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Enrichment For Anxious Dogs

Enrichment can play an important role in helping to both keep our dogs calm during stressful situations but also help to teach them than they don't need to be stressed at all during these situations!

It took us a long time to realise just how anxious our pup Maya was. Maybe it's because she's our first dog and we didn't know what to look for or maybe it's because she's very good at hiding it! Most people think she's a super friendly (OVER friendly!) barrel of energy whose nose is always first into new things checking them out and literally charges into new experiences. We learnt gradually as she grew up, she's actually super anxious and her way of dealing with this is to be the loudest and craziest she can be.

Once we’d finally worked out that this was the root of lots of our behaviour and health problems enrichment activities along with training (which counts as enrichment!) have played a key role in helping her and can help your dog feel calm and reduce their stress too.

anxious dog hiding

The Three Main Areas Enrichment Can Help Anxious Dogs

  1. In the situation giving them a mindful distraction so they're not focused on the trigger.

  2. Helping to teach them coping mechanisms to deal with situations in an appropriate way to minimises stress and anxiety and build confidence in them to deal with their stressors.

  3. Retrain their brain to help them see that their triggers are not something to worry about at all but can actually be good and exciting!

Its important to remember that every dogs fears and anxieties are different and they should be treated so. For some dogs just adding in a new type of enrichment feeder can be overwhelming. Others can take up to 3 days to properly decompress after a stressful situation. With this in mind always take thing slowly, give lots of praise, reassure when necessary and allow time for decompression before and after stressful situations.

If you have one of these super anxious pups take the introduction of anything new slowly. Sprinkle treats around any new objects to encourage interaction and don't put pressure on them to try. If its too much for them take a step back and try again another day. Although it may seem such a small thing for us their fear is very real to them.

TIP: If you haven't ever looked at the different signs of fear in dogs its definitely worth looking into so you can start understanding how your dog is feeling and how to help them.

Dog anxiety scale

Mindful Distractions During Stressful Situations

This could be noises outside, being left alone, grooming, guests in the house or anything else that triggers anxiety.

Puzzle games and Play

We can play games with our dog or give them puzzle feeders so they are distracted from the situation. Puzzle toys are a wonderful way to engage a nervous dog's mind and divert their attention from stress triggers. Fill dog puzzle toys or slow feeder bowls with their favorite treats or food, encouraging them to problem-solve and work for their rewards. The mental stimulation helps redirect their focus and can be a calming and confidence-boosting activity. Playing games can work the same way for dogs who are not as food driven but prefer toys instead.

Sensory Exploration with Snuffle Mats

Snuffle mats are not only enjoyable for dogs; they also provide a relaxing and sensory-rich experience. These mats are designed with fleece strips or fabric, allowing you to hide treats or kibble within the folds. Your dog's natural foraging instincts will kick in as they use their sense of smell to find the hidden treats. The slow-paced activity can help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation with the added benefit of actually tiring your pup out as using their nose to sniff uses a lot of brain power!

Lick Mats

We love using lick mats here and always have a few of them in the freezer ready to go for unexpected situations or when we don't have time to make one. Whilst giving them a lick mat is a great distraction from a stressful situation the licking action also helps release endorphins which calm your dog down. We give our dog a lick mat when we have guests over and she’s over excited/stressed about everything and once she's finished it she’s much calmer.

Long Lasting Chews

Just like licking, chewing releases endorphins which produces a calming effect in dogs. As chews are generally recommended to only be used whilst supervising to prevent damage or choking hazards this is one to use whilst you are there and not for separation anxiety.

Playing Music or Watching TV

Lots of dogs really enjoy, and are calmed by listening to music. There are actually playlists on spotify designed specifically for dogs! We leave the radio on everytime we go out to mask noises.

Some dogs love watching TV and as long as they are calmed by it, it can be a great distraction for them.

We use all of these tools a lot!

  • When our neighbours are opening and closing car doors. We have super busy neighbours with lots of visitors which can get Maya quite anxious about who’s outside. By playing tug with her or giving her a lick mat we keep her distracted from the noises, focused on something she enjoys and prevent her getting stressed in the first place.

  • After walks or busy days we use lick mats or chews to help calm her down.

  • When we are leaving her alone she has puzzle feeders to keep her distracted.

  • During bath time we use peanut butter of a lick mat with suction cups to keep her entertained.

Creating Confidence and Optimism

Confidence-Building Obedience Training
dog training

Obedience training provides structure and a sense of purpose for anxious dogs. Basic commands like "sit," "stay," and "come" can help them understand what's expected of them in various situations, fostering a sense of control. Always use positive reinforcement training with treats and praise which builds their confidence and helps strengthen the human-dog bond.

If your dog gets stressed out by the doorbell you can teach them what you want them to do (for example - go to their bed) and as they understand what to do it will prevent the situation from becoming stressful. This can be translated into many different scenarios.

Teaching your dog ‘middle’ can be great for teaching your dog a safe space to be and go to if they get anxious whilst out and about.

Playing Hide and Seek

Playing hide and seek is an excellent way to strengthen the bond between you and your anxious pup while providing a sense of security. You don't want them to panic so make sure you start in a spot that's easy for them to find you. Call out their name and when they find you, shower them with praise and treats. As they gain confidence, try more challenging hiding spots. This game fosters trust and boosts their sense of accomplishment.

Paws Up (or a move that brings them joy)

Paws Up is a great trick to teach your dog and to use when out and about to give them a confidence boost. Lots of dog owners use this when first arriving at a new spot. It encourages your dog to pay attention to you but also gives a sense of reassurance as it's a predictable move in an unknown place.

Cardboard Chaos

Using cardboard boxes, plastic bottles… anything that moves and makes noises creating a place for your dog to snuffle through finding yummy treats as they go. For super anxious dogs even just the cardboard box might be scary so just gently encourage and reward them for just interacting in any way with the box. Start at your dog's comfort level and build up as they become more confident with the different noises and textures. It helps get them used to different noises, movement and smells at their own pace and realise that it's not so scary.

dog in cardboard box

dog on log

Encourage dogs to explore their environment. Look for objects in your environment, such as fallen logs, low walls, benches or lamp posts that can be utilized as obstacles. Guide your dog through the course, encouraging them to jump over, crawl under or walk around the obstacles. This game is great for helping build confidence in dogs who are anxious whilst on walks but also provides physical exercise, improving your dog's coordination, balance, and problem-solving skills. Start easy and work to your dog's comfort level.

Socialization and Playdates in Safe Spaces

For some anxious dogs, socialisation can be a crucial part of building confidence. Arrange play dates with other well-behaved and friendly dogs in a secure and controlled environment. Positive interactions with other dogs, especially when they are a puppy, can help reduce fear and anxiety, promoting social skills and boosting their self-assurance.

Change the Way They Feel About Their Triggers

Gradual Desensitization to Triggers

Gradual desensitization is a training technique that involves exposing your dog to thier anxiety triggers in a controlled and gradual manner. Identify the triggers that cause stress, like car doors, fireworks or dogs baking, and introduce them at a low intensity - either at a large distance or a low volume. Over time, gradually increase the exposure while rewarding calm behavior. This method helps your dog build tolerance and reduces their anxious response to triggers.

It can help to have a recording of the trigger noise on your phone so its easy to control the volume, length and place you play it. You can start at a very low volume and only play it for a very short period of time.

All puppies should get lots of desensitisation training as they're growing up as it can really help reduce anxiety when they're older!

DMT - Distraction, Mark, Treat

Similar to gradual desensitisation but using a word or clicker and a treat to help retrain their brain and forget their anxieties.

Step 1 - Pick a marker word that you're happy to say regularly to your dog in a variety of situations. Our word is ‘nice’ but ‘yes’ works well too. At first say this word at any and every noise, movement, object around you both in and out of the house, not things that make them anxious. As you say your marker word, reward your dog with a treat. Your dog will very quickly learn that ‘nice’ means a treat is coming and look towards you.

Step 2 - Once your dog knows their marker word you can start using it in situations that they find stressful too. You need to find your dog's limit before they are over their threshold for this. For example - If your dog gets stressed and barks at other dogs once they are within 10 meters then stay further away than this. As you see another dog coming, say ‘NICE’ and reward. Repeat this regularly and soon your dog will see another dog and start to look at you ready to receive their treat.

Step 3 - As you practice this more and more the distance before your dog reacts will decrease until they no longer see the other dog as something to be anxious about but will just be ready for their treat.

This can work for noises too if we play the anxiety inducing noise along with our marker word and treat. Start the noise very quietly or for a doorbell just a second of the sound and gradually increase this over time as you DMT.

It's important with DMT to continue to mark and treat lots of different noises and movements and not just things that make them anxious. We don’t want them associating the word with something scary about to happen but just with treats and great things!

goldendoodle on sofa
Our pup Maya

Enrichment activities and training exercises can play a vital role in helping our nervous or anxious dogs find their inner calm and confidence. By providing mindful distractions during stressful times, helping them build confidence and security in knowing what to do and helping to teach them there is nothing to be fearful of, we can help our dogs feel safe and empowered. Remember that each dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. It does take a lot of patience, consistency, and understanding to help our anxious pups but it's so worth it once you start to see them stay calm and relaxed in situations they used to struggle with.

pup and puzzle

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