Dog Anxiety Signs: What's Your Dog's Tail Telling You?
Published on 5 Oct 2021
Dog anxiety is a big problem for the happiness of our canine companions, and a big cause of stress for pet owners too. About twenty percent of dogs are thought to have some sort of anxiety disorder. There are many types of anxiety we see in dogs, such as separation anxiety, storm phobia, or anxiety when interacting with other dogs or with people.
Anxiety signs in dogs can present in a number of ways, such as pacing, barking, baring teeth, attempts to bite, inappropriate toileting, and hiding. They may drool, display compulsive behaviour and seem highly vigilant. Anxious dogs are often affected by more than one form of anxiety, for example, dogs often suffer from both separation anxiety and noise phobia.
Anxiety can develop from a young age, and if you feel your puppy or dog is anxious, it is important to discuss this with your vet, problems are generally easiest to treat if treatment starts early.
Anxiety can be managed by a combination of approaches including positive reinforcement and behaviour modification and training, measures to make the dog feel safe and comfortable in their environment, over the counter supplements, and veterinary intervention and medication as required.
Your dog's body language, such as posture and tail position can be indicators that your dog is feeling anxious. There is a lot we can do to help our anxious dogs, read on to learn more.
Dog anxiety symptoms
Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways. The dog may become destructive in the house, or toilet inappropriately, including urinating when people meet them. The dog may be reactive when meeting a new person or dog. Dogs may show signs of aggression due to underlying anxiety.
Did you know, anxiety can be associated with high intelligence in dogs?
While all dogs are individuals, there are huge breed differences as to what lifestyle suits them.
Other signs can include hiding, panting, pacing, barking and restlessness. The dog may back away or try to escape, and may have its tail between its legs.
There are some great online resources to help visually identify anxious body language in dogs, you can find one example here; Body Language of Fear in Dogs Poster. If you need more help interpreting your dog's body language, talk to your vet.
Types of anxiety in dogs
There are many different types of anxiety which affect our dogs. The best ways to manage and treat anxiety vary depending on the cause.
One of the most commonly identified forms of anxiety by dog owners, separation anxiety can be very distressing to both dogs and people.
Symptoms of separation anxiety can include:
- Distressed vocalisation
- Barking while owners are not with the dog
- Destructive behaviour in and around the house
- Destroying their bed and toys or the owner's property
- Trying to escape the house or yard (potentially injuring themselves in the process)
- Pacing, or other “stereotypic” behaviour such as compulsively licking themselves, yawning, or overgrooming
- Inappropriate toileting
- Appearing depressed and lethargic
Often dogs begin showing symptoms before the owner has left the house, becoming worked up when they recognise the signs that the owner is preparing to depart. This can include the signs described above, including vocalising, hiding, acting out and being apparently disobedient, not wanting to go outside or even visibly trembling. This is extremely upsetting for both the dog and the owner.
Did you know, some very effective supplements to help with anxiety come from surprising natural sources?
And there is increasing interest in the anxiolytic properties of compounds found in hemp.
Steps to ease separation anxiety
Management of separation anxiety aims to allow the animal to be comfortable being alone. If your pet is suffering from really bad anxiety, it is best to avoid leaving them alone until they have learnt some coping strategies. This can be by leaving them with a friend or in doggy day care.
If you do need to leave your pet alone, it is important to not ignore your dog, nor make a big fuss, either on departure or when you return. When your dog is calm, it is good to reward this behaviour with some attention. If your dog gets particularly stressed by certain triggers, such as you putting your jacket on, it can be helpful to try to avoid your dog seeing this.
Maintaining a routine can help your dog feel more in control in their environment. Providing them with a safe space such as a crate can also be helpful, and some dogs feel better confined to a safe space. Conversely, for some dogs it can help to install a dog door, so they can make the choice whether to be inside or outside when they are by themselves.
Keeping your dog mentally stimulated, with regular exercise, and a variety of toys and chews to entertain them can help them cope with their environment. Feeding using puzzle feeders can also be beneficial. Some dogs find it comforting to have a radio or television left on for background noise.
Management of separation anxiety involves a combination of behaviour modification, environmental enrichment, and medication as required. Your vet will be able to suggest the best approach for your dog. For a thorough run down on separation anxiety, you can also watch this excellent webinar: Helping pets avoid separation anxiety.
Fear of loud noises is another huge problem for our dogs. Some of the commonest triggers for noise phobia are thunderstorms and fireworks. However any very loud noise can distress a sensitive dog. Often these dogs will really struggle to cope when there is an episode of loud noise. They may become extremely destructive, many owners report huge damage to the house, such as doors broken as a dog tries to get through. Dogs may also hide, tremble, and vocalise.
Thunderstorms and fireworks coincide with many dogs being brought into vet clinics, as panicking and running away from home is another common behaviour in these dogs. Dogs that escape are clearly at a high risk of injury, such as being involved in road traffic accidents.
Steps to ease noise phobia
When your dog is noise phobic it is very important you do not punish them for their fear. It is fine to reassure them. Often having their people with them is hugely calming to noise phobic dogs. Provide a safe space, and allow them to be near you if that is practical. Some dogs also feel safer in a confined space, such as a crate, during the episodes of loud noise.
Noise phobia may be aided by over the counter anxiety supplements (as discussed for separation anxiety), by providing a safe space where the dog feels in control of its environment, and with other tools such as Thundershirts. If your dog suffers from severe noise phobia, it is worth discussing this with your vet, as anti-anxiety medication can be very helpful.
Former shelter dog anxiety
Former shelter dogs may be more prone to anxiety than dogs acquired as young puppies for a number of reasons. Expressed behaviour is as a result of the interaction of genetics, learning, and environment.
Puppies learn a huge amount in their first three months of their life. When dogs are adopted from a shelter you often will not know what early experiences they have had, and whether they have been properly socialised.
Additionally, the experiences of being in a shelter can be a trigger for anxiety, as can the process of suddenly changing home environment.
Steps to ease former shelter dog anxiety
As with other forms of anxiety, former shelter dogs should be managed with patience, routine, and positive reinforcement.
Dogs should be made to feel comfortable and safe in their new home environment, and exposure to anything that seems to cause stress should be minimised. For many dogs this includes factors such as allowing them a private and undisturbed space to eat, and allowing them time away from children or other pets in the household.
Over the counter products can definitely help the process of settling in, and veterinary advice should be sought if the anxiety continues for long after your former shelter dog has joined the family.
It is also very common for dogs to have social anxiety and to be reactive to people, or dogs, or both. One common manifestation of this is dogs who are leash reactive, and will bark and growl at other dogs, specifically when they are on a leash.
Did you know, a lot of anxiety in dogs is thought to be triggered by genetics?
You can do everything to raise a calm puppy, and their genes may mean you still need to help them with anxiety in adulthood.
Other dogs are just really scared of people, dogs, or other animals, and can react with signs of anxiety such as hiding, urinating, and displaying signs of aggression.
Steps to ease social anxiety
Avoiding triggers is a key management strategy for social anxiety. If dogs do not wish to interact with other individuals, they should not be forced to do so. Interactions should ideally be on the dog's term and should involve lots of positive reinforcement.
Punishment should be avoided and treat rewards can be used.
As with other forms of anxiety over the counter supplements can help, as well as medication for more severe cases.
Any stressful experience can lead to anxiety, so it is unsurprising that a period of illness can be a trigger for anxiety in dogs. Experiences such as being examined, hospitalised, and medicated, can all be stressful. I am a big fan of trying to make veterinary visits as positive an experience as possible, starting from puppy visits.
It can be beneficial (if you're not in lockdown) to drop in to your vet for a few social visits, where you take them into the clinic, give them a pat and a treat, and then go home again. This can be especially useful after a dog has previously had a stressful medical experience.
If your dog seems to have mild anxiety about vet visits you can try the previously described over the counter treatments to help, such as Zylkene or Adaptil. If dogs are really anxious about visiting the vet clinic it is worth discussing whether anxiolytic medications can be administered ahead of the visit as this can make a huge difference to your pet's experience. This can make the whole process much safer and less stressful for your dog, yourself, and the veterinary team.
Medications and treatments given at home should also be given in as least stressful a way as possible. For example, if you need to give your dog tablets, ask if it is okay to hide them in a small amount of something tasty. Or when applying medications such as eye ointment or ear medication, reward your pets' compliance with their favourite treat or game.
Positive reinforcement is always the best approach, and punishment is never the answer.
Dog anxiety FAQs
What causes sudden dog anxiety?
If your dog suddenly appears to be anxious in a way they haven't before, you should take them to the vet, as medical issues, such as pain, can cause your dog to display anxious behaviour.
It could also be that your dog has been subtly anxious, and then is no longer able to cope with the stress they are under, so the anxiety appears to have occurred suddenly, but actually has been building over time.
What is the best calming aid for dogs?
So while the specific approach to each type of anxiety varies, you can see there are numerous approaches that can be helpful for anxious dogs in general.
- Avoiding triggers that stress your dog and trying to give them a calm and simple routine
- Providing them with a comfortable safe space such as a crate, which they associate with being restful, comfortable, and calm.
- The use of supplements. For example Adaptil collars and diffusers can be used all the time on the dog or in the house, or Adaptil spray can be used for specific moments of stress such as transport. Zylkene can be given sporadically as required for stressful episodes, or can be given routinely. Or dietary supplements such as Cool Calm and Collected can be used on an ongoing basis.
- Providing your dog with calm, regular, environmental enrichment such as exercise, using puzzle feeders, and providing toys and chews.
- Talking to your vet if your dog's anxiety is impacting on their, or your, quality of life.
- Anxiety can be a challenge, but there is a lot we can do to help, to allow your dog to live its happiest and most relaxed lifestyle.
- Separation Anxiety: The Fear of Being Alone, accessed 24/09/21
- Most Dogs Show Anxiety-Related Behaviors, Study Finds, accessed 24/09/21
- Body Language of Fear in Dogs Poster, accessed 24/09/21
- Helping pets avoid separation anxiety, accessed 24/09/21
- Fear of Noises in Dogs and Cats, accessed 25/09/21
- Leash Reactivity in Dogs, accessed 25/09/21