Soothing anxious dogs (or cats) with calming signals


anxious dogs

This blog post is for anyone who wants to be able to help anxious pets- their own, or ones they meet anywhere. I’ve helped hundreds of pet owners ease their pets’ anxiety, and I’d love to help you too!

Anxiety is becoming more and more common in domestic pets – especially in dogs, but it’s creeping up in cats as well. If you come across an anxious dog (or cat), you can do a lot to help them relax and be at ease. Soothing anxious dogs with calming signals is a skill anyone who loves animals can learn how to do. More about that in a minute.

There has been a huge increase in anxiety in pets in the last 5-10 years!

Why has there been such a large increase in anxiety in pets? There’s a lot of reasons for this.

  • Breeding poor lines with poor temperament (this has been amplified by the huge surge in demand for puppies during COVID, with massive increases in prices).
  • Many people getting puppies or kittens for the first time, and simply not understanding what they need in terms of healthy boundaries, training, and socialization.
  • People using their pets as a substitute for children. (An explainer- it’s ok to consider your pets a member of the family BUT if you use them for emotional support, never communicate clear boundaries, and spoil them rotten, this does harm and often leads to anxiety issues.)
  • Higher anxiety levels in humans in general – anxiety in the humans causes anxiety in their pets in many cases.
  • Medical issues can cause or exacerbate anxiety – for example, thyroid disease, encephalitis, dementia.
  • Traumatic events such as abuse, being attacked by other dogs or cats, surgery/vet visits, car accidents, abandonment and neglect can cause anxiety.
  • Rescue animals

The main kinds of anxiety you will see are separation anxiety, anxiety about noises or situations, social anxiety (around interactions with strange people or animals), or generalized anxiety.

What does an anxious pet look like? The key thing that all anxious animals show is increased arousal. Anxiety is a misplaced survival reflex, a chronic fight/flight response active in the body and mind. Many anxious pets have chronic arousal that then triggers into high or even extreme arousal with certain stimuli.

Anxious pets may be avoidant, hiding, or in some cases will be reactive/aggressive, in your face, or out of control, all over you like a rash. They may be obviously fearful, with a tucked tail, fidgety, avoiding eye contact. They will often be hypervigilant, restless, unable to relax, they never switch off.

With more extreme anxiety, these animals may ‘cross the red line’ and go into hyper arousal. This is when you may see destructive, reactive, aggressive behaviour, as the front brain switches off entirely. You may see displacement activities (repeated yawning, lip licking, prolonged sniffing, shaking), panting, pacing, vocalization, dilated pupils, destructive behaviour, or even messing in the house. It’s worth noting that many dogs when they become over-excited if you visit their home, are actually anxious.

How to help anxious pets with calming signals

Calming signals are body language and expressions you can use to help anxious animals relax. They are most effective if the animal has not crossed the red line, but can help to some extent even when they have. The first thing to do is to slow down your movement. Make all of your movements very slow and smooth. Walk in curves, soften and curve your body. Slow down and deepen your breath. Relax as much as you can – soften your body. If the dog is wanting to jump on you, side block them- just keep turning your hip or shoulder towards them, while looking away. And when you come to rest, be very still for a while.

Eye contact, how you direct and communicate with your gaze, are very important ways to soothe animals. Firstly, avoid direct eye contact. Look a little to the side, not into the animal’s eyes. Then, make your eyes soft and sleepy, and do very slow blinks to them. Make your whole face soft and relaxed.

Yawn to the animal. Yawn deliberately, several times. This will tell the animal that they can relax. Yes, it is an anxiety sign, and at the same time, it is a calming signal that you can actively use to help the animal relax. Have a little stretch and relax (but move slowly).

If the dog comes over to you for attention, don’t stimulate them any further. If you touch them, start on the chest and make your touch gentle and very slow. Take your time. Make your pats like cold honey.

If you do all of this, often the animals will relax far quicker than usual, and also want to be with you. It’s something you can do anywhere, anytime, and it really helps these animals feel safe so they can relax. Try it out! You’ll often see animals responding, doing the same relaxation signs back to you. A beautiful, calming conversation.

That’s one thing you can do. It will help to an extent – but if you really want to be able to help anxious animals heal, check out our online training in Whole Energy Body Balance Bodywork for Pets – a profoundly healing bodywork for pets. We have many students who have transformed their anxious pups (and kittens) into calm, happy pets with this work.