How to Calm an Anxious Dog (Without Medication)

Like people, dogs experience anxiety from time to time. Sometimes it's easy to recognize the anxiety trigger—like a visit to the vet. Other times, you have no clue and you just want to help him cope. Here are some tips from pet experts you can start using today.

Every dog has its (not so great) days

Sometimes, all it takes is one bad experience, like your dog getting freaked out during fireworks. That frightening memory is etched in his psyche and you’re left wondering how to calm an anxious dog. Other things like fear of other dogs, people, or unfamiliar environments may be from lack of socialization in their puppy days. “Generalized anxiety, where a dog shows near constant signs of anxiety, may be related to things like changes to their normal lifestyle, inconsistency in their daily routines, lack of sufficient physical, and/or mental exercise, medical conditions or aging,” says Stephen DeBono, pet behavior manager at Bideawee. Past abuse and neglect and genetics may also be a contributing factor—and these signs of depression could be another clue.

What anxiety looks like in a dog

Panting and whining coincide with exhaustion and pain, but they are also symptoms of anxiety. DeBono says other subtle symptoms include lip-licking, trembling, heavy panting, restless pacing, whining, refusing to eat, inability to settle, and avoiding certain stimuli. But more obvious symptoms such as panic, attempting to escape, urinating, defecating, barking, and destructive or aggressive behavior are ones pet parents might clearly point to anxiety. “Anxiety is often complex and can be difficult to treat effectively. Every dog is different, and I recommend a qualified behavior specialist/trainer to guide you through the best solutions for your situation,” says DeBono. Keep reading to know how to calm an anxious dog.

Build their confidence

Who’s the leader of the pack in your circle of pet parents? Make some playdates with dogs that are confident and well socialized. “Dogs can learn far more from other dogs than they can ever learn from us. An anxious dog can feed off the energy of more confident dogs, and over time learn to be less anxious in both specific situations and in general,” says DeBono.

Let them be a dog

“For dogs prone to any type of anxiety, but especially generalized anxiety, regular hikes on fairly secluded nature trails can have major therapeutic effects. The key is to let the dog joyfully be a dog—free as safely possible to sniff what they want to sniff, chase what they want to chase, sprint when they want to sprint,” says DeBono. If you begin frequently stringing together long sequences of joyful behavior, it can almost “rewire” the brain to be able to experience joy more often and anxiety less. Including a confident, playful dog friend on the hikes can make them even more beneficial. Hiking is one suggestion for how to calm an anxious dog, but soaking up nature has some shining benefits for humans too.

Give them a schedule

We know a schedule keeps us on track, but the familiarity of a routine also gives us a sense of security. The same is true for dogs. You don’t have to live or die by a routine, but feeding, walking, rest, and playtimes should be somewhat predictable. “This helps the dog know what to expect from each part of the day, reducing the anxiety that can be caused by the uncertainty of not knowing what to do with themselves,” says DeBono.

Help them face their fears

Let’s say a dog has a fear of men. Canine behaviorists might use desensitization and counterconditioning, to help your dog overcome it. Desensitization means exposing the dog to the very thing they fear at lows levels initially but increasing them slowly over time until they become more accepting of it. Counter conditioning involves pairing the fearful situation at low levels with something a dog really digs, like his all-time favorite treats. The treats not only help in how to calm an anxious dog but could help them actually enjoy it. “For example, if a dog is fearful of men, you could first expose them to a man standing at a distance where the dog is only slightly concerned and does not overreact (desensitization), while you feed the dog delicious treats (counterconditioning). When the dog no longer shows any concern, you slightly reduce the distance and repeat the exercise.”

Something to chew on

Kristen Levine, pet lifestyle expert and creator of Pet Anxiety Awareness Month (PAAW) found Relax and Calm chews helped ease the anxiety of new people, surroundings, and sounds with a rescue dog she recently fostered. Levine says the high levels of L-Tryptophan and chamomile promote a feeling of calmness and relaxation, while the ginger helps with an upset tummy.Puppy chewing treats in living room. Siberian Husky puppy lying and chewing bone in living roomWasitt Hemwarapornchai/Shutterstock

Probiotics

Recent studies show probiotics can help with anxiety in humans, and now probiotics are prescribed by veterinarians to help soothe anxiety in pets. “A new probiotic called Calming Care from Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Supplements has been effective for many of our canine patients experiencing anxious behaviors. The best treatment approach is multimodal including behavioral treatments as well as medications and supplements which reduce anxiety,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Always discuss your options with a veterinarian who can assist you with how to calm an anxious dog and a host of other issues.

Other natural remedies

CBD oil is all the rage for just about anything that ails humans and for the four-legged variety too. But there’s not a lot of scientific evidence yet to back up the pet claims—just testimonials from pet parents. When it comes to how to calm an anxious dog, CBD oil is not something Dr. Radosta recommends at her practice. “To date, there is no research in animals as to the efficacy of CBD for anxious behaviors. In addition, there isn’t a standard for purity for these products.”

Wearable ways to help anxiety

There plenty of things in the how-to-calm-an-anxious-dog tool kit. Levine suggests talking to your vet first and with their guidance, take a “layering” approach to find workable solutions for you and your dog, including natural remedies, supplements, behavioral treatments, and wearables. “For example, try a Thundershirt wrap and some calming classical music,” suggests Levine. This is the type of music most likely to soothe your pup.

Don’t give up!

It’s important to note that not all anxiety will be relieved with non-medical treatments. “Moderate to severe anxiety may take a combination of natural and medicinal, or just medicinal solutions to get the pet true relief. Remember, a frightened pet that doesn’t get help is suffering, and their quality of life is compromised,” says Levine. Find out how to tell if your dog is frightened by reading her expression.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.