Dog anxiety surfaces when a dog is anticipating that something will happen that they are afraid of. The threat could be real and direct such as a person approaching them, or it could be something that is associated with the fear. For example, many dogs will start acting anxiously when their owner picks up their car keys. The keys are not the threat, but they have associated them with their owner leaving them home alone.
Social learning (or the lack of it) and a dog’s past experiences is a major source of anxiety, but some dogs are just generally anxious and struggle to cope with new experiences or changes to their routines. Often, a dog’s anxieties are hard to understand as their level of response to fears will not necessarily relate to the severity of the threat, and can vary from reasonable to very extreme.
Avoid the Stimulus
Avoiding situations that are fearful for your dog while you help desensitize them is the easiest way to immediately reduce a dog’s anxiety. For instance, if your dog is fearful of vacuum cleaners, don’t vacuum while they are close by until they are relaxed about it.
Contrary to popular belief, getting a dog to face their fears is not beneficial, and is likely to result in intensifying the fear. On the other hand, ignoring anxiety in dogs in the hope it will go away, unfortunately will not help either and the anxiousness will often intensify over time as the dog learns to be a little more anxious from each experience that compounds the fear.
Use Desensitization Behaviour Training
Desensitization training can slowly help your dog overcome fears, so start by creating a step-by-step plan to desensitize him. Using the example of a dog afraid of a vacuum cleaner, you might start by getting the vacuum out but not putting it on, and then putting a treat in the same room as the vacuum, or playing a game close by. Keep doing this until they relax and take no notice of it.
Your next step is to have someone put the vacuum on while you are in another room with them. Again use the process of treats and play – whatever they love best – until they relax while they can hear the noise. Gradually move them closer every few sessions, observing your dog all the time. If they start showing anxiety, back up a little and progress more slowly.
Staying calm yourself is very important for an anxious dog because if you are feeling nervous as well, they will pick up on those feelings and you will compound their own fears.
It can sometimes be difficult to stay calm yourself if you are worrying about how they are going to react, for instance coming face to face with another dog on a walk when you know it will cause them a lot of anxiety. If possible, it’s best to avoid those situations altogether, but if faced with a difficult situation, your dog may look to you for a reaction first, so make sure you act as if it is nothing for your dog to worry about.
Reward your dog for being brave and showing confidence whenever possible to reinforce that they are doing the right thing. Conversely, never scold or punish them for showing fear. Shouting or shocking them may get you the desired reaction such as stopping them from doing something (like barking aggressively), but it won’t get rid of the underlying problem that causes the fear in the first place.
While you’re building your dog’s confidence, try and create a calm environment for your dog without too much going on such as visitors or noise. Eventually they should be able to cope with a lot more stimulus and lead a much happier life.