Dogs can be vulnerable to a range of anxieties. Cause for anxiousness can come from loud noises like fireworks and thunderstorms, or strangers getting too close or invited into the house. As their caretaker it’s your responsibility to help them through any anxieties they may exhibit. The cause for anxiousness should be determined so a proper safe space can be made.
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The first step to calming a dog of anxiety is identifying the cause and signs. Because your dog can’t directly tell you they have anxiety, you’re going to have to watch their body language. Dogs are going to have their own communication style that you’ll have to adjust to. Any of the following actions your dog displays can be a hint to anxiety:
Some of these behaviors are examples of the “flight-or-fight” response, while behaviors such as yawning and lip licking are tactics a stressed dog will use, called “calming signals.” Seeing a repetition and/or pattern of any of these behaviors is a sign that your dog is suffering from some sort of anxiety. Identifying anxiousness is the first step; the next step is discovering the cause.
Knowing the cause of your dog’s anxiousness will help you make the optimal safe space that directly addresses the problem. The common causes of anxiety are past abuses, loud noises, medical issues, and other animals. To determine what’s triggering your dog, familiarize yourself with your dog’s signals of anxiety and record when they exhibit them. Take into account their history and what you may or may not know about. When a dog trembles when around bigger dogs, this may be a sign that a past event involving a bigger dog has traumatized them. Finding the cause means you can avoid situations that cause anxiety. And for the causes that can’t be avoided, make a safe space for your pup to regain calmness.
Separation anxiety is another common cause that is easy to determine. If your dog acts out when you’re gone -- such as destroying furniture, howling, and using the bathroom inside the house -- your dog likely suffers from separation anxiety. It’s difficult to leave the house when you know the anxiety it causes your dog, so try one of the following safe spaces to make separation easier for you and your dog.
Sometimes all your dog needs is a safe space to calm their anxiety. With different types of dogs and anxieties come different types of safe spaces. Know your dog’s signs and causes of make the most functional safe space. A place where they can retreat to to regain a sense of safety and comfort.
To know what’s the best type of safe space, observe how your dog handles anxiety. It’s easy to think a dog in distress is most at ease by your side, but this may not always be the case. Your dog may need a secluded area to handle the anxiety alone.
Crates are commonly used to train puppies, so your dog likely already has experience with a crate and may be fond of its seclusion. You may not have known your dog as a puppy, but if you did, think back to what your dog’s relationship to the crate was like. Was it always a struggle to get the puppy in? Or did your puppy not mind the crate, and even go into the crate without being told to relax and take a nap? Consider reintroducing the crate to dogs who did well with crates.
Put the crate in a quiet corner of the house that isn’t too secluded. Your dog likely doesn’t want to be too far from the action. This crosses the garage and basement off the list of viable locations. Drape a blanket (best if it’s well used because it will have the comforting smell of you!) over the crate and put a comfortable bed inside. Fill it with a chew toy if you’ll think your dog will appreciate it, and voila! Keep the door of the crate open so it’s always available to your dog. Your dog may also appreciate a white noise machine plugged in close by, dimmed lights, and comfortable heating and cooling.
The windowless room is best for the dog that barks at the neighbors and the mailman and anyone else suspicion seen beyond the window. Your dog may be much more calm in the room that has no windows, which means they can drop their guard and properly relax. When you’re away from home, leaving them in this windowless room filled with toys and bedding may be just the thing to calm their anxiety while you’re away.
Of course this will only work if you have a windowless room. Instead of closing the door to keep them in this room, try a dog gate. Set up some comfortable bedding, a water bowl, and keep it well supplied with toys! (However make sure this toy is safe to leave the dog alone with and is not a choking hazard.) Your dog may also benefit from a white noise machine. Give it a test run first, leaving the dog alone in the room while you leave for a quick 30 minute errand.
The blanket fort is best for the rescued or foster dog that is transitioning to your new home. Your dog may need help getting over the nervousness of a new home, which can be accomplished by setting up a fort. It serves as a hiding spot that is still close to you and your family. Providing a space for your dog to hide when they get overwhelmed in their new home may help them overcome and grow out of their anxiousness.
You may remember how to make a fort from when you were a kid, or was recently playing with one. They key is an oversized blanket or sheet that will act as the tent. It’s crucial the fort won’t be prone to collapse onto your pup, causing further anxiety. A blanket draped over a coffee table is ideal for smaller dogs, while larger dogs can enjoy the fort set up between the couch and a nearby chair. Make sure the blanket hangs low and conceals the dog inside. There should also be an obvious exit that doesn’t require your pup to move anything around to get in and out. Fill the fort with bedding, blankets and toys for maximum comfort.
The closet will be best for the dog that deals with stress by burrowing. Some dogs deal with loud noises or other stresses by crawling under bed covers, blankets, and cushions. If your dog enjoys a den-like environment, the closet may be just the place for them to deal with anxiety. This safe space is for the snugglebug dog, not the dog that becomes easily claustrophobic and is consistent in communicating their need for space.
The best closet is one away from windows, to maintain the den environment and avoid any triggers of anxiety coming from outside. Wedge a dog bed into the closet and any other comforters that will calm your dog. If you’re using the safe space to deal with thunderstorms, try playing soft rock or reggae near the closet to mask the loud noises.
Sometimes there’s not enough you can do at home, which means it’s time to visit the vet. A veterinary behaviorist can prescribe medication and give you protocols to follow when the anxiety acts up. Anxiety isn’t always easy to handle, but starting with creating a safe space for your dog is definitely a step in the right direction.
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