Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all it took to calm a high-strung dog was an off-the-shelf product? So sought after is a solution for the barking, quaking, biting, and cowering some dogs exhibit that there is a plethora of items on the market — ranging from pheromones to compression shirts that act as swaddling devices to pleasing aromas — with promises to ratchet down stress behavior resulting from provocations like fireworks, strangers, and separation anxiety. But like their human brethren, dogs are individuals with their own genetic make-up and experiences that play a part in their reactions, which is why behaviorists point out that products alone cannot remediate whatever is at the root of things your dog perceives to be stressors.
To make matters more complicated still, some antidotes to stress popularly touted as calming influences on dogs haven’t proven out in scientific studies, or at least have only weak evidence to support their efficacy, despite product claims. Take pheromones, odorless chemicals that communicate messages to dogs (and other species). Some of these pheromone chemicals, at least when dogs secrete them naturally, have soothing, or even appeasing, effects. And manufacturers put them in sprays, plug-in diffusers, collars, and other apparatus in the belief that they will calm a stressed pet. But a 2010 study reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded that 11 of 14 research projects on the calming effects of commercially available pheromones provided insufficient evidence of their power to soothe, while one had an out-and-out lack of support for the effectiveness of pheromones for the treatment of undesirable behavior in dogs.
“When assessing the efficacy of a product, it is important to remember that the placebo effect is profound,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, who treats anxious dogs in the Tufts Cummings School’s Animal Behavior Clinic. “At least 30 percent of owners report improvement in dogs that are treated with placebos. Double blind placebo controlled studies are the gold standard for judging whether a product is effective. More high-quality research is needed to demonstrate that pheromones work before I would feel comfortable recommending their use without reservation.”
Results seem more promising for lavender, which is believed to have a soothing effect on the central nervous system — at least for dogs prone to stress while traveling in cars. A 2006 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association study by researchers at the Canine Behaviour Centre, School of Psychology, Queen’s University, Belfast, concluded that diffused lavender might offer a “practical alternative treatment for travel-induced excitement” in dogs. The investigators found that dogs exposed to the scent “spent significantly more time resting and sitting and less time moving and vocalizing during the experimental condition of car travel.”
Here are some products that at least won’t cause harm and in some cases may even help, despite the preponderance of evidence against them. Says Dr. Borns-Weil, “sometimes even taking the time to lovingly and soothingly care for your dog with a particular product may be enough to calm him some” (the placebo effect at work). Furthermore, she adds, these products may even prove scientifically to do some good at some point. But at best, she comments, they’re “a small water gun in the arsenal of things, such as behavioral and environmental modification,” that can calm a fearful dog.
Of course, sometimes all it takes is a squirt or two from a water gun to cool down someone — or some dog — who’s all hot and bothered.
Adaptil Adjustable Calming Dog Collar’s pheromone is released with body heat, producing a wave of pheromone that your dog picks up on even when outdoors. The pheromone content lasts up to four weeks. The manufacturer says it is ideal for puppy socialization, training, traveling, crating (as well as kenneling or boarding), loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks, staying home alone, and outdoor dogs showing signs of stress. The collars come in puppy-small (up to 15 inches), $20.99; and large, (up to 25 inches), $23.99 on Petflow.com. But large size is available on many other sites for about $15.00.
Sentry Calming Collar for Dogs emits a lavender-chamomile fragrance that has, detectable only to dogs, pheromones that replicate those produced by a mother as she tends to her puppies. The collar lasts for up to 30 days and fits most dogs with necks measuring up to 28 inches. Its marketers say that “usually an improvement in specific behaviors is seen during the first two weeks after wearing the collar, but some dogs may require a month to exhibit visible improvement” and that it helps with separation anxiety, thunderstorms, fireworks, traveling, visits to the vet, hospitalization, boarding, noise fears, visitors, holiday stress, going for walks, visits to the groomer, new baby, and new home. Costs $10.79.
Ultra Calmer — Dog Anxiety, Stress Relief Sonic Collar by Pet Acoustics comes pre-loaded with music that soothes dogs during noise-induced stressors. The music, which is closer to your dog’s ears than the sound, and at a frequency that calms, becomes a comforting focus. The collar is water-resistant and is equipped with a magnetic USB charger. Comes in small, (9 to 13 inches), medium, (12 to 18 inches), and large, (16 to 25 inches), each for $59.99.
For these products, the evidence is stronger than for scents and pheromones.
Peaceful Pet Anti Anxiety Jacket for Dogs applies the same calming, swaddling pressure sensation humans provide to infants with snug wraps but in this case, on the dog’s torso. The soft fabric jacket fastens with velcro and comes with a full refund if it does not calm your dog in stressful situations such as traveling or loud thunderstorms. Comes in small, medium, and large. Each costs $34.97.
Thundershirt Dog Anxiety Solution is a snug-fitting garment that is machine washable and durable enough to last for the lifetime of your dog. The Thundershirt’s consistent and reassuring pressure calms dogs experiencing fear and/or anxiety. Comes in xx-small, $39.95; and x-small, small, medium, large, x-large, xx-large, $44.95.
Zendog Calming Compression Shirt for Dogs is a breathable, lightweight fabric that stretches in four directions while applying a swaddling-type pressure to relieve your dog’s anxiety. The compression shirt is machine-washable and can be adjusted for optimum fit. Available on drsfoster.com in black and in a variety of sizes. x-small (chest size 12-17 inches, weight 8-20 pounds), $23.19; small (15-23 inches, 20-30 pounds), $23.19; medium (20-26 inches, 30-45 pounds), $25.59; large (24-31 inches, 45-65 pounds), $25.59; x-large (29-37 inches, 65-85 pounds), $27.19; xx-large (35-42 inches, 85+ pounds), $27.99.
Adaptil Diffuser Plug In Starter Kit by Ceva is said to help with excessive barking, licking, destructive behavior, fear, and stress. The kit comes with a plug-in diffuser and one 30-day, 24-milliliter refill. The pheromone reaches up to 700 square feet. The manufacturer claims that the product is “proven within 4 weeks to help reduce or eliminate destructive behavior in 91 percent of dogs stressed when left alone.” But they stress that behavior modification is necessary, too. Costs $30.90.
Comfort Zone with DAP for Dogs Diffuser and Single Refill is said to help manage stressful reactions to loud noises such as thunderstorms or fireworks or transitioning a new puppy or dog to your home. It is not recommended for handling aggression problems or as the only treatment for separation anxiety. The diffuser comes with a 48-milliliter refill. Costs $33.00.
The SENTRY Calming Diffuser for Dogs releases synthetic pheromones that are intended to be recognized as the same pheromones produced by a mother while tending to her puppies. The pheromones, also available with a lavender-chamomile scent, are released into the air and last for about 30 days. The product works within a 215 square foot range and is safe for dogs of any age or breed. Costs $21.70.
Adaptil Happy Home Spray is a pheromone-based spray that, like some of the other products, is intended to smell like the pheromones emitted by a mother of newborn puppies. It can be sprayed anywhere your dog has shown overt stress with whining, drooling, or shaking, but never directly on the dog. The makers of the spray say that it can also be used to make puppies feel more at home. The spray’s efficacy lasts about 4 to 5 hours, and each 60-milliliter bottle provides about 50 applications. Adaptil’s makers say you can spray it on surfaces at home or while traveling and that it can help with fearful behavior spurred by fireworks or thunderstorms. Costs $19.73.
PPP Pet Aroma Care Calming Lavender Spray releases lavender oil and to a lesser degree, jasmine oil, sandalwood, and ylang ylang oil into the air with a scent that is pleasant for all. You can also spray this on your dog to keep him smelling sweet while potentially helping to calm him. Available in an 8-ounce spray. Costs $8.11.
Quiet Moments Spray for Dogs is an herbal formula that its manufacturer says simulates pheromones produced by dogs to provide them with a feeling of well-being and safety. They also say it is especially useful while traveling in the car, getting a dog accustomed to or enjoying an already familiar crate, dog house, or cage; or in any other new environments that might make your pet nervous. The spray can be used on dogs age 3 months or older. Contains simulated canine pheromones, clove oil, and rosemary oil. Available in an 8-ounce spray. Costs $13.00.