Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works mostly with dogs and exotic animals.
Tension, nervousness, and hyperactivity—these are issues with dogs as well as with people. Anyone who has been blessed with a nervous little Chihuahua or a hyperactive Boxer might even say that the problem is even more severe with dogs. Some dogs feel threatened or in danger even when nothing justifies it.
When dogs get tense, they start doing things like licking their front leg down past the hair, down past the flesh, and right to the bone. Nervousness and hyperactivity lead to holes in the yard, holes in your couch, and holes in the drywall. Pacing, barking excessively, and forgetting housetraining are all signs of an anxious dog.
Here are some great tips on things you can do to reduce anxiety. Most anxious dogs are not cured easily and need several things to help them; try several of the suggestions at the top of the list first, and if they do not work with your pet go ahead and work your way down, trying the others:
- give comfort food
- provide a safe space
- use touching and massage
- go for a walk
- take your dog swimming
- play music
- give calming treats
- use a calming collar
- try a hormone inhaler
- buy a thundershirt or other calming coat
- use counterconditioning and desensitization training
- talk to your vet about sedatives and other medications
- try herbal remedies
- use melatonin
- buy essential oil
- use tryptophan
- take your dog to the dog park
- use CBD oil
1. Comfort Food
A dog's idea of comfort food is a raw chicken foot or a large beef bone that has been allowed to age, although your dog may be different and may have other types of comfort food, like ice cream. Try a large raw bone first, which will keep your dog busy for several hours, but if your dog is not distracted chewing it, you just need to play around and find out what they want.
Do not overdo this. Just like with people, too much comfort food leads to obesity.
If your dog is nervous and suffering from separation anxiety, one method that may help is to give them some food before you leave the house and sit with them while it is eaten. The stomach will be full and your pet will be more likely to sleep. This does not work with all dogs, as some will even refuse their favorites when nervous.
2. Safe Space
This will vary from dog to dog, as not all pets will want to use the safe space you have chosen when feeling nervous. A safe space is very good for dogs with noise anxiety but has to be set up correctly.
To set up a safe space:
- put an appropriately sized crate in a quiet room
- if no quiet room is available the space cannot be in near the front or back door where movement is more likely
- if using a wire crate drape a blanket over the cage to make it darker and feel like a den
- have a fan on in the room if your dog is noise-sensitive
- have a cell phone or some other sound system next to the crate playing mellow piano music
One type of crate available (Zen Crate) has a fan to block noise, a gentle rocking movement to distract your dog, and also plays music. If you cannot set up a space they may be worth the expense. They can be purchased on the internet or at some local pet stores.
3. Massage and Touch
Dogs enjoy being touched by humans and a good massage is sometimes even better at relaxing an anxious dog. If you do not feel up to this task, canine massage therapists are available in many large urban areas now. If you cannot find one, ask a vet that deals with senior dogs suffering from arthritis.
Years ago I bought the Tellington Ttouch book and learned the technique to help out some of my overstressed canine patients. Whereas acupressure and acupuncture are more likely to help dogs with musculoskeletal problems, touch was designed to help nervous and tense dogs. Does it help them relax?
I think it should be tried but you may need other techniques.
4. A Long Walk
Exercise is really the ultimate way to calm any dog down. Any dog that walks far enough is going to be tired, and almost all tired dogs are going to relax and fall asleep. Even a mellow dog needs at least one 30-minute walk a day, and if you can walk your dog three times a day, they will thank you for it. A hyper dog with a loaded backpack, of course, will tire out that much sooner, and reward you with a nap when you arrive home.
In my opinion, the beach provides an excellent location to practice meditation, but you do not need to live on the beach to provide your dog with long walks. Alexandra Horowitz, in her excellent book Inside of a Dog, recommends dogs be taken on an occasional “smell walk.” This is a great idea if you have a geriatric Golden Retriever, but perhaps not so good if you have a young Jack Russel Terrier that you want to sleep before midnight.
If your dog likes to play ball, this is another great form of exercise. No matter what though get out and walk your dog. Both of you will benefit from it. (1)
Another type of exercise that is very helpful for anxious dogs is swimming. Although most of the evidence for the benefits of swimming is for humans (2) the same things apply to dogs.
Swimming is a great form of exercise as many more muscles are used than with walking. Some dogs like pools but others are only interested in lakes, rivers, and beaches. If you have a location available you will find that the amount of time spent walking will be greatly reduced, and your dog will be more tired and more likely to relax and sleep after a session.
If you are taking your dog swimming for the first time, be sure to purchase a dog life-vest before taking them into the water. Most of them love the water but not all dog breeds are good swimmers.
6. Good Music
In shelter dogs, a study with piano music showed that dogs spent more time relaxing with their heads down than they did when exposed to hormones or lavender. (3) Shelter dogs are even more nervous than dogs in a normal household.
Many types of music are effective but studies have shown better results with piano classical. You can download piano music on your cell phone and play it when your dog retreats to their safe space. There are also CDs designed to calm anxious dogs.
Other Methods to Try
7. Calming Treats
Many different brands are available but most use herbal remedies that have not been tested. One study done on a product that contained passion flower (4) found it effective and if you are trying one of these treats in times of stress use a calming chew with passion flower and melatonin. There are many available with ingredients that might help but both of these have been studied and are have been shown to help dogs suffering from anxiety.
8. Calming Collar
When a mother dog has puppies, she produces a hormone that has a calming effect on the puppies while they are nursing. This product is available as a diffuser but if you have a puppy that is never in one place for too long a collar is more likely to help. Many versions are available but this collar has been shown to be effective.
9. Hormone Diffuser
Although this product has not been shown to be more effective than music (3), it is very good for many dogs and should be considered if the other methods you use are ineffective. It is odorless and only dogs can smell the pheromones that are released from the diffuser.
Even in a veterinary clinic, where dogs are often suffering from anxiety due to separation from their families, dogs were less desctructive, paced less, and stopped licking excessively. (5) In the home this hormone diffuser is probably even more effective.
Still Need More?
10. Thundershirt or Other Calming Coats
By applying pressure to your dog´s torso these shirts make a dog feel calmer when worn. These products are helpful in some anxiety conditions (fireworks, thunder) but not in others, like those dogs suffering from separation anxiety.
A blanket might work as well in some dogs but if they get up and walk around it will no longer be effective so it is worth investing in one of these coats. The prices vary depending on the brand and they are much less expensive than setting up a safe space. They will not work for all dogs, so try some of the alternatives listed above first.
11. Counterconditioning and Desensitization Training
Behavioral training may be all that your dog needs but when combined with the other methods on this list the results can be extraordinary.
Use counterconditioning to help your dog associate the thing they are afraid with something good. If your dog becomes anxious when the garbage truck comes by, be sure to be there for them and give treats, lots of praise, a favorite toy, etc. Here is a more detailed article on how you can use counterconditioning to get your dog used to fireworks. This training method is not going to work overnight, and some dogs will need sedatives or other medicines while in training, but eventually, this works well in many cases of anxiety.
Desensitization is another training method and may be more appropriate for separation anxiety and fear of other dogs. Dogs are exposed to something they are afraid of and learn that it is no big deal. If your dog gets upset every time you leave the house, walk out the front door, close it for a few seconds, and then walk back in. You can increase the time outside a little each day and they will eventually realize it is nothing to worry about.
This method also works much better with some medications.
12. Sedatives and Mood-Changing Drugs
There are many sedatives and other medications available for dogs with anxiety. They all need to be used with behavioral cures too (like training, counterconditioning, and a safe space) and sometimes dogs will need to be on medication for the rest of their lives. Here are a few of the most common:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
- Dexmedetomidine (Sileo)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Fluoxetine (Reconcile or Prozac)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
All of these medications are only available through your veterinarian and they will take a careful history and physical before deciding which one is the best choice. Some are more effective for separation anxiety, some for thunderstorms, and others are used for specific problems like dog-dog anxiety.
These medications are going to be more effective than many of the other things on the list but many have side effects. Try the other methods listed above before resorting to their use.
This natural hormone encourages dogs to sleep during the night, and giving it other times of the day reduces anxiety by helping them become drowsy. If you want to purchase calming chews for your dog be sure to buy a product that has this hormone. If you are giving it alone do not use the human pills since some contain artificial sweeteners like xylitol that can be toxic to your dog.
14. Herbal Remedies
Unfortunately, many of these remedies have not been proven to work in dogs but many have been shown to work well in humans. Since so little money is available in research funds for dogs, and almost no pharmaceutical company is going to benefit financially from proving that a herb works, research may never be done. If you want to try some of these things, however, here are your best choices:
- Valerian Root: This product may be useful in humans but has not been shown to be effective in dogs. In the one study I have seen, of a product called Rescue Remedy, the study showed that "No statistically significant differences were found when dogs were exposed to Pet Remedy or the placebo". Many anecdotal reports of this dog's effectiveness in dogs exist, however, and it is a common additive in the herbal stress chews and pills available over the counter.
- Chamomille: A very common component of dog relaxing chews, this herb is sometimes useful in reducing anxiety. It is probably not effective in all conditions though so even if you use calming treats you should also try the alternatives.
- St. Johns Wort: This herb may be beneficial since it has been shown to work in humans. It has been shown to be effective in one type of behavioral problems in dogs, tail chasing, but may not be effective in other anxiety orders like separation anxiety. In a combination product, it may be beneficial but also may interfere with many other medications (like some heart medications and some sedatives).
15. Lavender Oil
Aromatherapy using many essential oils has been tried for anxiety but there is little data to support their effectiveness and safety. Lavender oil, however, has been shown to be useful in travel-related anxiety and may be useful in other cases.
If you do decide to use this instead of some of the other methods listed, there are a few things you need to be aware of:
- Do not buy any product that lists a lot of other ingredients and is labeled "anxiety". Only lavender has been shown to be effective and the mixed products have much less of it.
- This essential oil is sold only for aromatherapy and lavender oil should not be put on the food or onto your dog's skin.
- Essential oils are expensive to produce and are not that cheap to purchase. If it is much less than the other products you have seen, it probably has a very low amount of lavender and will not be effective.
- Aromatherapy should not be used on a dog with a chronic medical condition until you have consulted with your veterinarian.
A common ingredient in many calming dog treats, tryptophan has been shown to alter the moods of mammals. It is not a miracle cure since dogs have been shown to spend less time on anxious behavior but may not stop completely. Controlled studies have found that it has a variable effect but it has been useful in some situations (6, 7) and there are plenty of anecdotes that report that it is useful.
All dog foods already have tryptophan in them but if you decide to supplement with this be sure to buy a calming treat that also has passion flower and melatonin.
17. Dog Park
The benefit of a dog park is that an anxious dog will be able to exercise freely, even more so than when out for a walk, and will sometimes be more likely to relax.
The big disadvantage of the dog park, and I have added it so far down the list, is that some dogs will become more stressed when dealing with other members of their species. Do not take your dog to the park is they have dog-dog anxiety.
18. CBD Oil
A dog has even more cannabinoid receptors than a human, which may be one reason greater toxicity is reported in dogs. (8) Some studies have shown CBD oil to be effective for arthritis and secondary pain, but no studies are available that show that the oil has a calming influence on dogs. In fact, studies do show that it has no effect on anxiety when given at recommended levels. (9) This is the reason I have added this at the bottom of the list.
Despite this information, there are anecdotal reports that it works and some websites suggest it is the best thing out there for dogs with anxiety. Dosage recommendations, especially for anxiety, are rather vague and vary from site to site.
If you do decide to use this drug, be aware that it is still illegal in some places. Dosage recommendations vary due to the manufacturer of the oil so be sure to check the links above and read all the literature available when your receive the product so as to not overdose your dog.
Homeopathic remedies sold at some pet shops will put a label on the bottle telling you that they will make your dog relax and feel better. They are just water with almost nothing else in them, which is why the label can use phrases like "non-toxic", "gentle", and "dog cannot overdose or become sick". These remedies have a placebo effect and unfortunately, when the human family doses their dog they will feel like they are helping and sometimes even tell their family and friends that their dog is less anxious.
Bach flower essences also put "non-toxic" on the label because they are just water. Even if the flower is of any benefit it has been diluted out of this product. Numerous studies have been done on humans and dogs and none of them show that this worked better than the placebo. (10)
None of these "cures" work. You are wasting your money when you could be getting one of the products listed above. Worse than that, you are making your dog suffer and he or she will continue to be anxious because of these "medications".
If you do not want your dog to suffer, do not buy these things. Read the list above and get something that works.
Salonen M, Sulkama S, Mikkola S, Puurunen J, Hakanen E, Tiira K, Araujo C, Lohi H. Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Sci Rep. 2020 Mar 5;10 (1):2962. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32139728/
(1) Tiira, K., & Lohi, H. (2015). Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties. PloS one, 10(11), e0141907. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4631323/
(2) van Tulleken, C., Tipton, M., Massey, H., & Harper, C. M. (2018). Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder. BMJ case reports, 2018, bcr2018225007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112379/
(3) Amaya, V., Paterson, M., & Phillips, C. (2020). Effects of Olfactory and Auditory Enrichment on the Behaviour of Shelter Dogs. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 10(4), 581. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7222336/
(4) Scandurra, A., Mastellone, V., Pero, M. E., Musco, N., Iommelli, P., Di Lucrezia, A., Malgeri, A., Tudisco, R., D'Aniello, B., Cortese, L., & Lombardi, P. (2022). Effects of a Nutritional Supplement (DìRelaxTM) on Anxiety in Dogs in a Randomized Control Trial Design. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 12(4), 435. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8868118/
(5) Kim, Y. M., Lee, J. K., Abd el-aty, A. M., Hwang, S. H., Lee, J. H., & Lee, S. M. (2010). Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 51(4), 380–384. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839826/
(6) Anzola et al, The use of tryptophan in shelter dogs to treat stress-related anxiety disorders, Revista Cientifica, Veterinaria, Vol. 23 No. 1 pp 26-32. https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/20133125987
(7) Templeman, J. R., Davenport, G. M., Cant, J. P., Osborne, V. R., & Shoveller, A. K. (2018). The effect of graded concentrations of dietary tryptophan on canine behavior in response to the approach of a familiar or unfamiliar individual. Canadian journal of veterinary research = Revue canadienne de recherche veterinaire, 82(4), 294–305. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6168022/
(8) Gyles C. (2016). Marijuana for pets?. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 57(12), 1215–1218. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5109620/
(9) Morris EM, Kitts-Morgan SE, Spangler DM, Gebert J, Vanzant ES, McLeod KR, Harmon DL. Feeding Cannabidiol (CBD)-Containing Treats Did Not Affect Canine Daily Voluntary Activity. Front Vet Sci. 2021 Apr 29;8:645667. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8118201/
(10) Taylor, S., & Madden, J. (2016). The Effect of Pet Remedy on the Behaviour of the Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris). Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 6(11), 64. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5126766/
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.