Your dog may bark, howl or show other nervous behavior when the lights go out. Take heart from knowing that you and your dog are not alone -- night anxiety is a common canine malady. Learn about its causes and how you can transform a panicked pup into a happy hound.
While fear of separation is an issue for dogs of any age, puppies crated at night or placed in a room away from their pet parents may feel uncomfortable due to their immaturity. “Puppies are constantly exposed to novel things, and they look for guidance and solace from social contact,” explained Cornell University veterinarian Julia Albright in the January 2010 issue of "Dog Watch." For senior dogs, who can suffer from sight or hearing loss and even cognitive dysfunction as they get older, the problem may be medical in nature, she notes.
Your first step in combating a canine's nighttime stress is to stop offering incentives for inappropriate behavior. Giving comfort each time your dog acts inappropriately only rewards your pup's insecurity. Albright states that another no-no is allowing your dog to sleep in your bed. Although this may be fine for well-adjusted canines, it can reinforce negative feelings if your dog experiences severe anxiety. A better option would be to keep a crate or dog bed by your bed, gradually moving it farther away each night.
If your veterinarian rules out medical problems, try some simple behavior modification. Help your dog develop self-assurance by teaching the “sit” and “stay” commands. Keep your dog in a “sit/stay” for several minutes while you remain in the room and offer treats as a reward. Briefly leave the room as your dog masters this lesson. Gradually extend your absence by a few minutes each day as your dog’s confidence grows. Leave behind a treat-dispensing toy to distract your pup whenever you’re away.
While behavior modification should always be the first step when treating a dog’s nighttime anxiety, medication prescribed by your vet may also be necessary. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website lists benzodiazepines, monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOIs, tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors -- SSRIs -- as drugs commonly prescribed to treat canine anxiety. Although these medications are commonly prescribed to humans, you should never give Fido drugs from your medicine cabinet, as the dosages are often quite different. Speak with your veterinarian about the pros and cons of drug therapy. Since medication alone rarely does the trick, drugs should almost always be used in conjunction with behavior modification.
Over-the-counter homeopathic preparations formulated to combat stress can also be helpful in treating canine anxiety. Concentrated canine pheromones that mimic a mother dog's calming scent can be sprayed around your dog's sleeping area to help him relax. Since your dog’s night anxiety may be stressful for every family member, working with a veterinarian and an animal behaviorist is the key to addressing his fears and improving your relationship.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- ASPCA: Virtual Pet Behaviorist; Behavioral Medications for Dogs
- Dog Watch; Do You Have a "Velcro" Dog?; Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Your Dog: A Newsletter for Dog Owners; Medicating Misbehavior; Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine
- ASPCA: Virtual Pet Behaviorist; Pet Pheromones
- ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist: Behavior Problems in Older Dogs
- The Humane Society of the United States: Complete Guide to Dog Care; Marion S. Lane
Florida native Janet Winikoff has been writing since 1984. Specializing in animal protection, she also covers women's, children's and social issues, with articles appearing in "Animal Sheltering," "San Diego Parent" and "Healthy Choices." Winikoff holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from The American University in Washington.