Stress is a normal part of life for everyone, including dogs. Stress isn’t always bad either: it reminds us to eat, helps us avoid dangers and notifies us of potentially harmful situations. However, it becomes problematic for our dogs when we put them in stressful situations that they are unable to escape from.
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- 12 Signs Your Dog Is Stressed
There's an ongoing debate between professionals on what negative stress looks like in dogs, and currently, there's no conclusive, black and white definition of this (1, 2). That is to say that there is not a specific response that is characteristic of all types of stress in dogs, and 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 (3).
Nevertheless, stress in dogs, when not mitigated, can cause unexpected outbursts of aggression, have a negative impact on a dog's overall health and affect a dog’s ability to learn. It's crucial to monitor a dog for different signs of stress and take the appropriate steps.
Researchers found that a dog's reactivity and their responsiveness to a variety of different environmental factors is what shapes a dog's personality and also creates many behavioral problems (4, 5, 6, 7, 8). These studies prove how stress in dogs affects their daily behavior, and there's a number of potential signs of stress that were derived from these and other studies.
Understanding Stress in Dogs and Its Context
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 easy to observe but they can also vary widely. This is why it's important to consider the context of the stressful situation with your pet, and compare it to your non-stressful situations (9, 10, 11, 12).
For example, head 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 may be a sign of stress. You must pay attention to your dog’s normal behavior when they aren't stressed, so you can pick up on these changes.
Majority of scientific studies focus on some behavioral signs in dogs but primarily on their physiological measures to assess stress levels in dogs and a dog's response to feeling stress in specific context and situations (13, 14, 15, 16).
The most accurate way on how to tell if a dog is stressed and further measure their stress level is using methods that generally aren't available to pet owners. Scientists use several approaches to assessing signs of stress in dogs:
- Sampling of a dog's saliva (17, 18, 19)
- Measuring a dog's cortisol levels (20, 21)
- Analyzing a dog's physiological markers (22, 23)
Currently, measuring a number of different physiological markers in dogs is the most accurate way to assess stress levels in dogs (24). However, because this isn't available to dog owners, the next best option is observing behavioral signs of stress in dogs – those listed below – some of which may be accurate but not always.
There's a large number of causes that may stress out your pooch. Being aware of them and recognizing these causes will help you to put the signs of stress into context better. For example, studies show that stressed dog owners can pass on their anxiety onto dogs, and the animal will subsequently feel stressed as well (25).
Below are some of the most common signs of stress in dogs as they have been observed in studies that were measuring dogs' levels of stress using other methods, including saliva sampling, cortisol measurements and assessing physiological markers.
12 Signs Your Dog Is Stressed
1. Loss of Appetite
A dog's appetite was shown to decrease during times of stress, which mostly relates to the increase of cortisol levels in the dog.
If you notice your dog isn’t eating as much as he usually does or is refusing treats, it can indicate stress (among other possible health problems). And although there are many different reasons why dogs refuse to eat, stress was 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.
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 and 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.
Potentially, there's a continuous source of stress for the animal, creating a situation from which your pet cannot escape and will feel increasingly overwhelmed.
4. Digestive Disturbances
Similar to humans, dogs can have a similar stomach health and digestion related reactions to increased levels of stress. The digestive system is very sensitive to stress in mammals, so vomiting and diarrhea could be a sign of this.
5. Displacement Behaviors
Excessive blinking, chattering teeth, nose licking, scratching, shaking off as if wet when a dog is actually dry, or excessive yawning are potential signs of stress in your pooch. They are often seen as behaviors performed in an effort to resolve an internal stress conflict by the dog's body.
6. Excessive Grooming
While more commonly observed in cats, excessive grooming has also been seen in dogs that are feeling stressed out. Similar to a displacement disorder above, dogs may start excessively grooming themselves in times of stress as a way to calm themselves. In some more severe cases, this can even get to the point of self-mutilation.
One of the most common and clearly identifiable sign of stress in dogs for pet owners to quickly see is hyperactivity. This type of sign normally appears as frantic behavior or restless pacing in dogs, and will continue until the dog is removed from a stressful situation or the cause of anxiety has been fixed.
Similar to anxiety signs in dogs, particularly during thunderstorms and fireworks, your stressed canine companion may want to constantly be in contact with you for reassurance.
When dogs are unsure or scared about something around them, they instinctively seek physical contact with other mammals; this is why anxiety vests work at relieving stress in canines as they provide pressure on their body.
9. Lowered Body Posture
Slinking or being sneaky are often misinterpreted as “guilt” in dogs. However, canines are unable to feel guilt. Instead, this type of behavior and posture may be indications of stress.
This is something you will often see when your pet misbehaves and you let them know that they've been bad – their posture is indicating them getting stressed, not feeling guilty. That said, there are also many other reasons for this type of 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. All of these may potentially be behavioral changes that are caused by stress in dogs.
If your dog is breathing heavy, or taking shallow rapid breaths, but she has not been physically exerting herself, she could be experiencing stress. This indicator is more rare and will usually be short-term before the canine's body moves onto different stress signs.
12. Sweaty Paws
Like panting, if you can rule out physical exertion or heat as a cause of sweaty paws, it is likely an indicator your dog is stressed out.
Using Counter-conditioning for Stressed Dogs
With short term stressors, the immediate course of action when you notice 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 (PDF) involves turning the stressful stimulus into a positive event by pairing it with something a dog already enjoys. This could be food, a favorite toy, or close interaction with the owner. It is called counter-conditioning because we are countering a previous interaction – fear, dislike, stress – with the stressful stimulus.
A critical component for successful counter-conditioning in dogs 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 a dog can include avoidance and they may simply reject the treat and continue being stressed out.
Desensitization involves introducing the troublesome stressor to the dog at a level they can tolerate it, 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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