Dog stress is one of the leading causes of pet aggression, ailments, anxiety, and worst of all it can be the reason why your dog may have to be put to sleep. The problem with dog stress though is that not a lot of pet parents really understand what it is, what causes it, and how it can be avoided or treated. Most of the time, owners consider what can already be a stressful situation for their dogs to be a very common activity.
The dog may be showing all of the marks of a stressed out dog and simply dismiss them as unruly behavior and provide a corresponding punishment or treat them as a natural reaction from their pets being dogs. Although stress is indeed a very common occurrence in a dog’s day to day routine, the level of stress that they can handle can vary depending on the situation.
It is therefore important for a pet owner to understand just how well their pets would be able to cope with the situation in order to avoid any traumatic experience for the dog or to other people involved. Aside from this, a stressful situation can also affect, aggravate, or initiate an illness that your dog may have to carry throughout their lives. Had that stressful condition been dealt with properly at the first place, a lot of negative outcomes could have been avoided.
What is stress for dogs?
According to one definition, stress is a response of an organism on a demand to change or adapt to a particular situation. They can be a physical, emotional, social or other form of reaction. Hence, a dog can get stressed almost from any type of situation. It can be as simple as walking your dog to the park or receiving a guest in your own home.
Stress can either be good or bad depending on what it does to your dog. Stress which helps him learn and cope with new things is good but stress which puts him in a situation where he turns on the fight or flight mode will definitely produce unwanted results even to the point of hindering their growth if they are puppies.
Stress in dogs is very similar to those in humans: they affect a particular area of the nervous system which is also known as the autonomic nervous system. When a dog is faced with a stressful situation, his fight or flight reaction is activated and this gives rise to the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is what gives the body its instant supply of extra energy so the dog can immediately do what is needed to keep his life which is either to fight or run away from the stressor.
The constant presence of adrenaline in the body however will lead your dog to waste away as it consumes his energy and suppress his immune system making him more prone to ailments. Thus, a dog should be taught how to properly deal with what he sees as a stressor early on, not only to avoid possible aggressive attacks, but to preserve his health as well.
What are the signs of a stressed dog?
Most of the signs and symptoms which are associated with a stressed dog are related to the inner mechanisms that are at work when they are stressed. Hence when you see the following, then your dog surely already under stress:
Sweaty paws – this is the equivalent of the sweaty palms that people get when they are nervous and scared of something. When dogs are stressed, they produce a lot of sweat as their body prepares for the fight or flight reaction, and is discharged through the pads of their paws.
Shedding – one of the tell-tale signs of stress in dogs is when they are shedding a lot of their fur. You can notice this when you have a new guest at home or after they have visited the veterinarian. You will also notice that they are drooling.
Yawning, whining, and howling – these are a dog’s way of vocalizing their stress especially if their owner does not seem to be paying attention to them. Instead of being aggressive, a dog can just turn into these ways in order to somehow get rid of whatever is troubling them.
Turning away – one of the ways in which you would know that a dog is under stress is when they turn away their faces from the person approaching them. This is to signal that they don’t like them and that they want to avoid any confrontation with them.
Pinned back ears – you will notice this when a dog is showing submissiveness or deference to another person or dog. This is often accompanied by a tense mouth, baring of teeth, and a low growl which is meant to warn the other person or dog that they are not comfortable with being close to them and that they are near to snapping at them.
Inattentiveness or sniffing around a lot – a dog or a puppy will tend to stay away from a stressful situation by being inattentive to their owners or by sniffing around a lot. You will notice this when bringing your dog to a dog park or to a dog daycare at the first time. It will be more difficult to handle them as they tend to ignore your calls pay more attention to other things. They will also “mark” a lot of places by urinating on them.
Panting – dogs pant because that is how they regulate their body temperatures. This is why they often pant after a good run or when they are playing roughly with other dogs. But if your dog is not engaging in any strenuous exercise or if the weather is cold and he is panting, then something is really stressing him out.
How can a dog can be stressed?
So what types of situations can make your dog stressed out?
Being left alone – this is one of the most common types of pet stressors nowadays specially since most of them are left by themselves eight hours a day and when their owners come home, they only spend little time with them. Dogs are pack animals and one of their most important needs is to feel that they belong in a pack. If they are constantly left alone, these dogs will not only feel lonely but scared as well especially if they are still young puppies. Not having anyone to connect and play with, these dogs will slowly develop separation anxiety.
Change of residence – transferring your place of residence, putting your dog in a kennel, or simply giving him to a new owner will surely put your pet in a stressful situation. The newness of the place and the fact it is still strange to him will cause him to feel uneasy. It is similar to the jitters that you get when enrolling in a new school or having to stay in a new place except that your dog is clueless as to why the change occurs in the first place. Being in an unfamiliar territory will not only put him in constant fear and insecurity.
Travelling in a car – most people would think that this is quite impossible since a lot of dogs actually enjoy putting their tongue out while travelling in a car but the fact is that there are dogs who take this as a very stressful situation. They will toss and turn during the whole trip inside a crate or they would constantly chew on things. This often happens when the dog is not introduced to car travelling while he was still a puppy or when they have negative past experiences with it.
Loss of a “pack” member or the arrival of a new one – dogs often stick to a particular hierarchy in the pack and this also applies to the family that they live with. The death of a family member therefore, especially one that they have grown very close with, can signify a great loss for the pet.
One of the best illustrations for this is the dog, Hachiko, which could not be “comforted” at home unless he saw his owner at the train station. Gaining a new family member on the other hand, can also cause some stress on your pet as he becomes confused as to what his place now is in the pack.
Loud music or sounds – a loud sound or music will definitely put some stress on your dog’s ears since it will require a lot of energy just to transfer those sound molecules from their eardrum to the brain and the fact that it will keep them up. Since a dog’s hearing is already sensitive, being exposed to loud volumes especially for a long period of time will cause them to deplete their energy. Thunderstorms for example, are known to cause some pets to hide or whine out of fear and surprise.
Being chained – the fact that their freedom of movement is being restrained will cause your pet to become stressed out. Since they cannot move about freely, much of their energy is not expended and they also have a limited number of activities that they can do. Not only will this lead to boredom which will make your dog frustrated but it will also set up your dog to become aggressive.
Aging and suffering from a medical condition – a dog which is experiencing some pain due to a physical ailment will surely be undergoing stress. This is very true especially with older dogs which are having several ailments all at once. It could be some painful joints or a pain in their stomach which is bothering them and not giving them enough rest or sleep. The pain itself is a trigger for stress and the inability to rest is an added stressor.
How do you help your dog cope with stress?
There are many ways in which you can help lessen the effects of stress on your dog. This is really important since a stressed out dog can either snap at another person or they may develop an ailment with their exposure to constant stress.
First and foremost, don’t punish your dog. If your dog is acting out in ways that you don’t like such as howling or being inattentive, the best that you can do is to not scold your pet. Shouting at your dog or subjecting him to punishment such as putting them on a crate will only worsen the situation as it will stress them out more.
Keep them close. One of the ways in which you can help ease a dog’s stress is by touching them. Cuddling them and giving them a massage will help soothe and calm them down. Aside from that, it will also help calm you down as well. Your touch will help your dog to relax since they are familiar and comfortable with you. This is also good advice if you are spending a lot of time leaving your pet at home.
Try to establish a bond with your dog by spending as much time as you can with them. You can also try fitting a t-shirt snugly on them or leaving a shirt or a piece of clothing with your scent on it to help them relax.
Calm yourself down. Since dogs are very sensitive to their owner’s emotions, they can easily pick up on how you are feeling. So if you are getting anxious about how other dogs would react to your dog, your pet will be anxious as well. If you want your dog to be relaxed, then you should not be worried as well.
Desensitize your dog to whatever is causing him stress. It is not a good idea for your dog to remain stressed about something that is not really harmful. For example, if they are fearful of going to the dog park and meeting other dogs, then you should slowly introduce another dog to him. Teach them that they do not have to fear these dogs since they can actually be friends with them. If they are fearful of car rides, then slowly get him to love the ride by giving him treats inside the car and taking him for short rides to let him get used to it.
Give your pet enough exercise. Stress which is due to inactivity can often be relieved by engaging in physical activities. Going for a walk and exploring new areas will help them expend their stored up energy and release some “feel good” hormones which will help them calm down. Do not over-exercise your dog however, as this can lead to physical stress.
Provide a den or a quiet place where they can retreat when stressed. Dogs love the feel of having their own place where they can just lay and feel safe from any intrusion or attack. Hence, you should be able to provide them with a quiet area in your home where they can retreat when you are having guests in your home. Make sure that this place is not exposed to any loud noise or music which can be coming from your neighbors or from your own home.
Use some calming music. Although this is not a very common advice, there had been studies in which dogs were observed to calm down after hearing classical music. There are certain types of music though that caused them to be more anxious so try to avoid these: rock, heavy metal, and jazz.
Use pheromones. Pheromones are naturally produces by mother dogs and it helps puppies to feel calm. There are synthetic types of pheromones today which are being used to produce the same effect on older dogs. These often come in dog collars so they can easily reach the dog’s nose when emitted.
Use herbal essences. Just like in humans, dogs can relax when they smell or drink herbal extracts or essences. Some of the most popular ones are chamomile and lavender. Soak a handkerchief on a solution with these herbs and then use it as a collar for your pet.
Get the help of your vet. When all else fails, the best thing is to consult your vet about your pet’s stress problems. He or she will be able to identify if the stress is related to some illness that your dog already has or they could recommend a good behavioral trainer for your pet who will teach them how to cope with stressors. Aside from this, they can also provide the proper stress medication that your dog needs.
Stress can do a lot of things to your dog and it can either be good or bad depending on how your dog copes with it. A dog can become stressed for a variety of reasons including meeting new people, travelling, illness and being transferred to a new home.
It is up to you as a pet owner to help him go through the stressful situation. You can hold him, desensitize him to the stressor, or you can provide him with a quiet place where he can retire whenever he feels stressed. Whatever you do, however, make sure that you have him checked up by your vet to make sure that his health does not deteriorate because of stress.