Stress affects each of us differently. Some of us may talk too quickly, our hands may sweat and shake, or perhaps we snap at our friends or family. Others might become silent and withdrawn, eat more than usual, or start losing sleep. Just as stress can affect humans in a variety of ways, both mentally and physically, it can affect our dogs in a similar manner.
Although stress is not a pleasant emotion, the ability to experience stress indicates that your body is functioning normally, and all animals will experience stress from time-to-time. However, if levels of stress remain unchecked and elevated for prolonged periods, dogs can develop anxiety disorders, and, subsequently, undesirable behaviors. In addition, high levels of stress in dogs over an extended time can suppress the immune system and lead to a decrease in overall health and quality of life.
By learning to identify stress in dogs, you can not only understand when your dog is feeling anxious, but also register and avoid triggers of anxiety in your pet. Using this information, you can implement calming techniques to combat and eliminate rising levels of stress.
Let’s look at common stressors in dogs, recognizing stress in your dog, and how to calm your dog when they are feeling anxious.
Common Stress Triggers in Dogs
Any situation, surrounding, object, or being that disrupts the body’s normal state of functioning can trigger stress.
Stress triggers can be broken down into three main categories:
Dogs may experience stress when exposed to one or all of the types of stressors. Below are some of the most common stress triggers in dogs:
The most common environmental stress triggers in dogs are noise related. Dogs have extremely sensitive hearing. They can hear a much wider range and detect much quieter noises than humans can. Therefore, loud and abrupt noises can be quite shocking, especially to a dog hearing them for the first time.
This canine stress trigger is amplified if the loud noises continue to sound over a period of time, as opposed to just a single loud blast or bang. This is why fireworks and thunderstorms can make our furry companions so fretful. Each crack of thunder or boom of the fireworks causes additional stress, such that the level of stress continues to climb until your dog is so wound up it will take them hours, if not days, to recover.
Unfamiliar scents are another common environmental stress trigger in dogs. Just as canines have incredible hearing, their sense of smell is also remarkable. Their incredible noses allow them to detect the scent of a novel human or animal in their environment long after they have gone. As territorial creatures, this can be unsettling for them.
Additionally, their sharp sense of smell allows dogs to detect stress pheromones from other animals, even cats and humans. This can be particularly problematic at a veterinary clinic, where many animals visit and experience stress at some level.
It’s also quite common for dogs to feel stressed in a new environment. Changes to their routine surroundings, such as moving to a new home, trying a new dog park, or staying at a new boarding facility can leave pets feeling quite uneasy. Car rides also fall under this category, as the inside of the car itself can be a new place, and the car is continually moving through changing settings with unfamiliar scents, making it difficult to adjust.
Meeting New People
A common social stress trigger includes meeting new humans or pets. Although some dogs are very social and enjoy meeting strangers, others may be more timid or territorial. This is a regular occurence in puppies who were not socialized properly, or dogs that were possibly abused in a past home.
Separation from owners or housemates is another common social stress trigger. Dogs are pack animals, and their humans and housemates are their pack. Being separated from their perceived pack can trigger stress, and the longer the separation lasts, the higher the level of anxiety—which can lead to a very stressed-out dog.
Hunger, thirst, and illness or pain are physical stress triggers. Physical discomfort triggers stress in dogs, just as it does in humans.
Tips for Recognizing Stress in Dogs
There are many signs and symptoms to indicate a dog is stressed. Before beginning to look for signs of stress in your dog, it is important to learn your dog’s normal body language and establish a baseline for comparison.
A relaxed dog will have a soft face and body, ears half way down their head and forward. They might be softly panting or breathing through their nose. Their tail will be held at the same level as their body and might be gently wagging. They will happily accept yummy treats when offered.
But signals of anxiety in dogs are different. Here are ways to recognize the most common signs of a stressed dog:
Whining is a frequent indicator of stress in dogs. Dogs whine when they are uncomfortable, and many will whine throughout the duration of a stressful event. Atypical barking, such as barking at nothing in particular or relentless barking, is also a sign of stress in dogs.
Dogs will pant to release heat but also when they are overly excited or stressed, just as humans might hyperventilate if they become overwhelmed. If your dog is panting vigorously, but hasn’t been exercising or playing, it’s a good indication that they are stressed.
Full body tremors are an easy-to-spot sign of a dog experiencing stress. A stress trigger will kick on the body’s “flight or fight” response, and the adrenaline rush will cause a dog to shake all over in anticipation.
The inability to sit still or stand in one place is a sign of stress in dogs, just as it is in humans. Dogs will frequently pace around an exam room while waiting for the veterinarian or walk in circles around the couch at home if left alone.
Hiding or Escaping
Dogs will often hide behind their owners in a stressful situation, or perhaps slink under a table or cower behind a chair. Some will even try to chew off a leash and run if necessary to avoid the stressful situation. Dogs dealing with separation anxiety might try to escape by chewing through a door or their kennel to find their way back to their pack.
Even the friendliest dog might act aggressively when they are feeling stressed or anxious. Usually, they will give a soft growl as a warning, telling whomever is approaching that they are feeling nervous or threatened. If the growl is ignored, they may try to snap or bite uncharacteristically.
Eating the couch, tearing up the carpet, shredding their bedding, or scratching up a door are ordinary signs of stress in dogs, as chewing can be a self-soothing mechanism and an outlet for dogs feeling anxious. Damage to the interior of doors or windows can be coupled with escape behavior.
Repeatedly yawning, or yawns that seem prolonged or drawn out, can be a sign of a dog in stress. Although it’s unclear exactly why a stressed dog yawns, it is believed to have calming effects. If a dog is yawning without the other typical signs of being sleepy, it’s likely a stressed-dog yawn.
Drooling or Licking
Licking is another self soothing technique for dogs. By licking themselves, they can avoid the situation and maintain their focus elsewhere. Drooling excessively also occurs when dogs are stressed. Dogs who are salivating profusely when there’s no food around are likely exposed to a stress trigger.
Abnormal Eye or Ear Position
When a dog pulls their eyelids back enough that the whites of their eyes are showing, they are definitely stressed or fearful. Pulling their ears back and flat against their head is another sign that they feel threatened or anxious.
Relaxed dogs have soft lips and sometimes even seem to smile, but a stressed-out dog will often have tense lips that are pulled back. Some stressed dogs will even lift their lips, showing their teeth, as a warning that they feel unsafe and anxious.
The all-too-familiar tail tucked between the legs is a clear sign that you are dealing with a stressed out dog. Uneasy pups might also curl tightly into a fetal position or crouch low to the ground. Other dogs may become extremely tense and rigid, yet remain standing, commonly referred to as “fear freezing.”
Very commonly, stressed dogs will develop diarrhea. Sometimes the diarrhea will also contain blood or mucous and can be an alarming finding for pet owners. This is a condition veterinarians call stress colitis. It is a common phenomenon, although we are not quite sure why stress leads to inflammation of the large intestine.
Accidents Inside the House
While there are many reasons a potty-trained pet might begin to have accidents in the house, stress is a frequent cause. Just like some humans, dogs can be nervous urinators, and when they are extremely stressed or scared, they might even lose control of their bowels. The old saying “scared the crap out of me,” applies to our canine companions as well!
Dogs who become stressed or overly excited will “blow their coat,” or begin shedding an abnormal amount. Veterinary exam rooms are often filled with hair after each patient leaves. If you find yourself having to sweep or vacuum more than usual, you might be dealing with a stressed-out dog.
Dogs are often very food-motivated creatures, which is why treats make an excellent training tool. Refusal of food by a dog known to “eat anything” can be a sign that your dog is feeling stressed.
Of course, there are many other conditions in which a pet might refuse food, so be sure to contact your veterinarian if your dog’s inappetance persists.
How to Help a Dog Deal With Stress
The most important task when comforting a stressed dog is remembering to stay calm yourself! Dogs can sense your stress, and might feel that their reaction is justified if you are stressed as well.
Besides staying calm, here are some tips for reducing your dog’s stress:
Remove the Stress Trigger
Start by removing your pet from the stress trigger (or vice versa) as soon as signs of stress are identified. The sooner the source of stress is eliminated, the easier it will be to bring your dog back to baseline level of calm.
Stress is an unconscious emotion—your dog did not choose to become stressed, so they might not be able to consciously listen to you until their stress levels begin to decline. Seek out a calm, quiet place for your dog to begin settling down.
Don’t Over Comfort
Avoid overly comforting a stressed dog and behave normally. Extra petting or treats can serve as positive reinforcement, leading to an increase in this behavior in the future. Instead, help your dog refocus and return to a more conscious state of mind by going through commands they already know such as “sit” and “down” and rewarding them generously when they listen.
Help Your Dog Get More Exercise
To prevent stress triggers from affecting your pet, increasing exercise is a great first step. Pets who are not exercised sufficiently can have pent-up energy and become wound up quickly in stressful situations. Additionally, endorphins released during exercise can have the same stress-relieving benefits that they do in humans.
Try Slow, Controlled Behavior Training
Increased training along with slow and controlled exposure to the stress trigger can help desensitize your dog to the source of stress. The more “happy” experiences your dog has in association with the stress trigger, the less likely they will be affected by it in the future.
Consider Calming Products
Lastly, there are many supplements that can be added safely to a dog’s diet that have a calming effect and calming products that can help pets de-stress if they have a stressful episode. Talk to your veterinarian if you are interested in any calming supplements or products. For particularly anxious dogs, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help keep your dog calm.
Talk to Your Veterinarian
Of course, the most essential tool for helping a dog who consistently experiences high stress levels is to work with your veterinarian. Together, you can rule out any medical causes of stress, choose the correct calming supplements and aids, and add in any prescription medications if deemed necessary. The medicines for stress are not always a sedative, and are often not needed long term. Think of them as a bridge until your pet adjusts to a change in the environment, such as a new baby or added pet.
Remember, completely eliminating all stress from a dog’s life is impossible, but with patience and time, you can easily improve your dog’s quality of life by recognizing and managing their stress.