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Dogs

Is your dog stressed or anxious? Signs to spot and how to help

A picture of dog trainer and behaviourist Philippa Short

Philippa Short

Just like us, our dogs are prone to getting stressed and anxious. So how do we avoid this and help create a calm and happy environment for our pups?

Below, expert dog behaviourist Philippa Short explains why dogs get stressed, which signs to look out for, and how to help them relax.

 

 

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Why do dogs get stressed?

Stress is a normal reaction where your dog’s adrenaline increases to help the body respond to an immediate threat. This may be an actual threat or something they see as a threat.

Many analogies are used to understand stress in humans and dogs but today we’re looking at the bucket concept.

Imagine your dog having a bucket and stressful things slowly filling up this bucket. You’ll start to see a lot of chronic anxiety and stress symptoms when this bucket begins to overflow.

Stressful things that can fill your dog’s bucket include:

  • Averse training techniques – using threats, pain, and intimidation instead of positive reinforcement when training.
  • Too much exercise – over-exercising a young dog while their bones and joints grow can cause pain and discomfort.
  • Too little exercise – giving a fit and healthy working adult breed only 20 minutes walk each day isn’t enough physical stimulation.
  • Ball chucking – this is a terrible form of exercise and can cause extreme physical and mental damage. Only use a ball for retrieving exercises in water or tall grass.
  • Social isolation – dogs are generally social creatures and need affection and attention. Of course, it’s still important for them to have alone time when they choose it.
  • Pain and discomfort – they may have chronic conditions that give them no break from ongoing pain.
  • Not knowing your expectations – rules changing or not being consistently reinforced by every family member, for example, being allowed on the sofa.
  • Unpredictable reactions from their humans – changing how you react to certain behaviours your dog shows can be confusing and even scary.
  • Boredom – giving your dog a short walk each day isn’t enough, you also need to give them plenty of mental enrichment.
  • Poor nutrition – what your dog eats affects how their body works as well as their mental state.
  • Lack of support in scary situations – your dog needs to know they can come to you for comfort, reassurance, and backup.
  • Lack of sleep – dogs need more sleep than you think and not getting enough rest can cause chronic fatigue.
  • Reading your stress – your dog can pick up on your stress if you have a good relationship.

 

> Stress trigger stacking in dogs

Your dog can have a lot of little stresses that individually don’t affect how they feel.

But lots of these little stresses that all come at the same time can tip your dog over their coping ability. This is known as trigger stacking and can make a dog explode with stress behaviour.

Letting your dog have a ‘duvet’ day where they hang out at home or go on a little sniffari can help stop them from tipping into chronic stress stacking.

 

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Signs of acute stress in dogs

Immediate signs of acute stress in dogs include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Tense body language
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Vocalisation
  • Self-calming behaviours

 

> Signs of chronic stress in dogs

Chronic stress happens when a dog is repeatedly exposed to things they see as stressors.

An overstimulated sympathetic nervous system affects behaviour and suppresses the immune system. Some of the long-term health conditions that come from this include:

  • Metabolic and circulatory changes
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Self-mutilation behaviours
  • Abnormal repetitive symptoms
  • Obsessive behaviour

 

Signals that your dog may be dealing with chronic stress include:

  • Eyes – rapid blinking, whale eye
  • Mouth – licking lips, cheek blowing, creases in the corner, drooling/frothing, panting, appeasing smile or grin
  • Head – furrowed brow, ears back or drooping, turning the head away, head held low with a fixed stare at the aggressor
  • Body – tense or lowered, trembling, pulling the body away, paw lifted, fast and low-wagging appeasement tail, hiding
  • Noises – yawning, whining
  • Displacement behaviour – sniffing intently in one spot, re-diverting stress onto you, furniture, or another dog
  • Accidents – diarrhoea, submissive weeing

 

> The five ‘F’s of dog stress

If a dog is put in a stressful situation, they can react in five different ways:

  • Fight – going on the offensive by barking and charging to get the stressor away.
  • Flight – trying to create distance by moving away or hiding
  • Freeze – lying frozen on the floor, either on their belly or back
  • Fool around – barking and bouncing around the stressor
  • Flock – obsessively jumping up or pawing at your leg for help

 

> The ladder of aggression

If you don’t recognise stress in your dog and then put extra stress or pressure on them, you can force their behaviour to escalate.

This is known as Kendal Shepherd’s ‘Ladder of Communication’ and builds like this:

  1. Ears go back and try to creep away
  2. Start to stand crouched with the tail tucked under
  3. Lie down with the leg up, go stiff and stare
  4. Low growl
  5. Deeper growl
  6. Air snap
  7. Bite

Always speak to a qualified dog behaviourist if you’re worried about escalating behaviour. The good news is that some behavioural sessions may be covered under dog insurance.

 

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How to calm an anxious and stressed dog

So, what can we do to make sure we’re emptying our dog’s stress bucket?

  • Give them appropriate daily exercise – according to their age, breed, and physical fitness.
  • Feed them a nutritious diet – speak to your vet for help as this is also based on age, breed, and physicality.
  • Take them on a sniffari – scatter treats on walks or in the garden for your dog to find.
  • Give them chews and food toys – food-based interactive toys, licky mats, and natural hide chews ae great choices for relaxation.
  • Show them unconditional love – they should know they’re always loved, even if they have an accident. You can then use training to build up positive behaviour.
  • Do activities they love – what you do will depend on your dog, for example, scent work training or creating a digging pit for them.
  • Focus on positive reward training – this doesn’t mean letting them get away with everything as you still set rules and boundaries. You’re just not using threat or force.
  • Include them in family time – make sure they have quality social time with the family, like cuddling up with you when you read to the kids at bedtime.
  • Create a place of respite – make sure they have somewhere quiet where they can rest and unwind without being disturbed.
  • Set up predictable daily routines – this doesn’t mean planning stuff down to the minute but creating windows of time for feeding and walking.

 

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How to prevent your dog from getting stressed

The best thing you can do for your dog is help them build mental resilience. You can’t control every situation or environment, so give your pup a strong foundation to be less affected by stress.

Structure

One of the biggest ways to create structure is by making sure your dog has predictable outcomes throughout the day. Dogs learn from patterns of behaviour and having patterns helps them feel safe. This, in turn, means that stress doesn’t affect them as much.

 

Decompression

You cannot make your dog’s life completely stress-free, so knowing decompression techniques is key to countering those situations. All of our bucket-emptying exercises can help your dog decompress.

 

Agency

It’s important to give your dog choices in day-to-day life and include them in conversations about what happens to them. This could be:

  • Offering them different beds and places to sleep
  • Giving them a variety of toys which are regularly rotated
  • Letting them pick new routes to follow on walks
  • Allowing them to try out new foods and treats (if safe)
  • Teaching them to be handled so they can give consent to be touched and are calm at vet appointments

Of course, there will be times when you must keep them safe and not let them have a choice. For example, you can’t let them decide to be off-lead near roads as this violates UK dog laws and risks their safety.

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