Stress is a normal part of life for everyone. This includes our beloved dogs. Stress isn’t always bad either, and is crucial to our well being. It reminds us to eat, helps us avoid dangers and notifies us of potentially harmful situations. It becomes problematic for our canine companions, however, when we put them in stressful situations that they are unable to escape from.
There is a great deal of debate between animal care professionals on what negative stress looks like in animals, and dogs in particular. There is no concrete, black and white definition for a number of reasons, and there are no specific biological markers of stress.
That is to say that there is not a specific response that is characteristic of all types of stress. And, sadly, studies show that there is no significant relationship that has been proven between any type of stress and its impact on our dogs' well being.
Understanding stress in dogs
Dogs can have a variety of responses to stressful situations; some are visible to an observer while others are not. Visible changes, like adjustment in their behavior, are the easiest to observe but can vary widely. For this reason, it is always important to consider the context of the situation.
For example, shaking is a completely normal behavior for a dog after a bath. However, when the dog is completely dry and you notice something in the environment that alters your dog's behavior, that can be a sign of stress. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to your dog’s normal behavior when he isn’t stressed, so you can pick up on these changes.
Becoming aware of signs of stress in your dog is important for his health for a number of different reasons. Stress in dogs can cause unexpected outbursts of aggression, have a negative impact on your dog's overall health and effect your dog’s ability to learn.
For these reasons, it is beneficial for both you and your canine to monitor your dog for different signs of stress and take the appropriate steps to make their lives a little easier. Here are some of the most common, interpretable signs of stress in dogs followed by what you can do to alleviate stress and help your dog cope with stressful situations.
12 Signs Your Dog Is Stressed
1. Loss of appetite
Appetite decreases during times of stress. If you notice your dog isn’t eating as much as he usually does or is refusing treats it can indicate stress. And although there are many different reasons why dogs refuse to eat, stress is found to be the most common one.
2. Appeasement signals
These can be difficult to interpret, so the context of this behavior and the identification of potential sources of stress in the environment is crucial here.
When the dog exhibits slow movement, lip licking, exposing his underside, turning his head away, or averting his eyes – these are all communication tools dogs use to discern social rank among themselves in groups.
If these signs appear at the same time as other indicators, they can be interpreted as an indicator of stress in dogs. Understanding your pet is all about observing him in different settings and situations, and noticing the subtle changes in his behavior.
If your normally playful, social dog seems to shut down all of a sudden, is consistently turning away from you for no apparent reason, and/or consistently avoids your touch, he could be trying to tell you that he is stressed, and there's like a continuous source of stress.
4. Digestive disturbances
Have you ever been getting ready for a big meeting or a date and got that sick feeling in your stomach? Your dog has the same kind of reaction to stress. The digestive system is very sensitive to stress in mammals, so vomiting and diarrhea could be a sign.
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Excessive blinking, chattering teeth, nose licking, scratching, shaking off as if wet when they are dry, or yawning are all very clear signs of stress and are often seen as behaviors performed in an effort to resolve an internal stress conflict.
6. Excessive grooming
While more commonly observed in cats, excessive grooming has also been seen in dogs that are stressed. Similar to a displacement disorder, dogs may excessively groom themselves in times of stress, in some cases even to the point of self-mutilation.
Arguably the most common and clearly identifiable sign of stress in dogs is hyperactivity. This normally appears as frantic behavior or restless pacing.
Your stressed canine companion may want to constantly be in contact with you for reassurance when they are unsure or scared about something around them.
9. Lowered body posture
Slinking or being sneaky are often misinterpreted as “guilt”. In actuality, they may be indications of stress; however, there are also many other reasons for this behavior.
This can take a number of different forms, many of which are common during puppyhood. Low caliber mouthing could be gentle nibbling, moving up to hard taking of treats, to painfully hard mouthing or snapping, all the way to biting.
If your dog is breathing heavy, or taking shallow rapid breaths, but she has not been physically exerting herself, she could be experiencing stress.
12. Sweaty paws
Like panting, if you can rule out physical exertion or heat as a cause of sweat, it is likely an indicator the animal is stressed. Your dog is going to be stressed. It is an inevitable part of the dog’s life. The critical responsibility of the owner is to limit the amount of stress the dog experiences and help him deal better with stressful events in the future.
With short term stressors (like children, other dogs, etc…) the immediate course of action when you notice a stressor and signs of stress in your dog is to decrease the intensity of that stressor. This can be accomplished by increasing the distance between the dog and the stressor or, if possible, removing the stressor from the environment completely.
If the stressor is more permanent and cannot be removed or avoided (for example, living near an airport) a more long-term strategy needs to be employed. This comes in the form of counter-conditioning and desensitization.
Counter-conditioning involves (PDF) turning the stressful stimulus into a positive event by pairing it with something they already enjoy. This could be food, their favorite toy, or close interaction with their owner. It is called counter-conditioning because we are countering a previous interaction – fear, dislike, or stress – with the stressful stimulus.
A critical component for successful counter-conditioning is desensitization. Simply throwing your dog a treat in the face of an overwhelming stressor is not going to be effective. As was previously mentioned, signs of stress in your dog can include avoidance and they may simply reject the treat.
Desensitization involves introducing the troublesome stressor to the animal at a level he can tolerate and initiating the counter-conditioning strategy. When your dog no longer shows signs of stress at this level the intensity of the stressful stimulus can be increased systematically.
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