Anxiety is hard enough for people, who have therapists, aromatherapy, and yoga to turn to–not to mention friends and family to help talk us through tough times. For pets, anxiety can be equally debilitating, but they don’t have the same tools we do. That’s why it’s especially important for owners to provide a kind, loving, compassionate environment for healing and support.
Bonding with your pet is always important, and with anxious dogs, it’s even more essential. At the same time, it can be challenging. Your dog may test your patience, and improvement may happen slowly over long periods of time. But in the end, your investment in training will pay off–and you’ll be glad you took the time to help your pet become their best self.
Step 1: Start Indoors
Your home is your sanctuary, and the same is true for your pet. You’ll start by making sure your pup feels safe, comfortable, and happy in your home. Give them a dedicated area they can call their own. It might be a dog bed, a corner of the bedroom, or even a closet (some dogs love small spaces!). They can keep a toy or two there, rest, and be alone whenever they’d like. Don’t intrude on their personal space unless they’re calm and inviting.
Fewer indoor distractions mean it’s the best place to start training. You’ll need lots and lots of treats, as positive reinforcement is the best way to train all dogs, and the only effective way to approach any dogs with existing anxiety. You can use treats to reinforce any behavior that you want to encourage. Is the pup resting quietly? Give them a treat. Did the pup come to you when called? Treat. Stay calm when there was a loud noise? Treat again.
Repeat simple commands many times, and offer treats and praise every time your pup follows your directives. Eventually, you’ll cut back to giving a treat 75% of the time they follow commands, then 50%, and so on–but even when a dog knows a command extraordinarily well, the occasional treat will help reinforce excellent behavior in the long term.
Make your expectations clear, too: Anxious pups can easily become confused and upset when they don’t understand what you’re asking of them. That’s why you must start with the simplest of commands. Each should be exactly one word: “Sit” instead of “Sit down,” “Come” instead of “Come here,” and so on.
Step 2: Enlist Your Friends
When anxious dogs bond with their owners, they often become protective of you and your home. They may have difficulty welcoming and bonding with others. That’s where your friends come in! Invite a friend who has experience with dogs, and ask them to share treats with your pet. Eventually, you’ll be able to invite over groups of people–and help your dog bloom in social situations. Be certain to introduce your pet to many types of people, including men with beards, small children, people of different races, and so on. It sounds strange, but dogs will acclimate to a certain type of person and then have trouble accepting others if they’re not socialized properly.
Socializing outdoors and with other dogs is important, too. When you’re out for a walk, have treats on hand. Anyone who wants to greet your dog can give them a treat, like freeze-dried liver. Anxious dogs may not enjoy dog parks, or even want to greet pets on the street in a friendly way–you might find that they bark at the neighbor’s dog daily! When they’re responding positively, offer rewards. Set up doggy playdates with pets your dog gets along with. They should be a similar size and energy level, and you’ll have to gauge whether their personalities mesh.
Step 3: Reward Staying Calm
Observe your pet and you’ll come to understand what types of situations, people, pets, sights, and sounds trigger anxiety responses. Their responses will vary: Your pet may bark, pull on the leash, attack, cower, hyperventilate, pee, or show other signs of distress. Whenever a possible trigger occurs, reward your pet with a treat if they stay calm. Eventually, even the bigger triggers will be less threatening as your pup comes to understand that you’re always there for her.
You can practice commands outdoors as well, once your dog is adept at listening inside. Give lots of treats for ignoring distractions and following your voice. Maintain a calm, loving presence, even when your dog is upset. This will help ground and center her over time.
Depending on the source of your dog’s anxiety, the path to healing may be arduous. Give yourself a break when your patience is running thin: You can hire an experienced, professional pet-sitter from Rover.com for daycare or overnight help to minimize separation anxiety and get insight from other dog-lovers.
You have plenty to be grateful for! Anxious dogs are incredibly loving. They are often even more loyal and kind than other pets, even if all of that is hidden under a snarly exterior. They deeply want to please and protect you, and they’ll work hard to do what you ask. Despite their struggles, you’ll know that they’re trying their best. And you’ll love them all the more for it.
About the Author:
Written by Nat Smith, Rover.com community member. Rover is the nation’s largest network of 5-star pet sitters and dog walkers.