Most of us have been there. Our dog starts shaking, maybe acts erratically, cowers in a corner, panic-runs around the house or nervously whines. Maybe there’s a storm outside, maybe your dog is triggered by a memory of something scary that happened before you adopted them, or maybe they just run a little higher strung depending on their breed. Just like people, dogs can experience anxiety, their and our body’s way of telling us something isn’t right and we need to pay attention.
Our almost four year old dog Luna, is a lab mix. Labs tend to run a little more anxious than other breeds in general. Luna has given us lots of practice when it comes to soothing an anxious dog because she is so sensitive.
We found Luna when she was a puppy. She had been adopted then dumped by the border of Mexico in the heat of summer. I offered to take her on the spot, but a nearby neighbor had already claimed her. The next day, my husband and I received a phone call from the property's landlord. She told us that Luna had been chained outside all day and night without food or water and that we could come get her. We had no idea what we were in for, as we had never had such an anxious pup before.
Luna is what dog trainers would call "dominant anxious", meaning: she wants to be in charge, but she doesn't have the wherewithal to back it up. This means that she may go on the offensive before someone or something else does in order to protect herself. For us, this is like living life with hyper-vigilance, forced to interpret situations that are not dangerous as dangerous because of her past negative experiences.
Here are a few ways we helped Luna learn to live life in a less anxious way.
A special space just for them can create a sense of calm. Fill their space with their favorite toys, bones, and a nice bed. We crate trained Luna early on and noticed that this significantly helped reduce her anxiety. She still loves her space and will crate herself for nap time in the afternoon.
Making sure your dog knows that they don’t have to protect you and the household can be a major weight off of an anxious dog’s shoulders. If they can breathe a sigh of relief and understand that you are in charge, their anxious energy tends to reduce. This means that when you see your dog beginning to get anxious (stiff neck, perked up ears, furrowed brow, stiff body and tail, hyper- focused eyes), redirect their attention and have them lay down with a bone or toy. If they get up to re-focus, direct them back to the place you want them to lay down. You may have to do this a few times, but believe me, it's an easy and better go-to once they understand that you are going to be consistent. The first time we did this with Luna, it took us twenty minutes to get her to stay in her spot! Now I only need to ask her once or twice.
Pay close attention to your energy. If you get easily wound up, your dog is probably going to mirror that. When your pup is on an anxious tear, do some yoga breaths, put on some soothing music, and calm yourself way down. Lower your energy as much as you possibly can, and try to get your dog to sit down next to you or near you. Our energy can be soothing, reassuring, and very helpful to them in these moments. As owners, our pets typically check in with us to see if their freak out is on point. If I jump up and start yelling when someone knocks at the door, my dogs will most likely mirror that energy.
If your dog gets locked into their anxiety, sometimes a firm, grounding touch up and down their spine can help them redirect their attention (and it feels good for them too).
Always make sure your pup gets enough exercise a day. The more mental and physical stimulation they get, the less energy they’re going to have. For an anxious dog, this is a good thing!
Routines help make life predictable for dogs who are nervous about unpredictable things. This allows them to relax a bit, as they begin to understand what their days are going to look like.
Hang in there and be patient with yourself and your anxious buddy. It can feel so incredible to help your pup reduce their anxiety. Just know that it takes time, and with consistent work, it can be achieved.