Just how pacing in humans is often associated with restlessness or anxiety, dogs might begin pacing if feeling anxious or experiencing stress. In most cases, dog pacing is not a serious health issue — rather, merely a behavioral response to general nervousness or anxiety.
“When a dog paces they are usually walking back and forth from one spot to another,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM. “Sometimes they will just be walking around the house without a destination in mind.”
Dogs might pace while waiting for someone or something — like for a family member to come home or waiting for mealtime. Some dogs pace for awhile with a high-value toy or treat in their mouth and may even whine. Because dog pacing isn’t technically a medical issue, “treatment” is all about helping your dog feel more comfortable. The more comfortable a dog is, the less likely he is to feel anxious. If the anxiety is targeted and treated, then the dog might stop pacing.
“It is easy to identify a dog who has a pacing problem. A dog is pacing when she is walking back and forth in a repetitive pattern,” says Amanda Gagnon, certified professional dog trainer and graduate researcher of anthrozoology at Canisius College. “When pacing occurs for a short period of time, it is nothing to worry about. However, if a dog paces for an extended length of time or cannot be deterred from the activity, it may be time to call a professional dog trainer.”
Some kinds of pacing are considered normal and most can be treated with the help of a training specialist, who can provide easy solutions to distract the dog and discourage pacing.
“Normal dog pacing is usually caused by excitement, the need for attention or an alert to something unusual in the environment,” says Kristen Papile-Kranjc, CMDT, of Long Island Canine Class. “This type of pacing can be addressed by a dog trainer or behavioral specialist. Distraction techniques such as giving the dog a high-value toy or bone that he doesn’t see often to keep him busy, playing with your dog or taking him out for a walk are some simple solutions.”
According to Dr. Ochoa, pacing in dogs is generally caused by stress or anxiety. However, sources of anxiety and stress could be a variety of things: trips to the vet, waiting for someone or something to happen, having to pee or poop, or general restlessness.
“Most dogs will pace at home or at the vet clinic,” Dr. Ochoa explains. “At home, they may pace back and forth near the front door waiting for a family member to come home. They may pace near the back door when they need to go out and potty.”
The vet’s office is often a source of stress for dogs — you know, shots and other weird instruments, and whatnot. This can cause some stressed dogs to respond by pacing.
“At the veterinary clinic, dogs will pace when they want to go home,” Dr. Ochoa adds. “I see dogs who do not like to be at the vet. They will pace back and forth in the exam room or the waiting room the whole time they are there.”
The older the dog, the more likely they are to develop pacing behaviors. In older dogs, pacing could be a sign of dementia.
“As some dogs age, they start pacing around the house and act more stressed due to them not always knowing where they are,” Dr. Ochoa adds. “We do see signs similar to dementia in dogs and as they age, they will begin to pace more.”
Pacing can also be an early sign of some medical issues that require immediate treatment. According to Dr. Jason Nicholas, author of 101 Essential Tips: Dog Health & Safety, pacing can indicate a bloating issue.
“If your dog’s stomach is bloated, or if they’re anxious, pacing, or repeatedly trying to vomit with no luck, they are likely suffering from Gastric Dilation and Volvulus (GDV) – also known as dog bloat,” Dr. Nicholas explains. “Dogs affected by bloat will have a difficult time getting comfortable and lying down. Pacing and restless is often one of the most obvious and early signs, so pay attention to it.”
Dogs can pace for a variety of other reasons, too; stress, anxiety, and bloat aren’t the only causes.
“Dogs will also pace because they are bored or carry excessive energy,” says Gagnon. “Less common reasons for pacing are mating behaviors, attention-seeking behaviors and medical issues. Humans can often determine whether a trip to the vet is needed by attending to other accompanying symptoms such as lethargy, mood changes and loss of appetite.”
Pinpointing the cause of your dog’s pacing is important to helping your pet. If your dog is carrying excess energy or suffering from boredom, Gagnon says it’s an easy fix.
“This is easily fixed by adding exercise and mental stimulation to the dog’s daily routine,” Gagnon explains.
Or if your dog is pacing as a way to patrol their yard, Gagnon recommends limiting their yard time.
“Some dogs, particularly dogs who spend their day in a yard, develop a habit of pacing as a way of patrolling the boundary of their yard,” Gagnon adds. “This behavior is best prevented by limiting the amount of time the dog spends along in the yard without their humans.”
For dogs who pace because of stress and anxiety, Gagnon recommends training classes.
“Stress and anxiety often require the assistance of a professional trainer to remedy,” she says.
Other remedies for treating stress-induced pacing include showing your dog that everything’s okay.
“If your dog is pacing because they are waiting for someone to come home, helping calm them or letting them out to play will help with the pacing at home. If it is due to aging, there are supplements that you can give your dog to help with the anxiety,” says Dr. Ochoa. “At the vet clinic, you can give your pet treats and help show them that it is an okay place to be.”
In all cases though, Dr. Ochoa says knowing your dog’s pacing triggers is the biggest way to help. “If you know what causes your pet to pace, you can avoid the situations. Sometimes you cannot avoid these situations, or the pacing is due to your dog getting older. There are supplements that you can give your dog to help with anxiety and stress.”
Because so many different factors can influence pacing in dogs, Papile-Kranjc says the best advice is knowing your dog’s normal behavior. Anything unusual might warrant a visit to the veterinarian’s office.
“Pacing can also be a symptom of a health issue due to a disorder, advanced age or illness,” Papile-Kranjc explains. “Know your dog. Be familiar with your dog’s behavior and also keep current with his veterinary care. Anything sudden or out of the ordinary to his regular behavior that is not alleviated by training or behavior modification techniques should be addressed by a veterinarian.”
How do you address dog pacing with your pets? Let us know in the comments below!
Thumbnail: Photo courtesy of Melissa Kauffman
Stephanie Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Whole Dog Journal, Parents Magazine and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir. She lives in New York with her Pomsky, Koda, who is an emotional support animal training to be a certified therapy dog.