The other day, my dog Ralph and I were hanging out in the yard when she suddenly started gagging. I jumped up and reached my hand into her mouth to retrieve a huge chunk of stick that had gotten stuck between her tongue and soft palate. Ralph was fine, but visibly shaken, and she didn’t leave my side for the rest of the afternoon.
After the emergency had passed, I wasn’t sure how to soothe my dog. It’s the same uncertainty I feel when she panics at loud noises: what can I do to make my dog feel comforted and safe? Should I pet her, or will that only reinforce her anxiety? Is there a “right way” to soothe an anxious or frightened dog?
When our dogs are scared or hurt, of course, we want to make them feel better. But different situations may call for different reactions. Read on to learn how to comfort your dog, when to let them comfort themselves, and how to tell the difference.
There’s no such thing as “rewarding fear”
Back in the day, people thought that giving affection and treats during a scary situation might “reward” fear behavior and make it worse. But in fact, your dog’s fear doesn’t work that way at all!
Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell explains it this way: “No amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people.” In other words, there’s no such thing as a “reward” for panic and fear.
It may help to put yourself in your dog’s paws. Can you remember a time you felt extremely frightened? Now, imagine somebody gave you a cookie in that situation. You may enjoy the cookie, but are you going to seek out that intense feeling of fear in the hopes that you might get another one? Of course not.
On the other hand, when you’re scared, a cookie might be the last thing you want. Your dog is the same way: sometimes, if they’re feeling anxious or frightened, soothing them with pets or treats won’t help at all. The best way to comfort your dog depends on the situation, and on your unique dog’s personality and preferences.
Know the signs & causes of discomfort in dogs
To comfort your dog when they’re feeling anxious, it’s helpful to figure out what’s causing the anxiety. First, learn to identify your dog’s stress signals. These may include:
- Yawning repeatedly
- Fearful body language (ears back, head down)
- Hiding in an enclose, dark, or “safe” place
Once you know what it looks like when your dog is afraid, you can figure out the cause of their distress. Some common anxiety and fear triggers for dogs are:
- Loud noises (like thunder or fireworks)
- Unfamiliar scents and sounds
- Past experiences (such as a dog who was a past victim of abuse cowering around angry-seeming people)
- Other animals
- Medical issues (like Ralph’s choking scare!)
As you get to know your dog’s body language and common behaviors, you’ll be better able to soothe them during a stressful time. For more on common signs of dog anxiety, click here.
Comfort techniques for dogs
When in doubt, let your dog lead the way. If she comes running to you for comfort, don’t hesitate to give her lots of pets and love! If she hides, don’t rush to coax her out of her safe place, as that may only increase her anxiety. Instead, maintain a calm, quiet, happy environment for her to emerge into when she’s ready.
Here are a few other suggestions for how to comfort a dog depending on the situation:
- Distraction: if your dog is nervous, but you know they’re obsessed with playing fetch, try distracting them with the tennis ball. Focusing on something else can help them ignore the stressor.
- Scent therapy: from pheromone diffusers to aromatherapy sprays, scent can be a powerful calming agent for nervous pups.
- Physical contact: pet your dog, or just sit beside her and let her feel your calming presence. Physical contact helps lower stress in both humans and dogs. Just be sure to maintain your own calm, positive attitude.
- Exercise: anxiety can sometimes relieved by physical activity. if your dog has been pacing a lot at home, or acting like they have a lot of pent-up energy, try adding an extra, brisk walk to the daily routine.
- Offer a time out: sometimes, dogs just need a break in a quiet place. If your dog is over-stimulated, more stimulation may make matters worse. Offer them a quiet room or comfy crate to calm down in.
Did you notices that many of the above dog-soothing techniques are similar to how you might soothe a worried child, or even yourself? When your dog is anxious or scared, it helps to remember what you have in common!
Click here for more tips on treating your dog’s anxiety.
Your comfort = your dog’s comfort
One of the most important tips for comforting your dog is to remain calm yourself. Although soothing an anxious dog won’t reinforce their anxiety, anxiety can be “contagious.” If you’re nervous or scared, your dog may pick up on your body language, behavior, and pheromones and become nervous or scared, too.
If your dog is in real danger (like I thought Ralph might be when she was choking on a stick), it can be hard to project a sense of calm! But you can calm yourself down by focusing on your breathing, maintaining a relaxed, confident posture, and speaking slowly and calmly. Your calmness will transfer to your dog.
If your dog demonstrates frequent anxiety or fear, you may need to consult a veterinarian and/or behaviorist. In the meantime, next time something spooks your pooch, don’t hesitate to give her all the comfort she needs.