Most information about calming dogs down is from an owner’s perspective. Very little is written about how dogs can calm themselves. I find it curious that we do not look to our dogs to support their own natural instinct to avoid stress through a number of effective behaviors.
Trainers, books, posts, and retail merchants offer hundreds and even thousands of tips and products to help a dog stay calm and out of mischief. We just assume that a dog has little to no control over how he reacts, and therefore, needs human intervention when anxious, hyper, or over-reactive.
Ironically, dogs have a number of methods and ways they can calm themselves down. They demonstrate this behavior to us every day, but we often do not pay attention. If we did, we would observe at least 10 ways that dogs can calm themselves down. Once we tap into a dog’s self-calming methods, we may be able to help them settle better and relax when faced with new, fearful, or stressful situations.
1. Looking Away
A common way that dogs can calm themselves is to look away. When two dogs lock eyes, it can sometimes mean trouble. If one of the dogs is behaving aggressively and staring intensely, he may be challenging the other dog. He may growl to signal he means business. If the other dog does not want to fight, he will break the challenge by looking away.
This is a common scenario when two dogs meet on a leash for the first time, head to head, which is not the way dogs naturally like to meet. See my post, Why Dogs Don’t Mind Sniffing Butts to Say Hello, to read more about dog greetings. Dogs prefer to move alongside another dog and do a lot of sniffing and not be tethered to their owner. This allows either dog the room to walk away if things get too tense.
When you are walking your dog and encounter another dog and owner coming straight toward you, give your dog a chance to avoid direct eye contact. Simply turn around and go in another direction. This breaks the eye contact and head-on meeting between the two dogs. If your dog was beginning to feel anxious or fearful, this will give him a chance to move away and become calm again.
My two dogs, who have lived together their entire lives, often get into minor quarrels over their favorite chew toys. The slightly bigger dog, Charlotte, will sometimes sit down beside her sister with one of their favorite chewy bones and stare at her as if to taunt her. Her sister Georgia will growl as meanly and loudly as she can for a smaller dog, but will then turn her head away. This is her way of expressing her annoyance without engaging in a fight.
2. Chewing on Bone or Chew Toy
Dogs love to chew bones! Just as we like to read or check our phones, dogs love to lick, munch, and chew things, especially bones or bone-like chewy toys. Chewing is a pleasurable activity for a dog and can keep them occupied for several hours a day. Not only is it a great way to pass time, but chewing also helps a dog feel calm and settled. So I always make sure they have plenty of chew toys that they can easily access, especially if something stressful or unusual is happening
My two dogs have about a dozen or so chew toys (see our favorites), which often end up all over the house. Whenever there is a disturbance or loud noise outside, my dogs will get really worked up and start barking like crazy. But after a few minutes, they will settle themselves down by chewing on their favorite bone even as continue to listen and stay on guard.
We all know about stress eating! There is nothing better than good old comfort food to get those feel-good hormones going! And dogs are no different. Mealtime is pretty much a dog’s favorite time of day. They can fill up their bellies, feel secure, and relax as their food digests. Eating is a key way that dogs calm themselves down.
The number one way to motivate and make a dog happy is through food. That’s why treats and high-value snacks like cheese and slices of hotdogs are great training tools. Dogs in the wild spend most of their free time hunting and foraging for food and risk starving if they can’t find it.
My dogs get treats for training but also for scary things like going to the vet, or a car ride, or the groomers. It helps to shift their focus with a fun distraction. Even though they are dependent upon me for food and treats, I pay attention to their signals and needs. When they seem distressed or anxious about something, I encourage them to change focus and engage in a game involving treats. The best game that gives them the most control is hiding treats around the house and letting them run around to find them. They have a lot of fun and totally forget about that big, bad garbage truck outside.
Dogs love to smell and sniff things. Sniffing for dogs is an extremely calming activity, which is why it is important to allow your dogs plenty of time to stop and smell all of the many intriguing and favorite spots.
Sniffing is a key way dogs can calm themselves. It is a breathing activity, gives them important tasks to focus on, and engages both their mind and body. Due to a dog’s super strong sense of smell, going to the park, the beach, or a hiking trail is probably the most exciting part of the day aside from mealtime. See my post, A Dog’s Newspaper for a fun perspective on how dogs take in the daily news.
5. Dogs Calm Themselves by Yawning
Yawning is another way dogs calm themselves down. It is like taking a break from something that may feel too challenging. Dogs do this a lot when they are doing training work. If they have been focusing for a long time during a training session, they may simply just stop for a moment and start yawning. PetMD.com did an entire post on “Why Do Dogs Yawn?” They pointed out that dogs often yawn when they are in stressful situations, like being restrained, hugged too tightly, at the vet, or meeting a stranger
A yawn gives a dog a chance to take a big breath, change focus, and interrupt a challenging or stressful situation. So, if you notice your dog yawning after you have been trying to teach him a new lesson or trick, give him a break. Let him rest and refresh for a minute before you continue. If he continues to yawn a lot and starts looking away, then he is probably really ready to end the session.
6. Chewing on Soft Things Like Blankets or Rugs
When I first adopted my rescue dogs who had been rehomed at a shelter, they became anxious every time I left the house. Charlotte was especially worried that I might not come back and began nibbling on the edges of the hall carpet runner. It was very subtle, and not a lot. But apparently, it gave her some comfort and something to do until I came back home.
For the first few nights, after I brought them home, I had them sleep in a big crate together. They were housebroken but I wanted to keep a close eye on them for the first several days. They seemed ok with the crate, but Charlotte nibbled on the edges of her blanket every night. After a few nights, I let them sleep in their beds outside of the crate and the nibbling stopped. So, clearly, the crate felt a little stressful and Charlotte was trying to comfort herself.
To save my carpet and blankets, my dogs now have several safe and durable soft chew toys and rabbits to chew on as much as they want. And, happily, they are more settled now but still enjoy having something fun to chew on whether they are worked up about something or just very happy and excited.
7. Finding an Escape Route
Dogs hate to be cornered. If they are meeting a new dog for the first time, they will feel calmer in an open space where they can check each other out. When a dog feels too intimated by another dog, he will simply remove himself from the encounter and wander off somewhere else. This allows him to feel safe by just leaving if it feels too stressful.
You can help your dog feel calmer in new situations by not boxing him in when he meets the vet for the first time or a friend’s dog. Let him have plenty of room to simply move away and not get backed into a corner. Our local vet is great about getting down on the floor with my dogs and allowing them to come to her to snatch a really yummy liver treat from her hand.
Believe it or not, scratching is a stress reliever. When a dog is in a new situation or something that is challenging or taxing, he may suddenly sit down and scratch for a while. Whether or not he actually has an itch, it just feels good to scratch. And, it is another way to take a short break from something that may seem a bit stressful.
Additionally, stress can sometimes be a cause of momentary itchiness, and a dog will comfort himself by taking care of his itch. So, be sure to give him that moment if he needs it, even if you are in the middle of something important like leash training or recall commands.
9. Dogs Can Calm Themselves by Licking
Licking is a lot like scratching It is an activity that feels good and is a great distraction from something unpleasant. Dogs may sometimes lick their paws for an hour or more to destress from something that has upset them.
I have noticed that when my dogs have one of their short growling disagreements or have played a little too roughly with each other, they will suddenly start licking each other. It is really sweet to watch, like a Mom caring for her pups. They will lick each other’s eyes, nose, and ears as if they are trying to make up with each other.
10. Shaking it Off
We have all heard the expression, “Just shake it off”, following a bad experience. Dogs really have this behavior down! Dogs who are coming out of a crate, or a bath, or maybe just being hugged too much will give a really good shake to free themselves of something not so fun. A really good shake and they are good to go!
Dogs tell us a lot through their behavior. Pay attention to the signals and their actions to help know when they may be feeling stressed and how they are coping. Try to remove them from stressful environments when possible, give your dog as much control as you can over his life, and reinforce their calming behaviors. This will go a long way to help ensure you have a happy, carefree dog.