All dogs experience anxiety or stress regularly.  It’s what motivates them to find shelter, food, social contact, avoid pain, and learn new things.  This is normal adaptive stress that presents circumstantially and abates once the stressor is removed or within a reasonable period of acclimation.  Anxious dogs accumulate stressors quickly and take longer to dissipate stressors than other calmer, more relaxed dogs.

Anxious dogs often suffer from persistent nervous system activation.  They have a hard time relaxing, following cues, or maintaining calm behavior.  They often startle easily, are sensitive to changes in their environment, and may appear on edge for hours or even days after a new experience.  An anxious dog can still be friendly.  It’s uncomfortable to be so excited that you can’t calm down.

Subtle Signs of Anxiety

Yawning in social encounters is a sign of stress in dogs.
  1. Fidgeting or Freezing.  When your dog acts squirrely or goofy in unfamiliar environments or jumps excessively in social situations this is an indication of anxiety.  Fidgeting is often misidentified as ‘friendliness’ or ‘exuberance’ and can be dismissed as enjoyment or love of people.  In fact, your dog may be so over-stimulated that they physically and mentally have no control over their actions and that isn’t fun for you or your dog.  Fidgeting often escalates to leash tugging or mounting guests and this is an indication that your dog is experiencing extreme stress.  Your dog may also ‘Freeze’ and shut down, becoming unresponsive to cues or physical prompting.
  2. Frequent or Unusual Social Signals.  Lip licking, yawning, shaking off, paw lifting, displacement sniffing, and looking away are all common social signals used by dogs to communicate anxiety or uncertainty.  A dog who is expressing frequent signals is under an elevated degree of social stress.  Failure to recognize these signals causes your dog to escalate to more obvious signals such as mounting, leash tugging, barking or lunging on leash.
  3. Anorexia.  If you dog is not ‘food motivated’ they may be over indulged, feeling ill, or under stress.  Assess your dog’s body score and ensure you can feel your dog’s ribs with light fingertip pressure and that they have an observable waist line.  Adjust their meal and treat ration accordingly, ensure that they are healthy, and trying using higher value treats.  Food is a valuable asset for helping your dog form positive associations.
Anxious dogs often display frequent tongue flicking.

Why is my Dog Anxious?

When a stressful event occurs, the body responds by releasing adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  Each of these neurotransmitters have a slightly different function from suppressing appetite and digestion to diverting blood flow from nonvital organs.  Blood supply to the the frontal cortex of the brain is reduced and sent to the heart and lungs in anticipation of sustained physical exertion.  This produces a dog that is ready to act purely on instinct and not out of conscious decision making.

Dogs may be genetically predisposed to accumulating stressors quickly and holding onto tension for longer than more confident dogs.  Their parents may have been anxious themselves or distrustful of their environment and passed this tendency along to their offspring.  High energy and working breed dogs without adequate opportunity to exercise and solve problems may be express excess energy as worry or inability to settle. 

Some dogs have had negative experiences that flooded them with fear or worry about things beyond their control or understanding.   Lack of experience also creates apprehension about what’s to come.  Ultimately your dog may feel like the world is a dangerous place due to poor experience, lack of familiarity, or having inadequate coping skills for dealing with anything exciting or arousing.

What do I do about my Anxious Dog?

Anxious dogs often pin their ears and pant.
Anxious dogs may pin their ears and pant as a display of anxiety.

Reducing arousal and anxiety is a multi-faceted approach.  It’s important to understand what your dog’s triggers are and anticipate them so you can minimize disruption to you and your dog’ s daily routine.

First, manage your environment. Avoid the triggers your dog is exposed to on a daily basis.  Give them a place where they feel safe enough to decompress and relax.  Keep intruders out of their safe space.

Use Over the Counter or Prescription Interventions. No one wants to medicate your dog needlessly.  In lieu of Rx meds, try ‘Composure’ calming chews or CBD treats/oil or Thundershirts.  For some anxious dogs, however, pharmaceuticals are absolutely the right course of action.   It is important to choose aids that are appropriate to your dog and improve their quality of life.

Desensitization and Counter Conditioning. Desensitization is the process of introducing triggers at a low intensity that produce no fear response in your dog.  Counter-Conditioning takes a trigger with a previous poor association and pairs it with anything your dog finds pleasurable in order to reframe that association as positive.  By keeping the stimulus at a tolerable level and pairing it with sufficiently rewarding things, over time your dog will learn to tolerate greater levels of stimulus comfortably.

Troubleshooting: There is no magic fix for anxiety.  Most dogs do benefit from some sort of modality in addition to their training protocol.  Supplements such as calming chews, thundershirts, T-Touch, and other modalities can work synergistically with Desensitization and Counter Conditioning protocols.

TRAINING TIP: Give your dog a choice! Let them opt in or out of training sessions or social encounters. Giving your dog the tools and the space to avoid conflict reduces stress and builds trust and confidence.


If you are struggling to help your anxious dog overcome fear, hyper-arousal, or other behavior challenges call us today at 913.712.8742. We can conduct a Private Dog Training Session in your home in or around Johnson Co, Kansas, at our facility in Spring Hill, KS, or virtually. There’s no need for your relationship with your dog to suffer because the world is a scary overwhelming place for them. We can help you help your dog and have a happier home and relationship! Visit for more information!