For those of us with dogs who are sensitive, anxious, or fearful, any large routine change can cause stress for everyone involved. Our dogs are feeling on edge, and we can become stressed from watching them struggle. Many nervous dogs tend to rely heavily on consistency and routine in their day-to-day life to feel secure, so what should we do to help them when a big change in their routine is inevitable?
Examples Of Stressful Routine Changes For Anxious Dogs
Being proactive and planning ahead (when possible) is going to be your best bet to set your nervous dog up for success. Don’t wait until they’re already struggling to intervene! When you have an upcoming change in routine approaching on your calendar, getting your dog prepared in advance is going to help everyone feel fewer effects of stress when the change does happen. A few examples of routine changes that many nervous dogs struggle with include (but aren’t limited to):
Having guests visit, whether overnight or for the day
Moving to a new home
Long or overnight travel
Having renovation, construction, or yard work done on your home
Someone moving in/out of the household
New pet addition or the passing of a family pet
If you’re able to anticipate a big routine change in your pet’s life, it may be helpful to sit down and closely examine the specific ways in which your dog’s day-to-day routine may change from how it is now. Make yourself a list: will your dog’s exercise, training, or enrichment routine reduce? Will they need to spend more time “put away” or confined? Will there be an increase in stressful triggers, like unfamiliar people or loud noises? Try to think of all the different scenarios that your dog may experience in this routine change that may cause them stress. Once you’ve been able to identify the scenarios that are likely to trigger your dog into a stress response, you can start to proactively think about the different ways you can set them up for success and have a lower-intensity experience with these changes. Depending on the situation, you may be able to use a combination of proactive training to build your dog’s skills, and management tactics to keep your dog safe from stress as much as possible to have a successful routine change.
Polish Up Your Dog’s Ability To Be Confined Safely And Calmly
It’s likely that your dog will need to spend time confined through these changes at some point, whether this be spending time in an enclosed area/room of the home, spending time in a travel carrier, or being crated. If your dog isn’t crated or confined often, it will be helpful to spend several days leading up to the routine change gradually introducing (or re-introducing) your dog to the types of confinement they will likely be subjected to. This is best done in small approximations towards the end-goal context that you will actually need the skill for. This could look like:
Day 1-2: Spending a 5-10 minute training session per day playing crate games, or having a training session in the confinement area/room of capturing and reinforcing calm behaviors (4 on the floor, laying down, quiet, etc)
Day 3-4: Placing your dog in their confinement area for 5-10 minutes at a time while you go about your day nearby, periodically calmly reinforcing with low-value treats for calm, quiet, or settling behavior while confined
Day 5-7: Increasing the amount of time each day that you ask your dog to be in confinement as you go about your routine, opting to give them a calming enrichment activity if needed to build positive associations and self-soothe (stuffed Kongs, Toppls, Lickimats, etc)
*If your dog becomes stressed or frantic in confinement, please consult with a rewards-based professional to find the best confinement alternative or to condition your dog with positive reinforcement training and systematic desensitization.
Research Your Calming Aids
There are many different calming aids for dogs out on the market these days. Before delving into the world of anti-anxiety products for dogs, be sure to do your research on the best fits for your dog’s specific situation, health, and needs. A few common products we often see used include:
Calming Supplements- Many supplements out there claim to be the cure-all your dog needs to eradicate their anxiety. This can be a lucrative business, so while some supplements can potentially have some influence on your dog’s behavior, not all supplements are created equal. Be sure to double check with your veterinarian before starting a new calming supplement with your dog to be safe.
Pheromone Products- Pheromone sprays, collars, diffusers, etc. are made of synthetic pheromones that encourage calmness in dogs, and usually mimic the pheromones a mother dog releases after giving birth to her puppies. While many people see a great reduction in their dog’s stress levels with these products, others don’t seem to notice much of a difference. This all depends on your individual dog!
Compression Clothing- These types of calming aids rely on gentle compression (similar to swaddling an infant) to help a dog naturally release calming hormones like oxytocin and endorphins. Like the pheromone products, there are some who see a difference with these products, and others who do not.
Anti-Anxiety Medication- Behavior medications to reduce levels of stress and anxiety in our dogs are becoming increasingly more popular as an option for dogs who experience significant levels of fear, anxiety, and stress in their day-to-day lives. If you believe your dog may be a candidate for medical intervention when it comes to reducing their anxiety, talk to your veterinarian and behavior professional to determine the best course of action for your individual dog.
Plan For Lots Of Self-Soothing Activities In Advance
Where possible, plan to have several activities planned for your dog to make sure they have outlets to self-soothe.
The act of sniffing can be incredibly calming and soothing for our dogs, so try to either incorporate some sniffing enrichment like feeding through a snuffle mat, scatter feeding your dog’s meal through the home/yard for them to sniff out, or going on a relaxing sniff walk on a long line as opposed to a traditional 4-6 foot leash, allowing your dog to decide the route and sniff for as long as they want without intervention from you to move them along. These walks are more about giving your dog choice and allowing them to fully use their nose, over being about rigorous exercise or covering a lot of ground.
Licking and chewing are also fantastic ways to give your dog an outlet to self-soothe. This can come in the form of stuffed enrichment items like Kongs, West Paw Toppls, Lickimats, or Soda Pup enrichment toys. Lick mats are a great place to start if you and your dog don’t have a lot of experience of working for their food through enrichment. Check out this video! For dogs who enjoy chewing, giving your dog a long-lasting edible chew like a bully stick, himalayan yak chew, or a stuffed cow hoof can be a great way to give them an outlet to use their mouth and de-stress. Be sure to avoid giving rawhide bones, as these are not fully digestible and pose risk of a GI impaction, which is a medical emergency.
When Possible, Set Up A “Zen Area” For Your Dog
If you anticipate a lot of commotion being added to your dog’s routine, like when having guests over or work done on your home, it may help your dog immensely to set up a quiet part of the house for them to spend time in, away from all of the chaos. Make sure your dog has a comfy resting place with familiar scents on it, The dog is crated (if comfortable being crated) or the room is “dog-proofed” and free of any hazardous or off-limits items for your dog to chew up, and try playing some calming music, white noise, or running a noisy fan to break up sound waves coming from other areas of the house. This would be a great time to also provide your dog one of the previously mentioned self-soothing enrichment items to give them something to occupy their mind while put away as well. When you aren’t able to supervise your dog, and when known stressors are present in your home or routine, it may be easier for your nervous dog to opt for spending time away from the commotion instead of trying to include them in the events.
Even run-of-the-mill life changes for us can turn an anxious dog’s world upside down. But, these adjustments don’t have to be so stressful for them, and don’t have to cause us so much guilt. All it takes is a little pre-planning, some careful consideration, and doing what we can to set our dogs up for success! DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission but the price of the product does not change for you at all. This helps support the channel and allows us to continue to make videos like this. Thank you for your support!