These days stress seems to be the bane of our existence. Everyone you speak with tends to complain about stress – whether it’s work, lack of time, or cost of living we all seem to be overwhelmed these days. Are you aware that our pets get stressed as well? They may not deal with the same circumstances that we do, but our pets get stressed out, too, and suffer the same consequences from stress that we do.
Occasional stress is not a big problem. It can help us avoid or escape dangerous situations, keep us alert, and even help us to learn by improving focus. However, prolonged stress can have detrimental effects for all living organisms. The constant adrenaline pumping in our bodies, which occurs under stress, causes an increase in cortisol which adversely affects many major organs. It increases blood pressure and heart rate, and can affect the kidneys, not to mention cause gastrointestinal issues so it is important to recognize the symptoms of stress in our dogs and try to alleviate the causes.
Signs of Stress
The first step in dealing with stress is recognizing it. While some dog breeds tend to be more prone to anxiety and stress than others, any dog can become stressed. We all have seen the dog that whines excessively or paces continually while waiting in the vet’s office. Both of these behaviors are common signs of stress. However, there are many other more subtle signs of stress to which you need to be alert.
Altered Body Posture: A dog that normally stands with its weight equally distributed on all four legs, suddenly crouches down, or cowers is showing stress. They may also tuck their tail between their legs, which is a sign of fear, too, not unusual if a dog is stressed.
Shedding: All dogs shed, and many dogs shed all year round. However, dogs in stressful situations, such as the veterinarian’s office, will often shed excessively. This is known as “flight or fight” syndrome. In the wild, animals have two choices when faced with a threatening situation – they run away, which is the “flight” option or they can remain in place and face the opponent, which is the “fight” option. If a dog is forced to remain in place or “fight,” their body triggers a response in which the hair sheds excessively. This way if they go into battle with an opponent, the opponent will get an excessive amount of hair in their mouth when trying to bite, instead of skin. So even though your dog is not battling an opponent, being forced to stay in the stressful situation can cause excessive shedding.
Panting: If your dog is panting and they have not been exercising or it’s not hot, they are probably stressed. The panting may be accompanied by excessive drooling as well. Excessive panting can also be a sign of pain, so be sure your dog is not injured or sick.
Barking, Yawning, Licking: Stressed dogs may bark more than usual. Often that barking is rapid and continual – very staccato like. Dogs, of course, yawn when tired, but stress yawns are longer in duration, tense, and more frequent. You may also notice your dog excessively licking its lips, like you would if your lips were extremely dry and parched.
Altered Eyes and Ears: Dogs normally have relaxed ears, but if your dog pins their ears back that could be a sign of stress. Eyes are usually soft, but if your dog is blinking excessively, or has dilated pupils, it could indicate stress. “Whale eye” is also a sign of stress. This is where a dog opens their eyes really wide so that much of the sclera, the white of the eye, shows around the iris, the colored portion of the eye.
Disconnecting: If a dog is faced with a stressful situation, they may escape by engaging in avoidance behaviors. These may include sniffing the ground, licking their genitals, or turning away. They may also choose to hide behind their owners, or even nudge or paw at them as if saying, “Let’s move along.” If your dog exhibits these behaviors, don’t push them. They are saying they are overwhelmed.
Aggression: Dogs may become aggressive when stressed, again, referring to the “flight or fight” syndrome. An overly stressed dog may feel they have no choice but to fight, hence they become aggressive. Dog that become aggressive under stress are especially dangerous, so don’t force your dog and be careful.
Potty Accidents: A stressed dog may suddenly feel the need to urinate, even if completely housebroken. Or they may get sudden onset diarrhea. It is important not to reprimand a dog for accidents due to stress as that will only increase the dog’s stress level; it serves no useful purpose, either, as the accidents are an involuntary response to stress.
Causes of Stress
It is important to recognize those situations that cause your dog stress. By doing so, you may be able to avoid those situations or utilize training to help your dog learn to cope with them. Be observant when noting stress in your dog. Where is the dog? What is going on around them? What sounds do they hear? Who is around them?
Dogs not properly socialized during their early days of puppyhood and not exposed to lots of new situations and people, may become easily stressed and upset by changes in their environment. Because of the lack of socialization, this type of dog may react to environmental changes throughout its life and require extra patience.
Sometimes stress is situational. Dogs may become stressed by loud noises, such as fireworks, thunderstorms, or motorcycles. Other dogs may become stressed at the vet’s office. Some dogs may dislike the car and be stressed when forced to ride somewhere. Moving to a new home may cause a dog stress for the first few days or weeks until they become accustomed to their new environment.
Helping Your Dog Cope with Stress
The first step to helping your dog through stress is to stay calm. Dogs pick up on our emotions very easily and if you are upset by your dog’s stress, they will pick up on it and that will fuel their own stress. Second, do not comfort your dog by hugging and petting them and speaking soothingly to them saying, “Calm down. It’s OK. Don’t worry.” For the dog, that’s positive reinforcement and actually helps to perpetuate the anxious behavior. It is best to just remain calm and try to remove the dog from the anxiety-provoking situation, if possible. If that’s not possible, be alert to your dog’s behavior but try to ignore their responses.
Provide your dog with its own bed or crate. A bed or crate provides a safe haven for your dog where they know they can retreat and not be bothered. When your dog becomes anxious, calmly instruct them to go to their bed or crate.
Providing a dog with regular exercise is a great way to combat stress, especially if your dog is high strung and tends to get anxious frequently. A tired dog is less anxious, plus that exercise helps to burn off the adrenaline, and consequently the cortisol, that tends to be released during anxious situations. Regular daily walks for a minimum of 30 minutes are a must for the anxious pooch. The exercise is also quite beneficial for you, too.
Training your dog helps to build their confidence and a confident dog is less likely to be anxious. You may teach them basic commands or simple tricks. The goal is to have your dog follow these commands when they are in an anxiety-provoking situation. Redirecting your dog’s attention will help to take their focus off the stressful situation.
Scheduling your dog for doggy day care is another way to help your dog cope. They do not need to go daily, but a few days a week may prove helpful. Being around other dogs will improve both their confidence and their socialization skills, and both will help their ability to deal with stress.
If you feel you have done everything possible to help your dog cope with anxiety with little or no results, please contact an animal behaviorist or your veterinarian. The behaviorist may be able to offer other training suggestions to help your dog, while the veterinarian can offer medications to help calm them and reduce their stress. Getting your dog to relax and enjoy life, instead of worrying about it, will help both of you to live a much healthier and happier life. We all know that when our dogs are happy, so are we!