Enrichment, or the act of providing your pet with mental and physical stimulation, can be a great way to calm an anxious dog.
Dogs become anxious for many reasons such as lack of exercise, boredom in the home environment, jealousy over attention given to other pets in the household, separation anxiety (from their owners), and more. When dogs are bored they may exhibit destructive behaviours like chewing furniture or barking excessively. Enrichment can help curb these behaviors by keeping your pup stimulated throughout his day.
We ask our dogs to live in a strange world with lots of different sights, sounds, and smells. It’s a lot for any dog to deal with. The small apartments, the rushing traffic, and owners that leave every day for hours on end are realities that dogs don’t understand and have no ability to make sense of. Is it really surprising that our canine companion’s stress bucket overflows?
Enrichment can be used to help calm an anxious dog. Canine enrichment is any tool that is used to improve your dog’s quality of life. When used strategically, these tools will help your dog switch from a chronic state of anxiety to a calm, confident, happy way of being.
An anxious dog does not have to stay anxious. A systematic enrichment strategy can be used to help “reprogram” your dog’s brain. As your dog learns to engage in life in a calm and focused way, they will become more and more confident. Their anxious days will fall behind them, and you, their owner, can take pride in knowing that you helped your canine friend find his inner zen!
The Difference Between Fear and Anxiety in Dogs
Fear and anxiety are two sides of the same mirror. Fear is the instinctive response of the brain to a REAL threat. By contrast, anxiety is the brain’s response to a PERCEIVED threat. In other words, the danger does not have to be real for your brain to react as if it were. Fearful and anxious brains look the same on an MRI scan.
Both an anxious and a fearful brain will result in increased levels of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). In contrast, neurotransmitters and hormones (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) associated with wellbeing and relaxation will be depleted.
You may not always understand why your dog is so afraid. After all, you are taking your dog to the vet to help him, not hurt him. All the websites say you should exercise your dog, but she behaves like a neurotic mess on walks and continually shakes when you bring out the lead. It doesn’t make sense; doesn’t she want to go on a walk with you?
Your dog’s anxiety may appear silly and nonsensical, but so is our anxiety about public speaking or flying in an airplane. Regardless of whether your dog’s anxiety is valid or invalid from a human perspective, the reality is your dog’s fear is very real to them. We need to help our dogs find a place of relaxation where they can be happy, calm, and confident. Even non-anxious dogs can benefit from calmness-based training and enrichment.
Your dog’s anxiety can present in many different ways, such as:
- Nervous urination and defecation
- Refusing to eat
- Stomach complaints and skin issues
What Is Canine Enrichment For Anxious Dogs?
When we talk about enrichment for dogs, we are referring to any activity, game, toy, or other strategies to improve your dog’s quality of life. An unenriched versus an enriched life could be likened to a sepia-toned black and white photo versus a colour photo.
The black and white photo is perfectly adequate. Still, you often miss the details, the nuances, and the richness that a colour photo gives you. Enrichment adds colour to your dog’s life. It helps them be happier and calmer as life becomes interesting, safe, and fun.
Enrichment is a great way to strengthen your bond with your dog and help them become the calmest, most confident versions of themselves. A relaxed and confident dog is so much more pleasant, healthy, and safe to be around.
Different Types of Enrichment for Anxious Dogs
Enrichment comes in many different forms. Like humans, each dog’s needs and interests will vary.
A high-energy anxious dog like a Border Collie or German Shepherd may benefit more from highly focused mental and physical work or play. Whereas a nervous Yorkshire Terrier may only become increasingly terrified if you tried to use the same approach as with your German Shepherd. Instead, your Yorkshire Terrier may benefit from T-Touch techniques to stimulate the rest-and-relaxation system. Helping them achieve a state of calm through gentle purposeful touch.
Your anxious dog’s life may be enriched through:
- Giving them a job
- Playing and social activities
- Puzzle toys and games
- T-touch techniques
Exercise Ideas To Calm Anxious Dogs
Exercise is a basic need of all dogs, but specific age categories and breeds have more extreme exercise requirements. If a dog does not receive an opportunity to release this energy, it can lead to frustration and increased anxiety. Younger dogs and high-energy breeds like Border Collies, Jack Russell Terriers, and Alaskan Malamutes will need more exercise than older, infirm dogs or low energy breeds like Bulldogs, Great Danes, and Chihuahuas.
Exercise increases serotonin, the feel-good hormone. When serotonin is released, it acts on receptors in the brain to improve your dog’s feeling of wellbeing. Serotonin is a significant mood regulator and anti-depressant.
Humans benefit from exercise-induced serotonin highs, e.g., running can result in people getting a runner’s high. The positive emotional and physical benefits obtained from regular exercise have been well-documented in humans. The same is true for dogs.
You and your dog may enjoy several different types of exercise depending on your dog’s personality and physical ability as well as your own. Exercise types include:
For young dogs or dogs with compromised joints, swimming is an excellent alternative to high-impact sports like running or frisbee. Swimming is physically demanding on your dog and allows them to eliminate excess energy without damaging vulnerable joints. It’s important when choosing to participate in a particular exercise that it’s appropriate for your dog’s age, physical fitness, natural ability, and temperament. Always introduce new activities in a careful, systematic manner that builds your dog’s confidence.
Give Your Anxious Dog A Job To Keep Them Busy
Some dogs are blessed with an abundance of energy and exceptional mental agility. These gifted dogs can make their owners slightly crazed as they try to keep their beloved pets entertained. These exhausted owners are usually found on German Shepherd and Border Collie forums; their posts generally start with some version of:
“We’ve been to the park three times today and gone for a four-hour run. My dog came home and slept for 20 minutes and now wants to go again…”
These are good owners who are trying their best but are being run ragged by their dogs. Often these types of extreme dogs benefit from a job that is physically AND mentally demanding. They often excel in activities like herding, search and rescue, and agility.
Suppose you are that hair-standing-on-end wild-eyed owner of a high-energy savant-like dog. In that case, it may be worthwhile considering a dog sport that engages both the dog’s body and mind. A google search for trainers in your area will usually produce a plethora of local trainers who can help you get started in one of these sports.
Playing And Socialisation Can Calm Your Anxious Dog
Dogs are pack animals and, as such, are social creatures. They will enjoy spending time playing with other dogs they are comfortable with. The key with anxious dogs is to ensure that they are paired with calm, well-balanced playmates with similar energy levels. Pairing a nervous dog with an overly boisterous playmate can make them more anxious.
Your dog will be overjoyed if you play with them. It allows the bond between you and your friend to be strengthened and allows both of you some much-needed relaxation time. Depending on your dog’s anxiety and energy levels, your dog may need quieter games or more boisterous play. Tug-of-war, hide-and-seek, or even just a simple game of fetch can be enormously rewarding for both of you.
Puzzles Help To Anxious Dogs to Relax
Mental games and toys allow your dog to puzzle through problems on its own. It acts as a distraction for nervous dogs. As they begin to focus and engage with the game, the brain releases dopamine, an important neurotransmitter involved with activating relaxation in the brain.
Slow feeders and toys that encourage a dog to think will make feeding time a fun and exciting activity. It has the added advantage of slowing down fast eaters and prevent health issues like bloat. Using different dog-safe food in addition to their regular kibble can make eating a desirable activity, even for picky eaters.
Choose a puzzle with a difficulty level that’s right for your dog so that you don’t cause further frustration and anxiety.
Use Tellington Touch To Calm Your Anxious Dog
Linda Tellington developed a T-Touch program that uses specific massage and touch techniques to activate your dog’s rest-and-relaxation centres in their brains. It is particularly beneficial for dogs with extreme anxiety. Using this approach, we can use the dog’s natural responses to help them find peace.
T-Touch is a well-respected technique widely used amongst animal behaviourists and animal rehabilitation professionals. The gentle, non-threatening ethos underpinning all T-Touch practices means any dog owner can safely use it. It is best to go to a licensed practitioner who can instruct you on which techniques to use with your pet and how to apply them.
Have a Calmer, Happier Dog – Use Enrichment
Enrichment is an excellent method to help anxious dogs calm down. The incorporation of enrichment into your dog’s life will significantly improve their quality of life and wellbeing. In turn, this induces an increase in the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin. Mixing and matching the different forms of enrichment will yield the best results as your dog learns to trust you and feel happy and relaxed within himself.
If you are truly stuck, I would strongly urge you to seek the advice of a professional. Your dog doesn’t need to remain anxious. Sometimes expert assistance is all you need to transform your dog from a nervous wreck to a well-balanced, happy companion.Anxious Dog? 5 Easy Enrichment Activities To Calm Your Dog. Here's how you can make your dog more comfortable in his day-to-day life with enrichment ideas that won't take up much time or money! Click To Tweet