Many canines become nervous when they hear loud noises, such as fireworks and thunder, and suffer separation anxiety any time they can’t be around their people. Their anxiety can manifest in barking, scratching, clawing, hiding, chewing and various other (usually destructive) behaviors.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning can work well for anxiety that comes from noise, certain people or other outside factors. Expose your dog to a low level of whatever triggers her nervousness -- for example, a recording of fireworks, played softly -- and offer her a treat, so she learns to connect the stressor with something she likes. Over a period of weeks or months, increase the stressor slowly until your dog stops showing anxiety. The ASPCA highly recommends working with a certified behaviorist, because if the process is done wrong, it can actually make the dog’s anxiety worse.
If your pup follows you around the house, acts upset when you get ready to go out, destroys or chews things while you’re gone and almost knocks you over with his enthusiasm when you return, separation anxiety could be the reason. To calm him down, be low-key when you come and go from the house; don’t make a fuss. You can also try desensitization and counter-conditioning, leaving for short periods of time and rewarding him when you return. Never punish the dog; this can make his anxiety much more extreme.
If your happy-go-lucky pooch suddenly becomes a nervous wreck, acts anxious all the time or engages in self-destructive behaviors, consult your vet. Depending on your situation, the vet might check for neurological problems; adrenal, endocrine and thyroid disorders; diabetes or parasites. Brain chemistry and psychological issues can also cause anxiety; any information you can provide about her background and genes could help your vet make an accurate diagnosis.
If your vet can’t find a physical cause, ask about changing your dog's diet or adding vitamin supplements. Also consider acupuncture, aromatherapy, water therapy or massage. These treatments can often help your dog relax and enable you to pinpoint specific triggers. An animal behaviorist can be a valuable ally in this process. Finally, make sure your dog gets enough exercise; depending on the breed, confinement and a lack of physical activity can cause stress.
If nothing else works, your vet might recommend medication. This should be a last resort, because dogs can react badly to some prescriptions or suffer side effects. Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, might soothe her within an hour, if you administer the pill before anxiety hits. Longer-term treatments usually involve antidepressants, such as Prozac. If you do opt for medication, follow your vet’s instructions carefully. Never give your dog pills or meds developed for humans.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Virtual Behaviorist: Desensitization and Counterconditioning
- The Humane Society of the United States: Separation Anxiety
- Cesar’s Way: Obsessive Dog Licking
- DogChannel.com: Dog Digest: Dog Anxiety, Nervousness, and Behavioral Problems
- ASPCA: Virtual Pet Behaviorist: Behavioral Medications for Dogs
- Dog image by Jan Zajc from Fotolia.com