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Handling your anxious dog

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
Handling your anxious dog

Valerie was delighted with her new canine companion, a young beagle cross she dubbed Mitch. But her delight turned to dismay one day when she came home from a longer-than-usual shopping trip, and found that Mitch had torn up a sofa cushion and scratched the paint on the front door.

Fearing she’d adopted a destructive dog, Valerie contacted her veterinarian, who told her Mitch’s behavior probably stemmed from separation anxiety. The vet recommended a couple of medications that would help Mitch stay calm when Valerie had to be away from home, but she balked at the idea of giving her new companion drugs. Just like us, dogs are prone to stress. It can manifest in a variety of ways, from separation anxiety and destructiveness to phobias, house soiling and even fear aggression. Often mistaken for “bad” behaviors, symptoms of stress and anxiety often lead people to surrender their anxious dog to a shelter, when all these animals really need is a little understanding and help.

The root of the problem

If you have an anxious dog, the first step, as always, is to take him to the vet to ensure they aren’t being caused by a physical problem. Pain and illness can cause a dog to “act out”.

Once you have ensured your dog isn’t suffering from a physical problem, the next step is to try and determine what is causing him to feel tense and fearful. It could be a move, the loss of a household member (human or animal), or a change in your schedule that has disrupted your dog’s routine and/or requires you to be away from home more than usual. The holiday season can often be a source of stress for dogs. Even seemingly minor changes, such as home decorating or a new dog next door, may cause stress reactions in a sensitive canine, while loud noises like fireworks and thunder can trigger phobias.

Either eliminate the stressor or reduce your dog’s exposure to it. If that isn’t possible, as in the case of a death, a move or a new job or relationship, there are a variety of ways you can help your dog feel better without resorting to anti-anxiety meds. A regular routine, lots of TLC, new toys and exercise can all help. But be sure to also consider one or more of the following eight remedies or modalities.

Ways to ease the anxious dog

1. Flower remedies

These vibrational healing remedies are among the simplest and most effective ways to help calm an anxious dog. Bach’s Rescue Remedy is a good place to start, while individual remedies such as Aspen, Mimulus, Heather, Honeysuckle and Walnut may all help, depending on the dog’s situation. For example, Walnut is good for helping dogs adapt to change, while Mimulus eases phobias and fears of vet visits. Some companies, such as Azmira, have created flower remedy formulations that address specific issues, like fear, neediness or abandonment. Flower remedies can be added to your dog’s water, or you can rub them on his ears, paw pads or coat. They’re safe and non-toxic.

2. Aromatherapy

Essential oils are another excellent tool for stress and anxiety relief. Lavender is always a good standby to have on hand, and geranium, tangerine, bergamot and marjoram can also have a calming effect, says Vicki Thorne of Earth Heart Inc., which offers several aromatherapy products for dogs.

It is accepted practice to dilute essential oils before use to avoid problems such as skin irritation or overwhelming the sense of smell. This is especially important with remedies for dogs, because they have a more acute sense of smell than humans.

As with flower essences, you can buy the individual oils, or purchase products made from a combination of oils to target specific anxiety-related issues. Buy only pure, high quality products, and remember to always dilute the oils before using them with your dog. Vicki advises using a car or room diffuser or placing one drop of the oil on a blanket or bandana.

3. Massage

If you’ve ever had a massage, you know firsthand how relaxing it can be. Dogs can also benefit from the healing qualities of massage. Done properly, massage loosens tight muscles, eases anxiety and depression, and releases endorphins into the body. Not only that, but most dogs find the physical contact that a gentle massage offers to be calming and enjoyable. Any form of loving touch enhances the bond between you, soothes the dog and deepens his trust and confidence. Simply rhythmically stroking or petting your dog is a good place to start, but you can also learn to do canine massage through companies like PetMassage, Ltd., which offers workshops and distance learning courses as well as books and videos on the topic.

4. Reiki

This simple but wonderfully effective modality involves channeling universal healing or life force energy through your hands into the dog’s body. Reiki can help with a range of problems, including anxiety and stress, by balancing the body and infusing it with positive, relaxing energy. Anyone can learn to do Reiki, but you need to be attuned to its energies so you can channel them effectively, so it involves taking a course from a Reiki Master. Alternatively, you can find Reiki practitioners who specialize in helping dogs and other animals. According to Reiki practitioner and animal communicator Janet Dobbs, a Reiki session can last from ten minutes to an hour, depending on the animal, during which he is free to move around or away from the energy as he chooses.

5. Acupressure

Generally speaking, acupressure is something like acupuncture without needles. It’s an ancient healing modality from Traditional Chinese Medicine. The body possesses energetic pathways called meridians that help with the circulation of chi (life force) and blood, and the functioning of organs. By stimulating certain acupoints on both sides of the body along these meridians, using light pressure from the tip of your thumb and holding for a slow count of 30, you can remove blockages that might be interfering with the flow of chi and blood and causing ill health, whether physical or emotional. The following acupoints on a dog’s body can be stimulated to help relieve anxiety, according to Amy Snow of Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute:

“Yin Tang – located on the dorsal midline, between the eyes
Bai Hui – Located on the dorsal midline, at the lumbosacral space
Ht 7 – Found above the transverse crease of the carpal joint, in the large depression on the lateral side of the foreleg.”

6. Herbs

Both Western and Chinese herbs can be helpful in alleviating stress and anxiety in dogs. For example, Western herbs that have a calming effect include chamomile, St. John’s wort, valerian and skullcap. Herbsmith, meanwhile, offers a line of Chinese herbal blends for animals, including one for calming nervous or stressed dogs. Before giving herbs to your dog, it’s a good idea to consult a holistic or integrative veterinarian for information about their correct use and dosage.

7. Crystals

They may look inert, but crystals emit healing vibrations that can have a soothing effect, especially on animals, which tend to be more sensitive to subtle energies than humans are. Different stones and crystals emit different frequencies, depending on their mineral composition, color, and where and how they were formed. Crystals that can help calm a tense or anxious dog include amethyst, Amazonite, chrysoprase, lepidolite, tiger’s eye, bloodstone and turquoise. Small tumbled versions of these stones can be found inexpensively at metaphysical stores or gem shows; they can be placed near your dog’s sleeping area, or even sewn into bedding. (Just don’t give them to your dog to play with as he might swallow them.) Crystals and stones can also be incorporated into collars that the dog can wear, as is the case with Emerald Halo, a company that offers a selection of crystal collars for grounding and healing.

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