Calming Canine Stress and Anxiety

Enormous anxiety

The crackling starts slowly, then builds. The fire-driven gusts push through branches as they break and crash to the ground. Sirens. Big trucks. Firemen yelling. Smoke. Caravans of humans load up their cars with kids and boxes as they rush you into the backseat. Something is not right here, BARK the alarm! You’re told to hush and you’re not sure what you should do as you shoot back and forth from window to window, holding it all in. Before you know it, you’re rushed away from the only home you’ve ever known since you were a pup bouncing around the yard. You watch your yard get swallowed up by dark clouds of smoke as your human speeds you away in the family van.

For any person displaced by the current California fires, this situation can be extremely traumatic and can lead to enormous anxiety. As a community, we are incredibly empathetic to our fellow man’s needs in such dire situations, which is why we have a plethora of agencies and resources in place to help those affected by natural disasters. We humans can talk it out; we can say we are fearful, anxious, stressed. We can go to a therapist, seek out support, and even ask for a hug. Over time we are able to deal with our stress and eventually heal.

Our four-legged companions might actually experience the exact same emotions as we do, but without the vocabulary to ask us what the heck is going on, let alone with the ability to voice their feelings of fear or anxiety. Veterinarian Dr. Michele Hoag of the Plaza Del Amo Animal Hospital in Torrance, Calif., says, “Any type of change in routine can cause stress [in dogs]. Some animals are very sensitive, cats in particular. Dogs are more resilient, but still susceptible to stress. In situations like a natural disaster you can probably assume that they’re going to be stressed out. They can feed off of our stress as well. If we’re stressed out, they can feel it.”

It’s understandable that the madness that ensues during a wildfire would leave frantically displaced dogs in distress. But even pups a good distance away can suffer anxiety long before you know there is a fire or a smoky atmosphere to worry about. “I had a couple of clients come in and tell me that their dogs warned them about the fires before they even knew about them,” said Dr. Hoag. “Their dogs were indoors panting and pacing around the house. It wasn’t until my clients went outdoors that they realized what was happening.”

Dr. Hoag explained that a dog’s natural instinct tells him to run away from a natural disaster like a fire. But although his instincts tell him to run, he has nowhere to go since he’s most likely confined to a house or a yard. While it makes sense to humans to safely secure our dogs in our homes, our pups might still desperately try to satisfy their urge to run away like mad wolves, and feel trapped by the inability to do so.

This frustrating circumstance can be very stressful for dogs. Stress comes in all sizes. It can be caused by a large-scale event like a local wildfire, flood or even abandonment. It can also be prevalent in everyday situations, such as a toddler energetically tugging at your pup’s tail, or a menacing neighbor provoking your poor dog with a rake. No matter the degree of stress, there are ways to alleviate your pawpal’s woes.

Spot the Signs of Stress

Since our precious pooches don’t have the words to tell us what’s wrong, you might wonder how you can detect signs of stress in your dog. There are a number of signals that a pet parent can note to determine whether their dog is in distress. Some signs are subtle, and to the untrained eye may be misinterpreted as “normal” or “cute” pup behavior. In other circumstances, stress signs that seem like “weird” behavior might be easily dismissed.

Dr. Hoag says some potential signs include your dog being less sociable than usual — for example, he may run and hide under the couch. “Other dogs are glued to your leg,” she says. The signals run the gamut and include pacing, excessive panting when relaxed, shaking, shivering, growling, cowering, whining, and excessive scratching or licking. Some easily misinterpreted signs include your dog licking his lips repeatedly and yawning. If these aren’t occuring before dinner or nap time, then they’re more than likely signs of stress. Other signs are destructive and may aggravate you enough to instantly punish the behavior rather than find its root: for instance, excessive barking, urinating in the wrong place, digging obsessively or aggressive behavior.

Lastly, there are sometimes small signs of stress, such as dilated pupils, red pigment around the eyes, avoiding eye contact and lowering the ears, to name a few. Ultimately, as a rule, if a behavior feels strange to you, out of character for your dog or not the symptom of something else, then it most likely is strange and should not be dismissed – something might be up!

Alleviate Your Dog’s Stress

How can you help your pooch relax? With a rose-scented bath and the calming sounds of Enya? Not quite, but close! To begin with, if you feel that your pup’s stress might be the result of a medical condition, your first move should be to get him to the vet right away. The resulting treatment will alleviate your pet’s stress immediately.

If it’s not medical and not short-term stress as a result of a dramatic change, large or small, then some tender loving care might do the trick. Mimic calm behavior for your dog. As Dr. Hoag explained, if we are stressed, our dog can feel it. So relax and model calming signals such as stretching, sighing and taking deep breaths. Speak in a slow, soothing voice. Manage your dog’s environment and try to remove stressful triggers, or move him to a location where he can be free of any commotion.

You can pet him slowly and soothingly; avoid patting heavily and quickly. Try to massage his ears, body, and paws. A massage technique such as Tellington Touch can be used to relieve his stress. A great rule of thumb is to take him for a big calm walk in nature. Get yourself a long retractable dog leash and go for it You can also apply other homeopathic remedies such as Bach Rescue Remedy to your pet’s ears, nose or paws, or administer it orally depending on which you use (make sure to do your research before use). These ointments will bring your pooch some natural relief

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