There’s no worse feeling as a pet parent than seeing your best friend in distress. Whether your dog is feeling anxious because of a sudden thunderstorm, loud noises, or because he’s adjusting to changes in your household structure, learning how to calm a dog down is a lesson that has many applications.
Calming Down a Dog: General Guidelines
Dog anxiety can manifest in many ways, from extreme behavior to withdrawal. In some cases—like when a dog is suffering from separation anxiety—the behavior that results is hard to miss. But in other scenarios stress can cause a dog to shut down and withdraw in ways that might not be as obvious. Keep in mind that a quiet dog isn’t necessarily always a happy dog.
The first step in learning how to calm a dog down with anxiety is recognizing the body language that signifies your dog is stressed or anxious. Once a dog tips over into a “fight or flight” response bringing about positive behavioral change is more challenging. Picking up on the early stages of canine distress will make it easier for you to work with your dog and will prevent your dog’s discomfort from escalating.
In addition to the hard-to-miss behaviors, a dog in need of calming support might:
- Hunch over
- Freeze in place
- Move in slowly
- Repeatedly lick lips
- Yawn frequently
- Pant heavily or suddenly stop panting despite temperature or activity level
There’s an outdated dog calming tip that suggested pet parents should avoid comforting a distressed dog because it might reinforce the dog’s fear and accidentally encourage the behavior. It’s simply not true.
Fearful reactions are involuntary emotional responses—your dog has no control over them so acknowledging them won’t make them worse. Being there for your dog during times of stress and offering comfort will help your dog understand that he can turn to you for support when he’s feeling anxious.
How to Calm Down a Dog With Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a stress response that a dog exhibits when the person (or people) that the dog is bonded to is away from home. The key to figuring out how to calm a dog down with separation anxiety requires permanently changing his perception of what being alone means.
Dogs suffering from severe separation anxiety can benefit from instructor-led sessions that utilize a training technique called systematic desensitization, which is a very gradual process of slowly getting your dog used to being left alone using small, incremental steps.
Dogs experiencing milder forms of separation distress might benefit from the following tips:
Desensitizing pre-departure cues. These include attempting to desensitize your dog to actions like grabbing the keys or putting on a jacket.
Mental and physical stimulation. Engaging your dog’s body and brain prior to leaving the house by playing training or scenting games that will make him more likely to rest.
A useful distraction. Leave treat-stuffable, interactive toys for your dog to enjoy when you leave.
How to Calm Down a Scared Dog
Because fear in dogs can have many causes, the first step in figuring out how to calm down a scared dog is determining the reason for the fear. Once you understand what is causing the fear, you can desensitize the trigger in gradual training sessions.
It’s important to let fearful dogs set the pace for interactions. Pushing dogs beyond their comfort zone can lead to regressions. To calm down a scared dog:
Identify all triggers: Is your dog scared of every loud noise outside your window, or just trucks? Do all men in hats make him nervous, or just bearded men in hats? The better you are at determining what’s scaring your dog, the more effectively you can deal with the issue.
Introduce the trigger at a distance: If your pup is afraid of bearded men in hats, have a bearded, hat-wearing man stand at a distance at which your dog can see him, but not close enough that his presence will trigger a fear response in your dog.
Pair the trigger with treats: The goal of the exercise is to change your dog’s perception of the trigger that is causing fear. An easy way to do it is associate the scary thing with something good: treats! Feed your dog high-value goodies like cheese or hot dogs while the trigger is in the distance, and stop feeding them when the person steps out of sight.
Gradually decrease the distance: Once seeing the trigger in the distance evokes an excited response from your dog—like he gives a little tail wag—begin doing trials with the trigger a little closer. Gradually reduce the distance in ongoing sessions.
How to Calm Down a Dog During Fireworks or Storms
When considering how to calm a dog down during fireworks and storms it’s important to remember that the booming sounds can make a dog feel vulnerable. Thunderstorms and fireworks are common canine fears.
Both are scary, but storms have the added challenges of being unpredictable (making it hard for you to be prepared), plus the changes in the barometric pressure that might lead to increased static electricity can exacerbate fear responses in dogs. Luckily, fireworks are a bit more predictable and pet parents can generally prepare a bit more for these events.
The following tips can help soothe your dog fireworks and storms:
Get dogs used to the sounds. Get your dog more comfortable with the noise by playing a recording of fireworks or storm sounds at a low volume and pairing it with treats.
Use a compression vest. Using a “swaddling” garment can help your dog feel more secure during storms or fireworks.
Keep your dog occupied. Giving your dog something to do, like a treat-filled puzzle toy, might help him focus on something other than the noise outside.
Muffle the sounds. A white noise machine might be enough to cover outdoor booming.
Give your dog a chill spot. Some dogs seek out the bathroom during storms, so make it more comfortable for him by putting his bed there with some water and toys.
How to Calm Down a Dog in the Car
Some dogs love to hop in the car and go for an adventure but they show their excitement by being out-of-control passengers. Not only is a rowdy dog a distraction for the driver, it’s also dangerous for your pup. On the other hand, some dogs become anxious and stressed by car rides and may pant, shake, and whine excessively. They might also try to pace around or jump up to look out the window if unrestrained, which can lead to injury.
You can help your dog learn to be a safer passenger with the following tips:
Work on manners getting in and out of the car. Instead of letting your dog torpedo into the car, ask for a polite sit before you allow him to jump out, and get a sit and “wait” prior to taking him out of the car.
Start with short trips. Instead of going for a long ride right out of the gate, try going for a quick drive around the block. This way, it ends before your dog works up to a fever pitch if they get overexcited or it helps anxious dogs get used to being in the car and returning home without the stress of a long trip.
Use the right kind of restraint. Not only is a free range dog in the back seat dangerous, it can also encourage dashing from window to window. Invest in a crash-tested car restraint that can keep your dog safe and comfortable.
Consider anti-car sickness remedies. Some overeager passengers might be acting out due to discomfort (drooling and heavy panting are hints), so try an over-the-counter remedy to help him feel more comfortable.