By Dr. Beth Leermakers
Bicycles and joggers and cars. Oh my! Fast-moving people and objects make my 60-lb. foster dog Brodie very nervous. He barks, lunges and spins in circles when a car or bicycle approaches him quickly. Training sessions and Prozac have helped Brodie feel more comfortable, but our daily walks are still stressful for both of us.
Many dogs struggle with anxiety triggered by separation, thunderstorms, vet visits, strangers and/or other dogs. How can you help your dog manage his/her anxiety?
Recognize the Signs
While some signs of fear/anxiety are obvious — trembling, pacing, crying, running away, destroying the door, spinning in circles — others are more subtle. Look for these behaviors that may indicate anxiety: lip licking, physical tension (e.g., ears falling back, a “frozen” stance), low tail wagging, avoidance (e.g., turning away or averting their eyes), yawning or suddenly closing her mouth if she’s been panting, rolling over and showing their belly, scratches on doors or windows. Aggression (growling, snapping and/or biting) may be a sign of fear.
Try Relaxation Pheromones
Dog-appeasing pheromones may calm your dog and help modify his behavior. These synthetic pheromones (similar to the calming pheromones that female dogs give off while nursing puppies) are available in several forms, including sprays, plug-in diffusers and even collars.
Skip the Benadryl
and CBD Oil
You may have heard that Benadryl, an antihistamine, can act as a sedative to calm your dog during car rides or thunderstorms. Unfortunately, Benadryl has only mild sedative effects in dogs, so it’s not commonly helpful for pups with anxiety or phobias.
CBD oil — derived from the cannabis (marijuana) plant — is often touted to have calming effects. CBD is not psychoactive (a drug or substance that affects how the brain works and causes changes in mood, feelings, thoughts and behavior). CBD shares some metabolic pathways with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These pathways control inflammation, blood clotting and other processes. CBD can relieve pain in dogs with arthritis. However, because CBD isn’t psychoactive, it is “unlikely that CBD has the ability to directly treat canine anxiety in the way that Prozac and other medications do,” writes Matthew Everett Miller, DVM (for PetMD.com).
What’s Your Best Bet to Address Anxiety?
Prescription anxiety medication (for your dog!) combined with behavior modification (positive reinforcement) is often effective. Medication by itself is unlikely to completely solve the problem. As my dog trainer explained it: “Prozac alone won’t solve Brodie’s problems. However, it will calm him down so we can accomplish more in our training sessions.” Prozac allows Brodie to get a bit closer to those scary cars and bicycles without freaking out.
Anti-anxiety meds typically take about four weeks to kick in, so don’t expect instant results. Your veterinarian may prescribe a common anxiolytics. They may also refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist — a specialist who’s an expert in treating fear, anxiety and aggression. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists has a directory on their website, including the current board-certified veterinary behaviorists. There aren’t any board-certified veterinary behaviorists in North Texas, unfortunately, but it may be worth the drive to another city.
A dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement can help you change your dog’s emotional response to frightening situations or triggers. My trainer has taught me to put a safe distance between Brodie and cars, bicycles or joggers. When we see a bicycle approaching us on the trail, we walk into the grass to get away from the bicycle. Then I give Brodie a “high-value” treat (think: cheese or meat) when he looks at the bicycle. Brodie is learning that bicycles are good because they produce cheese. There’s a lot more to it, but those are the basics of changing your dog’s emotional reaction to something he perceives as threatening.
Avoid Anxiety Triggers
If your dog is afraid of strangers, put her in a quiet room when guests visit. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, skip the dog park. Because Brodie is afraid of cars that approach him suddenly, I don’t walk him in my neighborhood. Instead, I drive to the walking/bicycling trail for our morning walks. If your dog freaks out during thunderstorms or fireworks, put her in a safe room, and try playing music or white noise to mask the scary sounds.
Don’t yell at or otherwise punish your dog for his anxious behavior. Punishing him will only increase his anxiety. Be patient and compassionate. Your pup is afraid, not “bad.” By following these tips, you can help your dog overcome — or at least manage — his fears.