Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Does My Dog Need a Calming Aid?
Sometimes, stress in dogs can get quite overwhelming, and you may be considering calming aids for dogs to take the edge off. While there are several calming aids for dogs, it must be remembered that these are aids, and they aren't a substitute for behavior modification. In other words, they won't work like magic. We all dream of a product that can magically transform an overly stressed pooch into a relaxed one within minutes. If such a product existed, there would no longer be fearful dogs on this planet, and behavior consultants would be wiped out of business.
So, what's the purpose of calming aids? As mentioned, they help take the edge off, at times in a sufficient matter to help open the lines of cognitive function, which allows us to pave the path for successful behavior modification. In order to better understand this, imagine having a tremendous fear of heights. Your therapist wants you to face your fear by taking baby steps, but you are too terrorized to even fathom the thought to look out of a window from the first floor of a building. Your mind is bombarded with scary thoughts, and you feel like you just can't do it. Your therapist therefore decides to prescribe you a calming aid, and you soon find yourself a bit calmer. The idea of looking out the window is still scary, but now you feel a bit better under control to face it. Your therapist has also taught you positive thinking and coping strategies. The fact you are able to successfully handle this little step, gives you an exhilarating sensation of success, and now you feel you have the strength necessary to progress to the next step.
Dogs cannot rationally self-talk themselves through their fears, so their coping skills aren't exactly the same as in humans. However, desensitization and counterconditioning is very effective in animals since animals learn through associations. A calming aid can help a dog be less reactive so the dog can better cope with its fears. You know you need a calming aid when you aren't making progress, or you're making very little progress despite the correct implementation of systematic desensitization.
In the next paragraph, we will be looking at some over the counter calming aids. Please note that these calming aids are mild, so if your dog is still not progressing or if the fear is very intense that it cannot be managed, you may need your vet to prescribe a stronger sedative to be used along with behavior modification.
General Tips for Addressing Dog Anxiety
- See your vet to rule out any underlying medical problems that may be causing stress, fear anxiety, and aggression in your dog.
- Identify the sources of your dog's stress and do the best you can to minimize exposure to those intense, stress triggering stimuli.
- Provide a predictable routine for your dog.
- Keep your dog mentally stimulated through foraging games, interactive toys, healthy exercise, and play.
- Never take good, acceptable behavior for granted. Make sure to capture such behaviors as they unfold and reward them generously.
- Avoid punishing your dog's behavior. Punishment paves the path for more stress.
- Work with a behavior professional on a program of management, desensitization, counterconditioning, and response substitution.
- Understand that when using counterconditioning, you're not looking to reward any particular behavior, your focus is creating positive associations.
- If necessary, start your dog on a prescription medication under the guidance of your vet. Medications should be used, along with behavior modification.
Calming Aids for Stressed Dogs
The following are some examples of calming aids for dogs. These are over-the-counter products that are commonly sold in pet stores or online. Not all calming aids are effective for all dogs. Each dog may respond differently. For severe cases, your dog may need products prescribed by your vet. Changes in behavior takes time, especially when dogs have suffered from chronic stress over the years.
Dog Appeasing Pheromones
Jacqui Neilson, a veterinary behaviorist owner of the Animal Behavior Clinic, a veterinary in Portland, Oregon, claims that appeasing pheromones, can sometimes help relieve stress in pets. These products are available as sprays, plug-in diffusers, wipes, and collars. For dogs, look for products such as Comfort Zone and Adaptil.
How do they work? We're dealing with the synthetic version of dog appeasing pheromones, chemical messengers produced by mother dogs to help comfort and reduce stress in newborn pups. These products can be used for general stress, separation anxiety, noise phobias, and travel, but they're not effective for aggression, explains Wayne Hunthausen, veterinarian and director of animal behavior consultations held at Westwood Animal Hospital.
The Calming Cap
As the name implies, we're dealing with a cap that fits over the dog's head with the purpose of calming the dog down. This calming aid is helpful for dogs who are reactive towards visual triggers and need to be kept at lower threshold level for the implementation of behavior modification.
How it works: According to veterinary behaviorist Patrick Melese, the dog's vision is reduced, as the dog sees through ”translucent, sheer" fabric. Because the dog is limited in its ability to fixate on visual triggers, it's helpful for dogs who are reactive towards other dogs, animals, and humans. Along with behavior modification, it can help an anxious dog walk through a crowded area and gradually face other visual triggers.
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These are lightweight ear muffs that were specifically designed for dogs to meet the contour of the dog's head. Mutt Muffs were originally designed to protect the ears of dogs from the loud noises derived from flying in aircraft cockpits.
How they work: Today, Mutt Muffs can be used as well for dogs who are easily frightened by auditory stimuli. They work by muffling loud noises making them less intense. According to Mutt Muffs, they work extremely well to reduce a dog's fear of fireworks. Mutt Muffs may also help in dogs frightened by storms, but only in those cases where mostly the noise of thunder bothers them. In dogs who get stressed by the low clouds, increased humidity, and statically charged air, they may not suffix. As an alternative to Mutt Muffs, some owners use foam earplugs. However, with these, there's a risk they may get stuck in the ears. Some owners have found that passing a knotted thread through the foam earplugs can help in easily retrieving them. Ask your vet to show you how to safely insert earplugs or cotton balls in your dog's ears.
Nowadays, there are several accessories to calm dogs down through pressure. Thundershirt, the Anxiety Wrap and Storm Defender are a few examples you can find in pet stores.
How they work: There's proof that applying pressure on certain areas of a dog's body may have a beneficial effect on the dog's nervous system. This isn't only present in dogs. Dr. Temple Grandin, creator of the ''hug machine'', several years ago reported that pressure is soothing to people suffering from stress and it was common practice in the old times to swaddle babies in an effort to calm them down. There are mixed results from using pressure aids in dogs. Some people see improvement with their use especially when used in conjunction with behavior modifications, others report no changes.
There are several over-the-counter supplements for anxious, stressed dogs. As with other calming aids, they're not a cure-all. Following are some popular ones, but there may be several others as more and more are being produced. It's good practice to consult with your vet before giving supplements; at times an underlying health problem may be contributing to stress and anxiety.
- Composure by VetriScience: Consists of soft chews containing three active ingredients: colostrum proteins meant to work in synergy with the other ingredients to support cognitive function and reduce stress, thiamine, meant to soothe and support relaxation, and L-theanine, an amino acid known for reducing stress and the behaviors associated with it.
- Pet Naturals of Vermont Calming: Contains the same ingredients as Composure and works in a similar fashion.
- Virbac Anxitane M-L Dogs: Contains as well L-Theanine. The chewable tablets are meant to help dogs relax without side effects and without affecting their personalities.
- Serenin Vet: These capsules contain St. John's Wort, Passion Flower, Eleuthero, Vitamin B6, and B12 and other minerals meant to provide the building blocks for the natural synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite.
- Harmonease: The chewable tablets are made of a natural blend of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense extracts. These tablets are used for noise phobia and stereotypical behaviors, such as licking, spinning, and cowering.
- Rescue Remedy: These are drops made of alcohol-free formula that can be placed on a treat, in the dog's water bowl or rubbed on the belly. As with several other remedies, there are success stories, while some owners report no changes.
For Further Reading
- Understanding Dog Trigger Stacking
Humans are not the only ones to fall victim to the cumulative effects of stress; dogs do too! Trigger stacking in dogs may have deleterious effects that can pile up and cause bouts of aggression.
- Understanding the Dog Fight or Flight Response
Understanding dog fight and flight response is important if you're planning on learning more about your dog behavior. Learn how fight & flight responses are important in changing dog behavior.
- Can you Reinforce Your Dog's Fear?
We are always told not to pet, cuddle or comfort a fearful dog because this may reinforce fear. But can you really reinforce fear in your dog? Learn what the experts say about this.
- A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and ...
Successful dog behavior modification requires the correct implementation of techniques. Familiarizing yourself with dog behavior modification techniques and terms will turn out helpful.
- Why is My Dog Scared of Going Outside?
Why is my dog scared of going outside? There may be several reasons. Following are several exercises to hopefully help your dog enjoy the yard again.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 10, 2014:
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 10, 2014:
Informative and very helpful about these issues with dogs,