Animal Awareness

How to calm your dog down so it’s happy instead of stressed

How to calm your dog down

The world can be a scary place, even for us humans who supposedly have a good grasp on things and an understanding of, for instance, what thunder is.  To your dog, however, the unknown can cause paralyzing fear.  Understanding how to calm your dog down so he or she isn’t scared or perhaps even dangerous during stressful times is critical to the safety and well being of your pooches.  If you have a dog that cringes when they hear fireworks or tear up couches when left alone for too long, you know what I mean.  There’s a difference between being fearful of outward influences such as thunder and being bored so feeling like eating a couch is the right thing to do.  But both situations can be addressed by means and methods of calming your dog and helping them to relax at times they would otherwise be scared, nervous, or bored. Reducing your dog’s anxiety is possible.  Read below to find out how.

We’ll take a look at how to calm your dog down during in several scenarios.  They may not be a perfect match for your situation but what is discussed should be useful regardless.

How to calm your dog down

Calming dogs that are scared of loud noises or flashes of light

We have a couple of rescues that are brother and sister Pit Bulls named Rusty and Rocket.  When we found them they had been on the street for what appeared to be a pretty good length of time and both were pretty nervous. They have since turned into wonderful companions and now realize they have nothing to worry about so have calmed down considerably.  Rocket, the female, if afraid of absolutely nothing.  Big brother Rusty, however, used to tremble during thunderstorms.  We’ve had them for about 10 years now and for the first 8 we could do nothing to calm him.  We started studying how to work with him and came across the concept of desensitization.  Nothing new here at all, I think we were just late to the game.

Desensitization works like this:

  • Find out what your dog is afraid of
  • Gradually, over time, expose your dog to varying degrees of his fear at such small levels it’s almost imperceptible.
  • Increase this exposure in terms of frequency and levels over time

…that’s about it.  Pretty easy stuff.  The key here is that you must be patient and you must be in tune with how your dog is reacting.  Do not force it and do not get upset if progress isn’t being made as fast as you want. You have to do this at the dog’s pace, not yours.  Also, remember that if you get upset, your dog will pick up on that and it’ll be that much harder to make progress.

Two things we did – we recruited his sister Rocket.  The two are just about inseparable anyway and we figured her calming influence would be helpful.  We also bought a CD of thunderstorms and rain sounds.  Interestingly enough, this is intended to help humans meditate.  I’m sure you can find a download of it these days but there are plenty of inexpensive CD’s to choose from as well.

We played this at low volume throughout the day while Rusty was playing, eating, resting, etc.  It became a constant backdrop to our daily lives and was surprisingly relaxing for us humans!  We thought he would be unnerved at first but he wasn’t.  He completely didn’t care.  So over time we increased the volume and when we could see it was affecting him, we backed it down a bit and then just kept up the constant barrage of low level storm sounds.  This went on for weeks, by the way.  I’m not implying we did this all in a day or two.

During those weeks, we had actual storms that came and went.  We live in Georgia and the storms are severe.  I can remember waiting anxiously as the weather forecast called for the first big storm after we had started Rusty’s desensitization, wondering how much progress we had made.  As it turned out, practically zero.  Rusty was terrified as always.

But, we weren’t going to give up so we continued with the backdrop of thunder and storm sounds.  We humans had actually come to appreciate it as well.

In the end, I can only say that at some point, and I’m not sure when, Rusty’s desensitization just seemed to kick in.  One storm he was afraid, the next he wasn’t.  At all.  He just didn’t care.  I can only attribute it to the constant effort and exposing him to the backdrop of storm sounds as there is simply no other explanation.  Today, he’s fine.  We still listen to the CD from time to time but for our own relaxation and enjoyment.  The sounds meant to help humans mediate are pretty good at calming dogs also.

The process above can be used for anything that your dog is afraid of.  Fireworks?  Go through the above but with sounds of fireworks or explosions.  Probably won’t be as relaxing to you as our storms sounds were to us but I’m confident the result will be comparable.  I feel like the key here is to expose your dog to it all the time, or as often as possible.  Very low levels while the dog is sleeping just can’t help but work, right?

If you pooch is afraid of physical things rather than noises, the process is a bit different, but the underlying concepts are the same.

helping your dog calm down and relax - Jake

Help your dog calm down around physical things, like the trash truck

Unless you want to buy or download sounds of a trash truck and play them around your house 24/7, we need to find a different approach.  From a very basic perspective, the intent should be the same, however.  Frequent low level exposure over time, increased at a pace that is acceptable to your dog.  If Fido freaks out when the trash truck comes around, then we need to expose him to more trash trucks.  And probably not just trash trucks but any large and loud vehicle.  School busses, semi trucks, heavy equipment such as bulldozers, etc.  Exposure to any of these types of vehicles in a comfortable way will help him desensitize.  It’ll be a good deal more effort than playing music at the house, but the outcome is worth it.

Think of places where large vehicles are constantly in motion and that you can stand on the periphery with your dog so you aren’t up too close.  I’m thinking school bus yards, truck stops, landfills, busy intersections, etc.  Since we’re talking about a lot of traffic, I recommend a very sturdy leash and harness to ensure there’s no chance of him running off.

Don’t start right up in the mix of things. Take him to the very edge where he can observe but not be nervous.  Have some treats handy and be patient, it’ll take time.  If you have chosen a busy intersection, hang out a few streets back where there is less traffic and just play with him or let him sit and observe.  As he settles in, move a bit closer…literally a few steps.  If he gets nervous, back up a bit.  Eventually you’ll find the sweet spot where he’s watching the traffic but not nervous.  When he stops watching the traffic, it’s a good time to move a bit closer.  If he’s not watching it, he’s probably not afraid of it, so move a bit closer.

If you’ve chosen a different place such as a landfill or bus yard, use the same approach. It always feels like a landfill is an interesting place because of the size of the vehicles that come through and the smell.  To us, not a pleasant odor but to dogs, it can be heaven so they are getting the stimulation from the smells they love while also gaining visibility, hearing, and proximity to very large vehicles.  So take a trip to the dump (you don’t need that chewed up couch anyway) and take your nervous dog with you.

We hope you’ve learned a bit about how to calm your dog down so they can remain happy and relaxed during times or events that may have otherwise been stressful for them.  It can be a lengthy process but well worth the effort.  We would love to hear your story so feel free to add to the comments below.


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