all. These strategies can take weeks to implement successfully.
If you’ve tried some basic behavioral modification strategies for a month or so and don’t find you’re making much progress, it may be time to seek help from a certified trainer, your veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist.
Trainers can be great resources for one-on-one sessions with you and your dog, helping you to work with your pup in the environments that are most stressful for her.
Your veterinarian can provide other specific tips as well as some basic medication strategies if needed. A veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine combines the best of the latest behavioral modification approaches with the most appropriate medical therapy for some more challenging situations.
As always, remember to do your best to keep things positive and consider behavioral modification and training approaches as an investment to improving the bond you share with your furry friend.
Dr. Chris is considered one of the country’s leading veterinarians. He completed a dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and Masters in Public Health at Virginia Tech, a top veterinary school in the country.