Dogs are sensitive creatures, prone to shyness, obsessions, and reactions to small changes to their environment. But a growing number of pups are being diagnosed with forms of canine anxiety, suggesting that the problem may be deeper than simple everyday nervousness.
Among all forms of anxiety, separation anxiety stands out as the most common. Canine separation anxiety is defined as a regular, disproportional negative reaction to separation from a particular member of a dog’s family. Dogs normally experience this type of anxiety in relation to one owner or other pet to which they’re hyper-attached, meaning that it’s common for dogs to exhibit separation anxiety symptoms while other members of the family are still in the room.
Why is canine anxiety on the rise?
Aside from the fact that there are simply more dogs in homes across the country than ever before, perhaps the biggest driver of canine anxiety is an increasing shift to highly urban lifestyles. With average home sizes decreasing, and many owners spending more time in the office (at least, until the pandemic), a rising number of dogs are being left alone for several hours on a regular basis, which can create separation anxiety in dogs.
While this can be unavoidable for some, it definitely does not fit with an ideal doggy environment. Dogs crave continuous social contact with their pack and free access to the outdoors for at least some period of each day.
Increasing stress among owners may also be responsible for the rise in dog’s anxiety, with evidence suggesting a correlation between owners who suffer from long-term nervous disorders and dogs who develop some form of canine anxiety. When it comes to sensing whether their owner is upset or in distress, some dogs are definitely better than others but almost all pups can tap into an anxious or nervous atmosphere in your home.
Finally, the continuing popularity of a number of naturally active, energetic breeds may be contributing to an over-diagnosis of hyperactivity and anxiety in some dogs. Retrievers, pointers, shepherds, and other traditional working breeds are becoming increasingly commonplace in family home settings. While this isn’t necessarily an issue, it does raise the possibility of under-stimulation, as many these dogs have been specifically bred to work for hours in the field each day.
What can owners do?
The first step for owners who feel their dog may be suffering from anxiety is to differentiate between normal personality traits (nervousness, occasional phobias, reasonable reactions to scary stimuli) and a true anxiety condition.
Anxiety is closely related to the fear response, so unlike general nervousness, symptoms of anxiety often suggest extreme stress, including prolonged barking, growling and aggression, hiding or avoidance, shaking, pacing, and regressions in house training. Dogs with severe anxiety may also experience panic attacks.
Try to carefully observe your dog’s environment for possible anxiety triggers, the next time they experience distress. While triggers might be obvious (a loud noise, the presence of a certain person, the doorbell ringing) they can also occur hours before or after an anxiety attack, making them hard to spot.
For dogs displaying non-specific symptoms of excess energy and overexcitement, the first port of call should always be to increase their daily exercise. Depending on the size and breed of dog, this might be achieved by adding in a second or third daily walk, or by swapping out your go-to routes for something a little more challenging (do you currently walk your dog around the neighborhood, but live near a mountain hike? Go for it!
Not only should the increased exercise give your dog a better chance of remaining calm in their downtime, but a strict walking routine can also add some extra structure into your dog’s day–something that almost all dogs crave.
In a large 2015 study, by far the biggest environmental factor associated with anxiety, fearfulness, and noise sensitivity in dogs was the amount of daily exercise they regularly received. Fearful dogs were also recorded as having fewer opportunities to socialize as a puppy, underlining the key role of early-life experiences in later mental stability.
This won’t just help your pup–there’s a research consensus that regular daily exercise is an effective mood regulator in humans, too. Just check out this study from JAMA Psychiatry, which found that running for just 15 minutes per day reduces the risk of major depression in most people.
If increased exercise isn’t having the desired effect, consider trying a CBD oil for your dog. When a dog takes CBD oil, the cannabinoids, derived from the cannabis plant, interact with receptors in their endocannabinoid system. This system is closely linked to the body’s ability to control mood, inflammation, and stress.
While researchers are still figuring out exactly how CBD and other cannabis compounds are able to boost the endocannabinoid system’s stress-fighting powers, we know that most dogs become more able to manage stress and anxiety triggers when taking CBD.
Animal studies comparing CBD with other anti-anxiety medications have found CBD elicits a similar effect to anxiolytic drugs such as diazepam (valium), except CBD does not interact with benzodiazepine receptors, which can come with side effects in dogs. Better still, CBD is unlike other types of cannabis compounds in that it produces no psychoactive effect, so your dog is unlikely to even realize they’re taking it.
Once a dog is on a steady course of CBD, they’re likely to develop a calmer state of mind, which will make them more susceptible to the primary training technique for leaving a dog unattended: crate training.
Crate training is intended to give your dog a safe place and a clearly understood routine for them to utilize when alone or otherwise experiencing stress. A ‘crate’ can be any quiet, enclosed, comfortable space where your dog is likely to feel at ease. The idea of crate training is to teach your dog to associate that safe space with comfort when the surrounding environment becomes too overwhelming.
The safer your dog feels when you leave, the less likely they’ll be to exhibit signs of anxiety, and the destructive behaviors that can accompany it. Once crate training is established, you can choose to taper off CBD supplementation or keep it as part of your leaving-the-house routine, depending on your dog’s specific needs.