Vet Reviewed

By Jon Zeller | November 13, 2023

Every dog person wants their friend to be happy, so it’s painful to see them suffering through anxiety. When the anxious dog in question is a senior who was apparently free of such issues before, behavioral changes can bring up other concerns about their physical and mental health. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to help an anxious dog, especially if you bring them to their veterinarian for an examination as soon as possible.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a specific type of fear—one that anticipates something bad happening, as opposed to reacting to an immediate, present danger. A dog who’s anxious will show signs like any other dog who’s afraid, even if it doesn’t seem that their perceived threat is present.

In her book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, Dr. Zazie Todd writes that “Since the outward signs are the same, and we can’t say if the dog is responding to something imminent or future, it makes sense to think of fear and anxiety as a spectrum.”

Signs of anxiety

Signs of anxiety include restlessness, irritability, pacing, panting, salivating, excessive barking or other vocalizations, house soiling, wanting more or less attention or affection than before, destroying items in the house, licking or chewing themselves, chasing their tail, refusing to eat, staying awake at bedtime, and drooling. An anxious dog may also show a rigid body posture or tuck their tail. One common type of anxiety in dogs is separation anxiety; dogs suffering from separation anxiety may show the signs above when you leave the house, or when they anticipate your departure.

Reasons a senior dog might suddenly seem anxious

Dogs can become anxious at any age. One survey in Finland found that 72.5% of dogs exhibited “some kind of highly problematic behavior” related to anxiety. Sometimes anxiety stems from a genetic predisposition, and at other times it can result from experiences during a dog’s socialization period or arise after a traumatic incident.

If your senior dog’s behavior suddenly changes and you don’t know why, bring them for a visit with their vet—sometimes dogs who show signs of anxiety are physically injured or ill, and may be in pain or trying to protect themselves. Senior dogs who seem anxious may also be showing signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), a form of dementia in dogs. Treatment can often slow the progression of CDS and improve a dog’s quality of life.

How to help an anxious senior dog

Desensitization and counterconditioning: If your senior dog is anxious, you can try to help them using desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), as you would with any fearful dog. This process requires patience, and you may benefit from the guidance of a qualified trainer. 

In short, desensitization means presenting your dog with whatever stimulus is upsetting them, but at a low enough intensity that they’re not showing any signs of fear or anxiety, and increasing the level very gradually as they build up tolerance. Never force a dog to “face their fear”—they must always have the option to walk away if they want to, and keeping them near something that’s frightening them can make their fear or anxiety worse.

Counterconditioning means pairing the stimulus with something the dog wants—a reward like a high value treat—so the dog learns that the stimulus is good news for them. For this to work best, the dog should get the reward every time the stimulus appears, and the stimulus should always be at a low enough level that the dog is not upset. This way, the dog is “under threshold.” That means they’re not showing signs that they’re upset, and are in a mental state where they can learn. If your dog is able to concentrate on you, happily accept a treat, and perform a fun trick, they’re probably under threshold. If they’re showing signs of fear or anxiety, let them walk away and give them some space.

“If a dog shows fear only in the context of a specific trigger,” says Maddie Messina, applied animal behaviorist and founder of Paws for Thought Dog Training in New York City, “then you can apply DSCC techniques in the presence of that trigger and you might not have to do much other training on a daily basis. If the dog is anxious about a trigger, your DSCC techniques will need to be implemented with a more daily approach because it’s likely the dog’s fear and anxiety will leak into other parts of their lives.”

If you can, give your dog a way to get away from the things that bother them. If your dog is sensitive to noise, and there’s a lot of ruckus right outside of the window, see if they feel better in another room. If company puts your dog on edge and you can safely keep them in another room when guests are around—especially with someone they love and trust, and a fun activity to occupy them—give that a try.

Your dog may need time to themselves, too. In his book Dogs Demystified, ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff writes that “It’s important for every dog to have a ‘safe zone’—a place they can retreat to and feel safe, where they are allowed not to interact or be touched.” If your senior dog is giving signals that they need a little space and don’t want to cuddle right now, give it to them. Having said that, don’t ignore if your dog needs more time alone than they used to and you don’t know why. “It’s also possible,” Dr. Bekoff goes on to write, “that when a dog is spending what seems to be too much time alone, there’s something wrong, and you should consult a veterinarian. For example, heightened sensitivity to noise can indicate a dog is in pain.”

As we noted in our article about helping fearful dogs, desensitization and counterconditioning can be quite effective. One study found that counterconditioning worked on more than 70% of dogs who feared fireworks.

However, while these techniques work, they take time—you’re not just trying to change a dog’s behavior, but also their state of mind. Be very suspicious of any trainer who promises you instantaneous results. Realistically, you can expect the process to be more on the order of months than days.

Physical and mental exercise: The right amount of physical and mental exercise is important for any dog. Walks that allow for ample freedom and sniffing time can go a long way toward fulfilling both of those needs. If your dog likes a game of fetch in the park, or eating their food from a slow feeder or a puzzle, those can also be outlets for their energy. 

Even something as simple as giving your anxious dog a safe, edible chew can be worthwhile. A recent Auburn University study found that fearful dogs who chewed more showed better working memory.

Some dogs thrive in organized activities like agility and scent work. Many pups need a “job” to occupy them, and if you don’t give them one that uses their talents they may expend their energy on less-desirable activities like shredding your couch cushions. So, while exercise is not a cure-all, it can be a big part of improving an anxious dog’s quality of life.

Consistency: A dog can become more confident if they know what the results of their actions will be. Try as much as you can to keep your dog on a schedule for mealtime, walks, and bedtime, and be consistent in rewarding them for desired behavior.

Veterinary care: As mentioned above, physical ailments can cause dogs to behave in ways that seem like signs of anxiety. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to bring your dog to the vet anytime their behavior changes and you can’t explain why. Sometimes medical care that addresses an injury or illness can not only alleviate a dog’s pain, but also get their behavior back to normal. In certain cases, veterinarians may recommend medication as part of a treatment plan for anxiety itself.

Love and patience: An anxious senior dog—like any other anxious dog—isn’t being “bad,” even if they do things you don’t want them to do like destroy your furniture, soil the house, or bark excessively. They’re experiencing a distressing emotional state, and it will be easier for both of you to get through it if you show them that you’re always there for them and on their side. Show them kindness, and don’t be afraid to seek help from a veterinarian or a qualified trainer if you need it.