Recognizing Stress in Your Dog

Photo by Nick Fewings

Stress is pressure or tension experienced in challenging situations. We can become stressed by many things throughout our lives.  Some types of stress are pretty healthy like hiking, traveling, or playing a game. While others can be debilitating like an injury, having an argument, or financial loss  We can also experience subtle but nagging stresses in our jobs, deadlines, planning events, meeting new people, or even the classic wrench that gets thrown into our plans.

How we reduce stress levels can be just as varied. We may choose to blow off steam with exercise like taking a walk. We can do a hobby or simple chore that has been on the to-do list for the past six months. Or we can hang out with trusted friends to talk things out.  Whatever it is, we do this to help take our mind off the problem so we can reset and come back with fresh energy to resolve it. When you think about it..we can use positive stress to counteract the effects of negative stress.

Photo by charlesdeluvio

Dogs can feel stressed too.

The top three causes of anxiety in dogs according to the American Kennel Club are:

1. Fear (associating noises, new places, new people, and new dogs with discomfort)

2.. Separation (feeling abandoned, disconnected, and insecure)

3. Aging (Confusion)

Additionally, dogs can sense our stress and emotional health which then influences them to be stressed.  Our own fears and anxieties can make us release stress odors that a dog is able to read instantly. 

We do not want our pets to feel stressed.  We want to help our dogs feel confident, calm, and content with the world around them and help alleviate any stress they may be feeling.  But just because they can feel stress does not mean it is triggered the same way nor is it communicated or dealt with the same way.  While we humans can give a master class in how to stew for hours over something that happened in the past, anxious about the future, or ticked off by what we just read on the phone, our dogs do not make those connections or think in those ways.  They are much more in the present moment and react to stresses immediately. That said, how a dog communicates stress can be very subtle and go undetected by the untrained eye until it has built to a level when people wonder “Where did this come from?”  And to make it even more confusing some stress indicators can mimic normal behavior and vice versa.

What are some signals that my dog is stressed?

Panting: This can be a confusing one because dog pant when hot, excited, or stressed. However, context is key.  If your dog has been playing hard with friends, they are cooling off.  If you are sitting at a brewery on a nice day and your dog is panting and seems tight…they are most likely stressed.

The Urge to Go: We’ve all been there, we are nervous about an important meeting, or event, and boom, nature calls. Dogs do it too. While marking territory is very much in a dog’s nature, it is also a literal release when working through stress.  

Shake it off: Dogs will do a shake to release tension and also communicate to others that is releasing stress.  Usually, this is seen after they have been petted by people or touched by other dogs.  It’s a reset after feeling a certain amount of tension.  Seen many times after vet exams and groomer visits.

Vocalization: Whether is whining, barking, or growling they are telling you that something is up and needs attention.  

Yawning: While dogs will yawn when tired, they will also yawn when stressed or excited.  The yawn is sometimes accompanied by a high pitch noise.  It is both a release and communication of coping with stress.  

Drooling:  Can be exacerbated with excessive use of treats in stressful places.  While treats are effective for training new things, they can also reinforce subtle behaviors during times of stress.  I have observed dogs who drool when stressed or who become stressed when fed treats even though no stressors are present.

Lip Licking: This is a very subtle cue given when a dog is being submissive. It is an appeasement gesture to ward off aggression, calm others down, or when they acquiesce.  

Whale Eye: This has nothing to do with whales, but describes seeing the white or sclera portion of a dog’s eye.  Usually, this will be associated with stiffness of the head turned away from the problem, while keeping an eye on the problem.  A side glance. The feeling is insecure, vulnerable, and frightened.

Body posture: Dogs will lean into pressure.  If a healthy dog with no physical problems shifts their weight to the front or back, leans into you with either side or pushes into their collar or harness (Pulling), they are coping with stress.  Usually, this occurs with new environments that are highly charged.

Shedding: Aside from the typical cycle of shedding when seasons change, “blowing a coat” is a result of high cortisol levels, which is a hormone that is released during times of stress.  When dogs are stressed or feeling anxious, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, cortisol levels go up, and this can result in shedding.

Displacement Behavior:  Occurs when a dog is aware of a stressor but rather than confronting it, avoids it. It is an internal conflict when a dog cannot do either fight and flight. They can’t run away nor can they do anything about the situation they are in. This can appear as scratching, grooming, sniffing, or acting aloof.  Drinking water with another dog after intense play can also be a disarming social cue.

Escape behavior: This is an extreme signal of stress.  Usually, there have been any number of other subtle signals that were given well before it gets to this point. Hiding, slinking, tail between the legs, lowered head, and low ears, are all observed with escape behavior.  Other signs are clawing, digging, and pacing.  

Aggression: Another extreme behavior that is a combination of very high attraction and high insecurity.  Many times this is associated with other smaller stresses that build on top of each other in a short period of time called trigger stacking. 

How can I help my dog handle stressful situations?

First and foremost understanding your dog’s body language is critical to help them cope with stressful situations and overcome any anxiety they have.  Recognizing the subtle changes in your dog will help you get ahead of the situation sooner so you and your dog can navigate together.  It is important to remember that you are a team and when your dog is aware that you also see the problem, that they see, that helps build trust and confidence in each other. Another key point is to observe and know your dog’s behavior in a calm state which will help you differentiate between what is normal behavior and what is stress. 

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota

Socialization and Conditioning help overcome stress and anxiety.

Socialization and Conditioning are key to lessening the impact of stress on you and your dog.  If you encounter a stressful situation and you and your dog are not prepared to handle it, then simply leave the situation or retreat to a quieter place so the dog can observe from a comfortable distance.  While it is tempting to comfort with overly soothing “It’s OK” talk, it is better to be calm, quiet, and present.  

We never want to force a dog to endure a situation that is stressful but we can lessen the impact of it repeating in the future by practicing scenarios in a controlled, measured way.  Practicing socialization exercises such as meeting new dogs and people, greeting guests at the front door, walking downtown, or going to a brewery can be made into an enjoyable confidence-building experience.  Unlike random events which are surprising and stressful; consistent, intentional, and controlled practice scenarios can give you and your dog the opportunity to learn and explore with confidence.  Rather than trigger stacking, we are confidence stacking!

Some stress can be a symptom of an underlying medical issue, so it is advised to consult your veterinarian. 

We all know that physical exercise is great for reducing stress but so is mental stimulation. Mentally stimulating and engaging activities pull us in new directions and for dogs that occurs through the nose.  Sniffwalks or sniffarris are massive stress relievers.  Scent is the ultimate invigorator for dogs, so be sure to stop and check the pee-mail… it’s important!  If your home is an energetic or chaotic one at times, consider giving your dog a place in the house they can retreat to.  If they want some time alone, let them have it, they may need it.  

Stress is a natural part of life, it’s what keeps us alive and out of danger. No one can escape it, but we can all learn to recognize it when we see it and learn how to effectively mitigate it.  Dogs have provided many services over the years and it could be argued that their sensitivities are pointing out new stresses of which we have not been aware.

Photo by Stephen Andrews

I look forward to talking with you!

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