12 calming things to do when your dog is scared

Written by Napo HQ
Reviewed by Dr Louisa Lane
31st Oct 2022
8 mins read
From creating a den, to calming dog collars, we run through 12 things to do when your dog is scared that can help to keep them calm. 
Remember to contact your vet for advice if you're ever worried about your pup's behaviour. They can put you in touch with an animal behaviourist who can help you use counterconditioning to help your dog to overcome their fear.
Dogs are emotionally intelligent critters, and being frightened is normal for them when they encounter something new. However, dogs can also develop phobias, which is when they become fearful of a certain thing any time they encounter it. 
Many dogs have noise phobias, which can make bonfire night and thunderstorms a super stressful time for dogs and their humans. As Dr Louisa Lane says, “It’s very common to see pets with noise phobias, and I can understand how upsetting it can be for the pet and owner to experience it. The good news is that there are lots of options to try and help.”
Here are 12 things to do when your dog is scared to help reduce stress. Some are about how to make your home a safe space for your pup, and others are products you can use that could help.

8 ways to make your house a safe haven

1. Create a doggy den

Dogs have a natural denning instinct, so make them a den or cosy corner to hide away in when they need to relax.
This could be their crate, or a special dog-only space in your house. Your dog’s den should have a comfy bed, access to water, and should be easy for them to get in and out of. 
If you are using your dog’s crate, consider putting a blanket over it to make it extra cosy, and to help block out the sight and sound of scary stimuli, like fireworks.

2. Add in a calming dog bed

You can buy “calming dog beds”, shaped like a doughnut with fleecy material and soft padding. Anecdotally, these beds help to calm anxious dogs, but there’s no hard evidence on their effect yet. 
However, creating a comfy, calming dog bed in your pup’s den will make it even more relaxing for them and encourage them to rest in there, away from anything that could be scary for them.

3. Play some calm music for dogs

There are a few studies that have shown that music can help calm a dog down, encouraging them to relax and rest, and reduce vocalisation. It could also help cover up scary noises, like thunder or fireworks.
If you want to play some music to help when your dog is scared, use classical music. Classical music is proven to be calm down dogs. Audiobooks can also have a calming effect.
Meanwhile, music that’s "made for dogs” doesn’t seem to help when a dog is scared.
Classic FM will be running their “Pet Classics” show again on the 5 and 6 November this year, playing soothing music to help dogs and cats get through bonfire night.

4. Close the curtains

Closing the curtains can help when your dog is scared of something outside, like fireworks. It helps to block out the visual stimulus, and can help to muffle the noise.
Shutting your curtains can also help when your dog is frustrated at things outside when they’re home alone, like cats in the garden, or passing cars.

5. Close your doors and windows

When your dog is scared on bonfire night, or during a storm, it’s a good idea to close all your doors and windows. This will keep out as much sound as possible, and keep out the strange smells of gunpowder that fireworks give off.
If you can, try to stay in a room in the middle of your house, as far from the outside world as possible.

6. Try to keep them occupied

Many of us like to keep busy and distract ourselves when we’re feeling nervous or scared. It’s the same with dogs. Provide them with plenty of calming and enriching toys and indoor games, like licki mats, a stuffed kong, or scent games. These will help to calm your dog down and keep them entertained, distracting them from the source of their fear.

7. Ignore the scary things yourself

Dogs are amazing at reading human body language, and a lot of their moods are influenced by how we feel. For example, if you feel anxious, your dog might start to feel nervous too. 
One of the best things you can do when your dog is scared is to simply stay calm, and ignore what is frightening them.
Hopefully, you’ll lead by example. And your pup will realise that if you're not scared, then there mustn't be anything to worry about!

8. Feed and walk them earlier

Although maintaining a routine usually helps to keep a dog calm, it’s sometimes best to adjust your schedule if you know something potentially stressful is happening. For example, a vet visit, or bonfire night. 
When a dog is scared, the often lose their appetite. And you’re not going to want to be outside when something scary like a storm or firework display is on. So it’s best to feed and walk them a little earlier when they’re feeling themselves.

Try these 4 products that can help calm a dog down

1. Get a dog calming plug in

A dog calming plug in works by releasing “dog appeasing pheromones” into the air. Pheromones are a kind of chemical signal that can influence your dog’s behaviour when they smell them. (Don't worry, humans can't smell them.)
Studies have shown that these plug ins can help when your dog is scared, helping to reduce stress in different environments like shelters and the vets and calm dogs down.

What about dog calming sprays?

Although dog calming plug ins that use pheromones seem to help reduce stress, dog calming sprays don’t have as much of an impact.
You can try them, and they certainly won’t hurt your dog, but they might not be as effective as a plug in.

2. Use calming collars for dogs

Calming collars for dogs work by releasing dog-appeasing pheromones, just like a plug in.
Like plug-ins, small studies have demonstrated that these collars can reduce anxiety and fear responses in dogs with noise phobias. 
The collars last for about a month, so they can be useful to help calm your dog during a longer stressful period, like moving house.
And because the collar stays on your pup, it means they can benefit from it all the time, indoors and out.

3. Calming dog treats

Many dog food and treat companies now produce calming dog treats. These usually contain herbs said to help relieve stress in your furry friend.
However, you must talk to your vet before giving your pup any supplement or calming dog treat to make sure it’s suitable for them and their individual needs. (Especially if your dog is on any medication.)

4. Anti-anxiety medication

When your dog is really scared of something, whether it’s the vet, car rides, or fireworks, medication could
help. There are a variety of options available, from calming supplements you can buy over the counter, to prescription medications. 
In the case of firework phobias, 69% of dogs felt better with medication. And it can be started a few weeks or days before the stressful event. So it could be the most effective solution for your individual pet if you don't have a long time to work on counterconditioning.
Counterconditioning is considered the best way to help your dog overcome their fear, but it takes weeks or months to practice. Not ideal if you have short notice!
These medicines and supplements don’t need to be given long-term, but they do take a few days to take effect. And just like human medication and supplements, their effects can vary between individual dogs. So you should contact your vet sooner rather than later so you can test them and see if they work well for your pup.
There’s no one size fits all treatment for anxious pets, and vets will always try to avoid medicating your pets if they can.

Long term: Teach your dog not to be scared

In studies on dogs scared of fireworks, the most effective treatment was counterconditioning. It helped 70% of dogs become less scared.
Plus if you teach your puppy not to be scared using a similar process called desensitisation, you could prevent your puppy from ever developing a fear of loud noises like fireworks or storms.
According to Dr Louisa Lane, “The best piece of advice I can give is for new puppy owners to try and prevent noise phobias by exposing your puppies to potentially scary sounds as soon as you can (there are apps available for this!) Prevention is far better than cure.”
However, counterconditioning, like any training, takes time. You can start it when your dog is any age though, whether you’ve got a new puppy, or have an older dog. With patience and consistency, you’ll help your dog overcome their fear.

How does counter conditioning work?

Counterconditioning works by reframing a dog’s perception of a scary situation, by associating it with positive things instead. 
For example, when your dog is scared of fireworks, you can play firework noises quietl enough that it doesn’t scare them and give them treats for calm behaviour.
You can gradually increase the volume of the noise, continuing to reward your pup for calm behaviour, until eventually they’re unphased by the sound. (Or better yet, they start thinking fireworks mean treats!)
You can find out more about counterconditioning in our podcast with clinical animal behaviourist, Katie Scott-Dyer.
There are plenty of things you can do when your dog is scared to help calm them down. But it’s important to always speak to a vet if you’re worried about your dog’s behaviour. 
“For those pets already suffering from fear and anxiety, speak to your vet or vet nurse. Give them plenty of time to discuss options and create a plan of action for your pet so you’re fully prepared for those fearful moments.” says Dr Louisa Lane.
If you’re in a pinch before Bonfire Night this year, try these 12 tips. But remember to start training and counterconditioning ready for next year, and you might be able to get rid of your pooch’s phobia so they’re far calmer and happier.
But ultimately, the sooner you speak to your vet about your dog’s phobia, the better.

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