Causes and Symptoms of Stress in Dogs

Estimated Reading Time 5 minutes
Causes and Symptoms of Stress in Dogs

Stress is the overwhelming feeling of pressure or tension, while anxiety is described as extreme nervousness and unease. In dogs, these two terms are often interchangeable as the two conditions typically show similar signs. The causes of stress in dogs are quite variable, as are the signs a dog may exhibit. Some stress-related behaviors mimic normal behaviors and are subtle. Other behaviors can be more dramatic and bothersome. Continue reading to learn how to recognize and alleviate stress in your dog!

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Causes of Stress in Dogs

Just like people, dogs are individuals with different personalities, temperaments, and preferences. What doesn't bother one dog may be very stressful for another. Most dogs will thrive in an environment that is routine and predictable. Consider the following as potential sources of stress for dogs:

  • Outside noises – dogs have sensitive hearing and can be bothered by noises that we don't even notice. Your pup may hear someone in his yard, walking down the street, talking next door, loud vehicles, barking, thunder, or fireworks.
  • New home – any unfamiliar environment or change in his territory.
  • New things – unfamiliar decorations, construction projects in the house, large or strange objects.
  • Inconsistent rules – changing your rules sends mixed messages and he won't know what you expect him to do. If he's scared, don't suddenly let him get on the bed when he wasn't allowed to do that before. He may think he's doing something wrong and be more stressed!
  • Separation – starting a new job, going back to work after having a baby, going on a trip. A dog used to having company with him all day may not like being alone.
  • Introducing new people – visitors, overnight or long-term guests. Some dogs need time and space to warm up.
  • Confusion and memory loss associated with aging – dementia happens in some dogs. What was once familiar may be stressful and confusing.

Signs of Stress in Dogs

If one of the above is a trigger for stress in your pooch, you can expect to see some behavior changes. Remember that some behavior changes may be subtle, but if you know your dog's regular behavior, it shouldn't be hard to recognize. Some of these may be setbacks in training or signs of a medical condition.

  • Pacing/restlessness
  • Vocalizing – whining or barking. This may be normal at certain times for your dog, so knowing his normal behavior will allow you to know when it may be abnormal.
  • Yawning – dogs can yawn when tired. But they may also yawn, lick their lips, or drool if stressed.
  • Changes in eyes and ears – dilated pupils and ears pinned back against the head.
  • Changes in body posture – may cower down, with tail tucked and body tense.
  • Sudden shedding – there may be a sudden abundance of shedding, or “blowing their coat.”
  • Panting – he could be hot, excited, or exercising. But he could also be stressed!
  • Changes in bodily function – suddenly urinating, defecating, or refusing to eat.
  • Avoidance – he may turn away or “suddenly” need to lick himself or sniff something.
  • Destruction or aggression – he may destroy something, growl, or bite.

Helping Your Stressed Dog

If you can tell your dog is stressed, the first thing to do is to remove him from the source of the stressor. Find a quiet place and remain calm. Dogs will react to their owner's anxiety, so keep this in mind and stick to your normal routine. Go through an obedience session to distract him and shift his attention to your commands. For outside noises or visuals, close the blinds and turn on the radio or TV.

Provide a “safe place” in the house that is an escape, such as a dog crate with a bed inside. You can also cover it with a blanket to block out lights and noises. Every dog can benefit from having their own safe place, and for this reason alone, crate training puppies from the beginning is a wise choice. This is their “bed” and they should feel safe here. Older dogs can be crate trained, but you will have to have more patience and diligence. Often you will find that a dog will put himself in his crate when he is stressed, needs a hiding place, or just wants some peace and quiet!

Consistent training helps dogs manage stress as well. When you do obedience sessions with your dog, you are setting up communication, expectations, and structure. Dogs that have a job to do and a command to follow don't have any uncertainty. Going through a normal obedience routine provides not only a great distraction but also structure and predictability.

Exercise is also a stress reducer for your dog. Playtime counts too! It releases tension, uses up extra energy, provides structure, and makes him more relaxed in between sessions. This should be part of every dog's routine, whether he exhibits signs of stress or not. Dogs that get regular exercise have less stress, are more physically fit, and have fewer health issues.

For dogs that are consistently stressed, make your vet aware of the behaviors occurring so they can check for any underlying medical conditions. You can also try using Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) which has been shown to have a calming effect on many dogs. For noise anxiety, using a Thundershirt may also be beneficial with regular use, as it releases calming endorphins. Your vet may make specific suggestions based on the situation, which could include visiting a veterinary behaviorist or professional trainer. If appropriate, your vet may also prescribe anxiety-reducing medication to use in conjunction with training. It is important to note, however, that medication alone is not typically enough to change behaviors.

Everybody has daily stress that must be managed, and dogs are no exception. It is an inherent part of daily life, so learning to deal with stress effectively is a must. Dogs can also pick up on our emotions, so be calm during times of anxiety. Get to know him well so you know when he is stressed.

Read more:

Puppy Training Toolbox

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