The dark nights are upon us and for many of our loyal, four-legged friends, it signals a terrifying time of year. It’s the season that reduces many canines to a shaking, drooling shadow of their usual waggy-tailed, doggy selves.

It’s awful to see your dog frightened and quaking as the skies are lit up with the thunderous bangs, explosive cracks and dazzling flashes of November 5, January 31, and any anniversary in between. Some dogs freeze, too scared to move, others run cowering under the nearest table or bed, and no amount of kind coaxing will tempt them out. Some dogs take days to recover.

However, it seems a growing number of UK dogs are living in a fearful state for 365 days of the year. It’s not just fireworks that are affecting their nervous systems. Noisy vehicles, doors banging, children screaming, drivers delivering, gun shots, bird scarers, trains rushing past and of course – other dogs – are on their ‘far too scary’ list. Street dogs rehomed here from abroad, can find UK domestic life very stressful. Some take years to adapt to living with humans.

During the pandemic we know it wasn’t possible to socialise puppies and young dogs. As a result, many grew up fearful of the big, wide world. But it was also a time when some people bought their first puppy. In some cases, this combination of no socialisation and inexperienced owners spelt doggie disaster. Our rescue centres, vets, dog trainers and behaviourists are now seeing the sad consequences of this. In fact, dog anxiety seems to be a pandemic all of its own.

In the past 18 months, 54 per cent of the dogs I’ve seen as a Whole Energy Body Balance (WEBB) practitioner, have anxiety-related issues. These can manifest in all types of behaviour, from reactivity with other dogs/people; withdrawing from their owners; appearing depressed; noise phobias and generally finding life overwhelming. It’s a most unhappy and unhealthy predicament for man’s best friend. As loving, caring owners, we need to do all we can to help these prized family members be the carefree canines they were born to be.

Great British Life: Ruth McDonagh with Tailor the greyhound. Photo: McDonagh with Tailor the greyhound. Photo:

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not always an easy task. It takes dedication, patience, understanding and a generous, loving heart. There’s also likely be a cost attached as professional help from vets, dog behaviourists, trainers, or other professionals, will almost certainly be needed.

Many anxious dogs live in their ‘fight or flight’ mode. Their sympathetic nervous systems are always ‘on.’ They never feel safe enough to ‘rest and digest,’ so the parasympathetic nervous system that enables this, stays firmly ‘off.’

Even at home anxious dogs ‘relax’ with an ear cocked and an eye open. Some can’t bear being left alone, others don’t want to go out; some don’t want visitors to the home, others adore company, jumping about like jack-in-the-boxes on a sugar-rush.

So, what can you do to help your beloved pets? There are many options you can explore. Each dog is different and depending on its background, breed, characteristics and lifestyle, you’ll need to find the one that works for him/her.

A chat with your vet is your starting point. In severe cases sedatives may be considered; herbal supplements are another possibility, or plug-in diffusers with calming aromas. Comforting coats and encompassing beds are widely available and if your dog has a safe den to retreat to when life gets too much, it may help in the short-term.

Always remember that an anxious dog will benefit from a quietly confident owner. Try to keep your behaviour as calm as possible around an anxious dog. Avoid putting them in noisy, high-energy situations, or engaging in repetitive ball play, which may encourage obsessive behaviour.

Know your dog’s stress triggers, and avoid if possible. Overwhelming an already anxious dog won’t ‘cure’ it. (If a human suffers with claustrophobia, shutting them in a wardrobe isn’t the answer).

Great British Life: Ruth McDonagh with Romanian rescue dog Mali, from Cirencester. Photo: McDonagh with Romanian rescue dog Mali, from Cirencester. Photo:

The Somatic Relaxation Technique (SRT), is something I teach owners of anxious dogs. It’s a simple, but effective method of helping calm your dog’s nervous system. For best effect, make sure you are calm and present yourself before beginning.

SRT involves an extremely slow, firm, whole hand connection (a mix of a stretch and a stroke) along your dog’s body. This deeply relaxing, miniscule movement encourages your dog’s parasympathetic nervous system, (the rest and digest mode), to kick in. Their eyes will go sleepy, they may lip-lick, yawn, stretch out and switch off properly for the first time in months, or even years.

If your dog is anxious, you’ll need to persevere. He/she will repeatedly jump up and try to get away. Relaxing feels unsafe for a nervous dog. Stay calm, don’t get frustrated, but gently insist. Your dog will eventually give in. If you perform the SRT twice a day for at least 10 minutes, it could be the best thing you ever do for your troubled pet.

Like us, dogs often store nervous tension in the neuro-fascia, the connective tissue around their bodies. Releasing this tension through targeted WEBB massage can also help ease their anxiety, and reduce associated behavioural issues.

If you’ve a collie, a springer, or a working cocker with anxiety, it could be that domestic life in an urban environment does not suit him/her. If their excess energy, (naturally used for sheep herding and retrieving or putting up game/deer etc), is untapped it can easily turn to anxiety and ‘unruly’ behaviour. These are intelligent and energetic working breeds and they need a job to occupy their clever minds.

Non-working collies are excellent candidates for flyball. The British Flyball Association has details of your nearest classes. Similarly, agility is a great sport for bright dogs with energy to burn off and it works their brains. The Kennel Club website provides details.

Many dogs love sniffing and scenting work is the perfect pastime to calm an anxious doggy mind. Maintrailing UK and Scentwork UK both offer training and classes suitable for nervous and/or reactive dogs. There are also many sniffy games you can play at home with a worried canine, simply search online for ‘dog scent games.’

If you lead a frantic life, your stress is likely to affect your dog’s well-being. Find five or 10 minutes to put down your mobile, turn off the telly and sit with your dog. Keep your mind present, your movements slow, your voice quiet and ‘just be’ with your four-legged friend. Having a calm connection with its owner can be extremely beneficial for a dog – and it will probably do you good, too!

Ruth McDonagh is a practitioner of Whole Energy Body Balance massage, at A Calmer Canine in Winchcombe. Visit or email: