Your nervous or anxious dog may exhibit some behaviors around the busy holiday seasons that are atypical during her normal daily routine. Loud noises, screaming babies, and the bustle of people coming in and out of your home may cause her to retreat and try to find a place to hide. She may become unexpectedly aggressive around strangers (and visiting dogs) who are moving in on “her” family and territory. She may become over-excited and jump and nip at young children or adults who are trying to play with her. If you’re leaving for a holiday away from her, she may become anxious as you pack and prepare to leave, craving constant contact or proximity to you.
Veterinary behaviorists say that the first step to overcoming these problems is by totally avoiding the situations causing your dog’s anxiety. Asking your youngest family members to stay away from your get-togethers or your guests to whisper is probably not going to win you points as a favorite party host, so you may want to consider either crating your pooch in a quiet part of your home or boarding her for a day or two if she’s used to being boarded elsewhere.
The next step to solving the problem of a nervous dog is called “desensitization.” Desensitization is a way to socialize your pup to unknown people and unknown situations by showing her that what she fears won’t hurt her. For example: if new people and new dogs are her anxiety trigger, you can ask a friend with a passive, compliant dog to come over for a visit. Make sure your dog knows the visitors are there, but place them far enough away from her so that she isn’t yet showing her fear response. Slowly decrease the distance between the visitors and your dog, stopping each time she moves behind you or tries to move away. Don’t move any closer until your dog is showing she’s relaxed. Ideally, your pooch will eventually make the move closer on her own without feeling trapped or anxious and will begin to feel comfortable in the presence of strangers.
While you’re exposing your pup to the things that bother her the most, you can try adding treats into the mix as a positive reward when she behaves correctly. This type of training is called “counterconditioning” and involves the pairing of a stimulus that causes a negative response from your dog with a positive reward until she makes a pleasant association between the two. Consider the desensitization training described earlier; each time your dog doesn’t hide or show fear of the approaching visitors, give her a treat and praise her lavishly. When she moves to the visitors on her own, have your friend present her with a treat and praise her. Your end goal is to ensure that your dog has a positive experience.
Some veterinarians recommend placing dogs with anxiety issues on medication to help them cope during times of stress. Drugs classified as benzodiazepines (canine Valium®) can be used on an as-needed, short-term basis, while dogs with more generalized fears may be given a maintenance medication such as clomipramine (Clomicalm®) to be used daily. Veterinarians typically prescribe anti-depressants such as Trazadone® to dogs that become anxious or fearful around certain events – thunderstorms, fireworks, or family visits.
If you’re one of those pet parents who prefer holistic, natural remedies, you can try a liquid, organic compound designed to calm, not sedate, your dog. Formulated with herbs known to reduce restlessness, treat anxiety, and aid in physical relaxation, these tonics can safely be given twice a day by mouth and will help to calm your dog in approximately 20 minutes.
Another holistic solution includes applying essential oil of lavender (known to be a soothing agent) to your dog’s bedding or a bandana to decrease anxiety; this can be especially useful for anxiety during car rides. Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), a derivative of a hormone produced by nursing canine mothers, is now being used in diffusers and sprays as a way of promoting calm and secure behavior in fearful dogs.