Man's stressed friend? Here's how to calm an anxious dog, according to an expert

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Any dog owner will attest that life would be unimaginable without their furry four-legged pals. The unconditional love, those sympathetic eyes that seem to know when we’re hurting, the infectious joy and enthusiasm that reminds us to stay positive. In return, all they want is our companionship and attention.

Occasionally, though, they want that attention all the time—and, if left alone even for a minute, launch into a full-bore freak-out, complete with yelping, crying, screaming, barking, and howling.

Yep, dogs suffer from anxiety just like us, some to an extent that can make their, and our, lives an agita-filled trial. What to do with such an adorable little neurotic?

Well, Brandon McMillan, dog trainer to the stars and a host of the CBS show Lucky Dog, has some thoughts. “It's almost impossible to eliminate,” he says of pet anxiety, “but you can definitely manage it.”

And now’s a great—even crucial—time to address the issue. With the pandemic keeping us home more, our pets are getting confused.

“We're giving our dogs almost a false sense of hope,” says Brandon. “Our dogs, especially the ones that have just been adopted, are under the impression that we are home 24/7. Whenever we go back to work, which could be in the very near future, we're going to be gone for, you know, six to eight hours a day, sometimes even longer. So if you're seeing a little bit of separation anxiety right now, imagine how much that's going to grow.”

So, yeah. Ya gotta deal with this now. “The bad news is we're still locked down. The good news is there's more time to train.”

Brandon’s first prescription is, evolutionarily speaking, a no-brainer, yet one many pet owners don’t fully appreciate. “Most of your dog’s behavioral issues come from lack of exercise,” he says. “Animals, specifically dogs—were not meant to be between four walls and have a roof over their heads. They were meant to roam and [enjoy] open spaces.”

Get that dog out of the house. And even better, says Brandon, find a buddy he or she can frolic with. “Dogs are social animals,” he explains. “So if you have a friend with a dog, let them play…assuming your dog is friendly with other dogs.”

A crate of one's own: The MidWest Homes for Pets Dog Crate keeps your pet cozy. (Photo: Amazon)
A crate of one's own: The MidWest Homes for Pets Dog Crate keeps your pet cozy. (Photo: Amazon)

Still, most of the day you’re likely to be indoors, and that’s where some strategy and creativity can help. Brandon suggests gradually, lovingly, getting your pooch used to the idea of being apart for quarter-hour increments with the help of a crate—first with the crate in the same room you’re in, then eventually in another room. You may have to endure some very vocal protests for a while, but stay strong, Brandon advises, and eventually your baby will settle down.

A big help here, Brandon says, is furnishing the crate with lots of distractions. “Boredom is a big reason dogs have separation anxiety,” he says, “so make sure inside that crate there's a lot to do. I'm talking fun, interesting things, and lots of chew toys.”

Buy a Kong Classic Dog Toy, and you'll get half off a Kong treat. (Photo: Chewy)
Buy a Kong Classic Dog Toy, and you'll get half off a Kong treat. (Photo: Chewy)

And, says Brandon, where chew toys are concerned, his “personal preference” is the Kong, for durability and the fact that they can be filled with yummy treats. “Dog toys are expensive,” he says. “I don't believe in spending $30 on something that's going to get destroyed in 10 seconds.” Your buddy will get months of fun from a Kong, for a great price.

Treats are the reward with Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound's Smart Puzzle Game Dog Toy. (Photo: Chewy)
Treats are the reward with Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound's Smart Puzzle Game Dog Toy. (Photo: Chewy)

But even the mighty Kong should be just one in an array of playful distractions. Another great—and literally rewarding—one is an Outward Hound food puzzle, which occupies your pooch and provides a healthy brain tease. When the puzzle is solved, this contraption offers up a prize in the form of a favorite treat.

Pet Tunes Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo: Amazon)
Pet Tunes Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo: Amazon)

Once you’ve got your toy situation set, Brandon asks, “What else do we want to layer on?” Well, we all know that “music calms the savage breast,” but Brandon has found that it can relax a pocket-sized Pekingese too. Pet Acoustics’ Pet Tunes Bluetooth Speaker comes loaded with a 90-minute loop of soothing sounds designed by animal behaviorists (science!) and will play for up to eight hours on a single charge. It’s also handy during thunderstorms, those dang-blasted fireworks celebrations, and while traveling.

Make your good boy (or girl) all warm and snuggly in a Thundershirt Classic Dog Anxiety Jacket. (Photo: Amazon)
Make your good boy (or girl) all warm and snuggly in a Thundershirt Classic Dog Anxiety Jacket. (Photo: Amazon)

Finally, Brandon suggests a literal layer of comfort for your pooch, in the form of a compression shirt. Think of it, he says, as a security blanket: “Compression shirts are great because they give the dog a swaddling feeling, which is very comforting.”(Aw, the baby!) Thundershirt’s Classic Dog Anxiety Jacket is just the ticket.

Try one, preferably a few, maybe all of these products and, says Brandon, you’re bound to wind up with a more copacetic canine. “Every dog is different,” he says. “What works on one dog might not work on the next, but my old rule is: Where one technique fails, another one prevails.”

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