When your dog suffers from anxiety, you’ll try anything to help them find relief. You’ve probably heard of, or may have even tried a calming vest, pressure vest, or ThunderShirt.
While some dog parents have rave reviews for these products, others have noticed no difference at all, and some have even found that they’ve made their dogs’ anxiety worse.
Are Calming Vests Scientifically Proven To Work?
The concept of calming vests for dogs was inspired by the use of deep pressure therapy for people with anxiety, especially adults and children with autism. Deep pressure therapy is the use of hugs, heavy blankets, or even body pressure from a therapy dog to help the person relax and move out of “fight or flight” mode.
Only the ThunderShirt brand calming wrap has been used in scientific studies and surveys. Similar vests from different companies might not work in the same way.
One study found that dogs who had not worn a ThunderShirt before experienced an increased heart rate shortly after putting it on. Once they habituated to it though, their heart rate decreased and they showed fewer signs of anxiety, such as lip licking, yawning, and staring at the door from which their owner exited.
ThunderWorks, the company that makes ThunderShirt, conducted a survey in which respondents reported the calming vest as the most effective form of treatment for their dogs’ anxiety, with a nearly 82 percent success rate. Other solutions noted include environmental management, which had 77 percent success rate and drugs at 76 percent. Owner-reported surveys are not nearly as reliable as scientific studies, but they can sometimes help us understand what real people are experiencing.
There was also a very small study of 16 dogs who were fitted with ThunderShirts during their ICU stay, and all but one dog experienced a significant decrease in signs of anxiety.
However, though dogs’ body language and heart rate show promising changes while wearing calming vests, they do not experience significant improvements when tested for urinary oxytocin and cortisol in saliva.
So while we may see outward signs of improvement, a calming vest alone is not enough to resolve your dog’s anxiety. Promising results in other dogs does not guarantee that your dog will see the same improvements.
How To Use A Calming Vest On Your Anxious Dog
Going forward with realistic expectations, you may decide to try out a calming vest for your dog.
If you do, you can increase your chances of success by habituating your dog to wearing it before they are experiencing their trigger, be it thunder, fireworks, or being alone.
Try the vest on, taking care to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. The vest should be snug, but not tight. Try the vest for just a few minutes at a time while your dog is feeling relaxed, possibly in the evening after a long walk. Vest time should always be a relaxing time. Cuddle and pet your dog while they wear it so they associate it with feeling calm and secure.
Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization For Anxious Dogs
A calming vest should be just one element of your plan to help your dog overcome anxiety.
If your dog panics when they hear thunder, you can actually change the way they feel about those booms and roars.
Counter-conditioning is when you change your dog’s emotional response to a stimulus. Your dog naturally reacts to the sound of thunder by barking, trembling, hiding, or pacing. They go into “fight or flight” mode and prepare for danger. You can change your dog’s emotional response by having a mini-party every time your dog hears a boom.
Start by working with your dog when they’re happy and relaxed. Play a YouTube video of a thunderstorm at a low volume so it’s just barely audible. With every boom, sprinkle a few treats on the floor, wave a toy around, or otherwise get your dog’s tail wagging. Do this for a few minutes at a time for a couple of days, until you notice your dog looking up at you with excited anticipation when they hear a thunderclap. Then, you can gradually increase the volume with each session.
When a real thunderstorm hits, do everything you can to mitigate their fears. YouTube videos do not fully prepare your dog for the real experience. Dogs may be able to detect changes in barometric pressure and static electricity during a real storm, so you’ll need to up the ante; try even tastier treats and any other anxiety-busting strategies, which may include a calming vest, puzzle toys, calming pheromone diffusers, CBD oil, and music therapy.
Need More Help Soothing Your Anxious Dog?
Most behavioural issues in dogs are rooted in anxiety. With modern, positive-reinforcement based techniques, you can build a stronger, trust-based relationship and tackle anxiety-based issues for a happy, well-rounded family dog.
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