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Signs Your Dog is Stressed and How to Relieve It

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

signs_your_dog_is_stressed

Stress is a commonly used word that describes feelings of strain or pressure. The causes of stress are exceedingly varied. Perhaps you are stressed out by your job, you become nervous when meeting new people, or you get anxious when your daily routine is disrupted.

To reduce stress levels, you may seek comfort in several ways. Maybe you find solace in the company of a trusted friend. Perhaps you relieve stress when occupied by routine chores like cleaning the house. Or maybe you blow off some steam with physical exercise.

"Our dogs can become stressed too."

Our dogs can become stressed too. Since we know how stress makes us feel, we certainly want to help alleviate our pet’s stress as well. However, our dogs do not voice their feelings, slam down the phone, or have a tantrum, so how can we tell they are stressed? The signs of anxiety in dogs are often subtle. In fact, some stress-related behaviors mimic normal behaviors.

What are some of the indicators of stress in dogs?

Pacing or shaking. You have seen your dog shake after a bath or a roll in the grass. That whole body shake can be amusing and is quite normal…unless it is occurring as the result of a stressful situation. For example, dogs are commonly stressed when visiting the veterinarian. Many dogs “shake it off” when they descend from the exam table and touch down on the ground. Dogs, like people, also pace when agitated. Some dogs walk a repeated path around the exam room while waiting for the veterinarian to come in.

Whining or barking. Vocalization is normal self-expression in dogs but may be intensified when they are under stress. Dogs that are afraid or tense may whine or bark to get your attention, or to self soothe.

Yawning, drooling, and licking. Dogs yawn when they are tired or bored, they also yawn when stressed. A stressful yawn is more prolonged and intense than a sleepy yawn. Dogs may also drool and lick excessively when nervous.

Changes in eyes and ears. Stressed dogs, like stressed people, may have dilated pupils and blink rapidly. They may open their eyes really wide and show more sclera (white) than usual, giving them a startled appearance. Ears that are usually relaxed or alert are pinned back against the head.

Changes in body posture. Dogs normally bear even weight on all four legs. If a healthy dog with no orthopedic problems shifts his weight to his rear legs or cowers, he may be exhibiting stress. When scared, dogs may also tuck their tails or become quite rigid.

Shedding. Show dogs that become nervous in the show ring often “blow their coat”. Dogs also shed a lot when in the veterinary clinic. Although less noticeable in outside settings, such as visiting a new dog park, shedding increases when a dog is anxious.

Panting. Dogs pant when hot, excited, or stressed. If your dog is panting even though he has not exercised, he may be experiencing stress.

Changes in bodily functions. Like people, nervous dogs can feel a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. When your dog urinates shortly after meeting a new canine friend, he may be marking territory and reacting to the strain simultaneously. Refusal of food and loss of bowel function are also stress indicators.

Avoidance or displacement behavior. When faced with an unwelcome situation, dogs may “escape” by focusing on something else. They may sniff the ground, lick their genitals, or simply turn away. Ignoring someone may not be polite, but it is surely better than being aggressive. If your dog avoids interaction with other dogs or people, do not force the issue. Respect his choice.

Hiding or escape behavior. An extension of avoidance, some tense dogs literally move behind their owners to hide. They may even nudge their owners to prompt them to move along. As a means of escape, they may engage in diversion activities such as digging or circling or may slink behind a tree or parked car.

How can I help my dog handle stressful situations?

In order to differentiate stress signs from normal behavior, you must be familiar with your dog’s regular demeanor. Then you can tell if he is licking his lips because he is anxious or because he wants a treat.

When relaxed, he will have semi-erect or forward-facing ears, a soft mouth, and round eyes. He will distribute his weight evenly on all four paws. Distinguishing normal behavior from stress signs will help you quickly and effectively diffuse an uncomfortable situation.

"If your dog is stressed, first remove him from the stressor."

If your dog is stressed, first remove him from the stressor. Find a quiet place for him to regroup. Resist the urge to overly comfort him. If you want to pamper him with petting or treats, make him earn them first by performing an activity (e.g., sitting). Responding to routine commands distracts the dog and provides a sense of normalcy. It is amazing how comforting sit, down, and heel can be to a worried dog.

If your dog becomes consistently stressed, see your veterinarian. After ensuring that your dog’s behavior does not have a medical basis, your veterinarian may refer you to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to evaluate stress-related issues. They may also prescribe anxiety-reducing medications if appropriate.

As with humans, exercise can be a great stress reducer. Physical activities like walking or playing fetch help both you and your dog release tension. It is also good to provide your dog with a safe place in the home where he can escape anxious situations. Everybody enjoys a calm place to retreat.

And, finally, remember that stress is not always bad. Fear is a stress-related emotion that prompts us to avoid potentially dangerous situations. So, stress may actually be a protector. Regardless, stress is part of everyday life for us and our dogs, so we should learn how best to deal with it.

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