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How to calm a dog down during periods of high anxiety: A vet's guide

How to calm a dog down
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Every dog gets a little anxious or overwhelmed from time to time. That’s why it’s a good idea to know how to calm a dog down. 

You never know when your dog might get a little too amped up by that passing siren or the neighbor’s barking dog and need you to take over and reassure him that everything is okay. 

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help an anxious dog settle down. For dogs that are chronically anxious, there are even medications that can help manage anxiety and make life a little easier for both dog and owner. Read on to learn some helpful tips about calming an anxious dog. 

Causes of anxiety in dogs 

Anxiety can be caused by many different situations.  In many cases, anxiety occurs because a dog has not been exposed to a particular situation before (lack of socialization) or because the dog has had a negative experience with the situation in the past. This can cause the dog to be fearful of the situation, leading to anxiety and its associated behaviors. 

It is important to recognize anxiety in your dog so you can act on it quickly and remove your dog from the situation before his fear worsens. Knowing the signs of anxiety in a dog and what to do when they occur can help you and your dog navigate any scary situation. 

Signs of anxiety in dogs 

Signs your dog is feeling anxious and may need a little calming support can include: 

  • Panting
  • Pacing  
  • Drooling 
  • Vocalizing 
  • Trembling 
  • Restlessness 
  • Seeking reassurance
  • Lip-licking  
  • Yawning when not tired 
  • Looking away
  • Raising one paw  

If your dog shows these symptoms, this can indicate that your dog is feeling anxious with the situation and needs some reassurance.  If possible, remove your dog from the situation and take him to a safe and quiet place where he can relax, then try some of the calming tips below. 

Sick dog lying on the couch

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to calm a dog down 

The best thing you can do is remove your dog from the situation that is causing him stress and anxiety.  If possible, take him away from the area to somewhere where he typically feels safe and comfortable.  Try distracting your pup with some extra tasty dog treats – something he doesn’t always get, like bits of hot dog, cheese, or freeze dried liver treats. 

If your dog is very anxious, he may be unwilling to take even the tastiest treats, and you’ll need to wait for him to calm down before he’ll be interested.  Give your dog some space if needed, and feel free to talk to him in a quiet, calm, reassuring voice.  If your dog is seeking comfort, it’s okay to pet him during this time.  

Despite what some trainers claim, you won’t “reinforce the fear” – we can only reinforce behaviors, not emotions, and doing something positive and calming will not encourage your dog to be more afraid!  Instead, being a calming presence will help show your dog that the situation is not so scary after all. 

How to calm a dog during a storm 

One of the best things you can do for storm phobia is plan ahead!  Make sure your dog has a safe and comfortable space that he can go to hide during the storm.  

Ideally, this should be in a part of the house where the storm noise is the quietest, such as in a basement or closet.  If possible, block visual access to windows in your dog’s hiding area so that he will not see the lightning flashes outside, which can be upsetting for many dogs.  

Play quiet music to help cover the noise of the storm, and try distracting your dog with extra tasty treats or a favorite toy. Some dogs benefit from the use of Thunder Shirts, which act as a calming mechanism to help reduce fear and anxiety during a storm.  

Using pheromones can also help signal to your dog that this is a safe place and everything is okay. Most importantly, stay calm and reassuring when you are around your dog during this time.  The more anxious you are, the more anxious your dog will be, too! 

dog scared

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to calm your dog with medication 

Some dogs are so anxious that they cannot be calmed with training and distraction alone. In these cases, it’s best to talk to your veterinarian to see if medication may be the right choice for your dog.  Medication should always be used in combination with a good behavior modification training plan in order to achieve the best possible results with your dog. 

 Your veterinarian can likely recommend a good positive reinforcement based trainer in your area who can work with you and your dog in addition to the use of medication for anxiety.  

Your veterinarian may prescribe a medication for situational use, which you will only use at times when your dog gets anxious. For some dogs with generalized anxiety, your veterinarian may prescribe a medication to be taken every day to manage anxiety on a daily basis. Be sure to note your dog’s triggers and responses closely, so you and your veterinarian can work to develop a plan that will best suit your dog’s needs.

How to teach your dog to relax 

For dogs with chronic fear and anxiety issues, one of the best things you can do is teach them how to relax on command. Using Dr. Karen Overall's Protocol for Relaxation (opens in new tab), you can teach your dog how to go to his “place” to settle down and relax on command. 

This is a great trick to use any time your dog seems a little too amped up, or when anxiety starts creeping in.  It’s also a great tool for those boisterous dogs who just need a reminder to calm down and take a breather!  Although it does take some time to train this protocol, the results are well worth the effort.

Summary

When your dog is anxious, it's important to not crowd him or get in his face. He may feel threatened, and even the nicest dog can escalate to a bite if he feels cornered and scared. 

If your dog is looking away from you, showing the whites of his eyes (also known as “whale eye”), lifting a paw, or yawning when he is not tired, these can all be signs that your dog is feeling anxious and needs some space. 

It’s okay to sit at a distance and offer some reassurance, but don’t get in your dog’s personal space at this time. Once your dog is calm and has loose, relaxed body language again, then you can go over and offer some reassuring petting and a treat. 

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com (opens in new tab) and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/ (opens in new tab)