Anxiety, Canine

Recommendations for Pets with Anxiety

By Dr. Karen Burgess

Punishment for destructive behavior:
Do not use verbal or physical punishments in response to destructive behavior. Punishment has many side effects and often makes anxiety worse. If he/she is being destructive prior to your return home, he/she will not be able to associate this behavior with the punishment. Punishing when you get home might also increase anxiety, as your pet will feel conflict over wanting you to return but may associate your returns with being punished. At this point you are not using punishment in response to your pet’s destructive behavior so this statement is here for informational purposes.

Clicker training:
Training with a clicker is a very effective and fun way to teach Piper new tasks. After your pet has been introduced to the clicker and associates its unique sound with the presentation of food, it becomes a conditioned reinforcer. This means the click sound advises that a reward is coming. It is also an event marker, meaning that it clearly and immediately tells your pet which behavior is being rewarded. The goal in using clicker training during relaxation and response substitution exercises is to allow you to clearly and consistently communicate to your pet which behaviors are desired. An excellent resource for using clicker training for obedience exercises (and tricks) is  and “Clicking with Your Dog” by Peggy Tillman.

Departure counter-conditioning:
Give your dog a delectable food treat or food stuffed toy that will take a number of minutes to consume at departure. The intention of this exercise is to distract him/her from your departure and allow them to associate owner departures with a pleasant event. Use these treats or toys only upon departing and remove them when you return home. Kong toys are great to use for this exercise and many recipes for Kong stuffing can be found

  • Modify your departure and greeting routine: Ignore your dog for 30 minutes prior to departure. Feeding, walks, and elimination should occur before this period. When you return, you may allow Piper to go outdoors to eliminate, but only give attention when he/she is calm and quiet. These exercises are meant to prevent inadvertent reinforcement of anxious behaviors.
  • Change the predictive value of departure cues: Make a list of activities that you perform prior to leaving your home which signals that you are leaving and makes him/her more anxious (signs of anxiety may include panting, pacing, or following).  Perform these activities at times when you have no intention of leaving (repeat 2-4 times daily until he/she does not respond to your cues with anxious behaviors). You may notice that, at first, they will show increased anxiety when you do these things, but, over time, the anxiety will decrease as he/she can no longer use these cues as reliable indicators of your departure.

Indoor relaxation exercises:
Begin training your pet to assume a calm, relaxed behavior on a specific mat or bed during gradually increasing periods of separation. Use the clicker followed by delectable food treats as positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Begin by asking for a relaxed down-stay (such as down with head on paws) for increasing lengths of time before giving a reward. The goal is to reward not only the down behavior, but also relaxed body postures. Build up to about 10-15 seconds between the cue and the reward. Once you can do this, take one step back and immediately return to your dog and reward.

Repeat this step several times until he/she is relaxed. Then take two steps back, three steps back, etc until you can leave the room. Return to your pet each time before giving a reward. Repeat each step several times until he/she is relaxed before moving on to the next step. When you can leave the room, gradually increase the time you are gone before returning and rewarding. Repeat these sessions several times per day.

For further information regarding anxiety in pets, please contact Healthy Paws Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment with Dr Burgess.