Separation, isolation, loud noises, and even old age. Those are just a few of the many reasons dogs experience stress. Sometimes, stressors are minor. But sometimes human companions want to reduce the stress levels of their stressed dog, because they are concerned about the dog’s health and well-being.
Continuously elevated stress levels can damage a dog. The regular rush of adrenaline through the system can cause digestion issues, arterial damage, and increased susceptibility to disease. Consider the times that you have been locked into a situation for an extended period of time. Now consider the long-term effects those situations have had on your life. Going beyond that, try to imagine how you might have felt if you didn’t have the more “rational” human brain to help regulate those stress levels. Too much stress can and does cause both physical and emotional damage. As your dog’s guardian, it is important that you consider how you might reduce those stress levels.
Dogs react differently to various stimuli. While some dogs love to go for car rides, others are afraid of them. Some dogs love to play with other dogs, and some dogs do not. Since there isn’t any way to surely predict what will cause a dog to feel stress, there are some signs you can look for. Here are some key ones.
This does not exhaust the list of stress signs in dogs. But these are the most basic ones to look for.
Here is a more comprehensive list of signs of stress in dogs.
Once you’ve determined that a situation or stimulus is causing your dog stress, consider the variety of ways you can start reducing the stress. I generally recommend that you combine products and training.
I generally start here. Adaptil is a pheromone-based aromatic product that comes in many forms. I recommend that the clients begin with the Adaptil Wipes since they can be used to wipe down just about anything. They seem to me to be the most economical way to begin treatments (a 12-pack should only run about $12). If they work well with your dog (and it doesn’t work for all dogs), then the next step would probably be the Adaptil Diffuser. The diffuser, however, may not be effective in larger spaces. Alternatively, Adaptil has a spray in a bottle. Again, like the wipes, it is applicable anywhere.
This homeopathic formula is what I recommend most. It seems to be the most effective, while being the most cost effective. Make sure you pick up the version for pets (it has the paw on the box). The difference between the one for pets and the other for people is that the pet version uses glycerin, whereas the people version uses alcohol. You put four drops directly on your dog’s tongue (I put a drop at a time on my finger and let them lick it off), so it’s simple to administer. I understand you can also put it in water (assuming they drink it all). I know of one person whose vet told them that if the anxiety continued after an hour, administer it again, and repeat that until the dog moved into a more calm state.
My vet introduced me to these. Acording to the VetriScience website, “The C3™ colostrum calming complex supports stress reduction and cognitive function; L-Theanine helps the body produce other amino acids to bring specific neurotransmitters back into balance; and B vitamins (thiamine) affect the central nervous system to help calm anxious animal.” The dosage depends on the weight of your dog, and if a single dose doesn’t seem to be enough, it can safely be doubled or tripled. On the “Your Family Dog Podcast” (9:28), Dr. Alicia Karas recommends giving Composure Chews to senior dogs to help them cope with declining mental ability.
Can you imagine your dog asking “will you please hold me?” The ThunderShirt applies a gentle pressure that mimics this sensation of being held and comforted. This in turn releases chemicals that reduce the production of stress hormones and increase the flow of comfort-increasing chemicals. According to the company, it can be worn unsupervised. The ThunderShirt company boasts that more than 80% of dogs experience stress reduction when it is used. And if it doesn’t work for your dog, they offer a money-back guarantee.
Lavender and chamomile are both relaxing scents for dogs. I’ve used both the plug-in oils and spray. If you start to use relaxing scents, make sure you do not get into the habit of only using the scent before a period of known stress (such as leaving the house). If you do, you might end up creating an association between the scent and a perceived stressor, which would be counter-productive. For dogs who struggle with bath time, you might want to consider a lavender/chamomile dog shampoo.
If you use oils, please make sure that they are presented in a way that a dog cannot get to it to ingest it. And keep lavender oils away from cats, for whom they are toxic.
Dog noses are powerful. Indeed, they are about 40 times more powerful than our own. Dr. Gregory Berns studied the way that dog brains reacted to scents of family members by getting dogs into MRI machines. He discovered that when the scent of the dog’s human companion was presented to the dog, the reward centers in the brain fired up in a way that showed attachment to those people. The conclusion: Our dogs really do love us! So, one way to comfort a dog in your absence is to place your scent nearby. One option would be nice and sweaty laundry. Or, maybe slippers.
Current studies are showing how sounds affect dogs, and the iCalm is a product that leverages that science to help dogs who struggle with stress. The iCalm plays “Through a Dog’s Ear” music, which has been clinically tested to verify that it reduces anxiety. Playlists have been developed to target specific emotional issues, including separation anxiety, aggression, and thunder phobia. The manufacturer guarantees their bio-acoustic device for 60 days. If you are not satisfied, simply return it for your money back.
I use this with my dogs when it’s time for them to relax. The first time I turned it on, I was working and wanted them to be quite. Within minutes they were sound asleep. According to the YouTube channel “About” page, “The music uses sound sweep technology in order to capture your dog’s attention and then combines lullaby-like melodies with classical music to keep your dog calm and soothed.” Since I’ve seen how well it works for my dogs, I continually recommend it.
According to a study back in 2012, classical music was more effective in calming dogs than other music, even that specifically designed to calm dogs. Of course, there are limitations to the study, and it was completed a few years back. Still, it’s worth finding free downloads of classical music and trying that before spending money on a product that may not work as well.
It turns out that audiobooks are even better than classical music. According to a newer study, when pitted against both classical music and “Through a Dog’s Ear” music, Michael York’s reading of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe performed better when using it to calm dogs. I do not know whether it is the voice specifically, or a continual voice, or something else, but again it may be worth trying some sort of audiobook to help calm your dog.
Assuming that your dog sleeps with you, what do you do when you go to sleep? Do you listen to the television? Do you have a fan on? Do you scent the room with an air freshener? Whatever you do before you turn in can become a trigger for the dog to expect to go to sleep. Consider recreating them when you want your dog to relax. You may even want to try to build associations intentionally. For example, before you go to bed, shoot a short burst of lavender spray into the air and declare “sleepy time”. Then go to bed.
After you have done this for quite some time (perhaps a month), you might be able to use it when you leave. When you want your dog to start settling down, do the same. Give some time, though, before you actually leave. Otherwise, it might become a trigger for you leaving. I listen to Netflix when I turn in, so I just turn on the episode of whatever I was watching then before I leave the house.
Keeping a dog occupied with something pleasurable is a great way to reduce stress. A favorite is to use a frozen, stuffed KONG. Make sure you have a KONG that is size appropriate for your dog. And make sure your dog doesn’t chew up the KONG before you leave her or him alone with it. I typically drop in a few small dog treats, add a bit of organic peanut butter, a bit of Oikos Triple Zero vanilla yogurt, and a bit of 100% pumpkin. Then I shake it to mix it up, pop the filling down toward the bottom, and pop it in the freezer. My dogs love their “freezy KONGS”. These are especially great for transition periods, such as leaving the house.
I would be remiss if I left out exercise. I leave it until the end of my list, though, because there seems to be a misperception that exercise is the cure-all for anxiety. It isn’t. It only helps. If your dog has excess energy and is in a stressful situation, then the stress can be amplified. If, however, your dog has burned off that excess energy, then stress can be lessened. If you exercise your dog heavily (such as running) before a stressful event, make sure that you give at least 20 minutes buffer until the event happens. This will give time for the adrenaline to leave the dog’s system. Amping up a dog right before a stressful event would prove counterproductive.
“What are the Benefits of Play for Dogs?” by Puppy Tutor
Many lower-end dog foods have corn and corn-derivatives in their recipes. Besides other potential problems, corn actively reduces the flow of serotonin, which is a chemical that reduces stress in dogs. So, corn in a diet prevents the dog from calming down. When purchasing dog food, I recommend avoiding products with corn in it. When looking at the ingredients, watch for the different manifestations of corn. I understand that sometimes manufacturers will break out “corn” into multiple ingredients in order to avoid placing it at the top of the list (which is required of the more prevalent ingredients).
“Corn in Dog Food. Really?” by Dog Breed Info Center
In more extreme circumstances, a veterinarian may prescribe medication to help dogs deal with their anxiety. This should not be considered a quick cure. If a vet prescribes such medications, it should be used to help manage a situation while you work with your dog with training.
If your dog is struggling with excessive stress, all of the products above should be considered potential supplements to behavior modification training. Behavior modification is a form of therapy for dogs. It seeks to identify the triggers of stress, and then work with them in such a way that the triggers take on new meaning. For example, whereas the arrival of children used to mean painful ear tugs and tail pulls, through behavior modification their arrival can mean free dog biscuits. So rather than fearing the arrival of children, the dog learns to get excited instead.
Unfortunately, too many people are looking for the “magic bullet” that is a product that they can buy to make everything better for their dogs. I completely understand this. I’ve actually been there a time or two. But the reality is that if your dog is suffering from excessive stress, the dog needs help. And the key to healing is mostly likely to come from behavior modification therapy.
If you need help reducing your dog’s stress, I can help. If you live in Beloit, WI or nearby, I can come to your house for private lessons. If you live further away than that, I can work with you and your canine companion over Skype. The longer the struggle continues, the harder it is to address. So, if you need help now, now is the time to contact me.
Bo McGuffee is the owner of Puppy Tutor Dog Training based in Beloit, WI.
If you need help with your dog, he can work with you in your home in Beloit, WI; Janesville, WI; Elkhorn, WI; South Beloit, IL; Roscoe, IL; Rockton, IL; and Rockford, IL.
If you live beyond his drive radius, he can work with you through his economical Dog Training Anywhere Program.
He is a strong proponent of science-based, force-free dog training. You can trust that his training methods will support the values that his business upholds.
Remember, training methods matter.
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