How to handle your stressed dog
Our lives are getting more and more stressful in this fast-changing world. As more pressure is put upon us and our families, this stress is also passed unto your dog, as family member too!
So, how can you identify if your dog is stressed and what can you do about it?
Below are some behaviours that your dog may show if he is feeling stressed. Of course, some of these behaviours are displayed naturally and are not a sign of stress, so you need to see each behaviour in context. So, if a dog is panting because it is hot, then the likelihood is that he’s not stressed, just hot.
Signs that your dog is stressed
Here are some signs to look out for. You will find that usually more than one symptom will be displayed at the same time.
- Restlessness and pacing. Perhaps your dog can’t settle down in areas he used to, or in new areas. Often, these dogs pull on the lead to escape the situation.
- Easily startled, jumpy and nervous
- Overreaction to circumstances where he would normally react calmly.
- Displaying calming signals. Learn about these extremely important signals in the Turid Ruugas ‘Calming Signals’ book. It’s an excellent read! It’s now also available as a DVD.
- Defecation and urination. When a dog is very fearful and/or distressed, the body releases adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This activates the rectum to defecate. On top of that, there are changes to the water balance, which means there is a greater urge to urinate.
- Unsheathing of the penis in male dogs. Most people are surprised at this, and think the dog is sexually-stimulated, when in fact, he is stressed. Again, you will need to look at this in context.
- Mounting. As above, this is often mis-interpretated, but seen within the situation, it may well be that your dog is stressed. This can be seen in both male and female dogs and also in puppies. See what other parameters are happening at the same time and what other behaviours your dog is displaying to properly assess this behaviour.
- Abnormal seasons. This happens relatively often in females under stress. The may come into season too often or very rarely. They may also stay in heat for long periods of time.
- Exaggerated self-grooming. Some dogs are so stressed, that they can cause themselves wounds, often in their legs, tails and genital areas.
- Destructiveness. This is extremely common in dogs whom are left on their own and is a serious sign of stress. Often, this creates friction between the owner and dog, which makes the dog even more stressed. Sometimes this behaviour can be seen by dogs biting on the lead after a prolonged exposure to whatever is stressing them.
- Exaggerated barking. Continuous barking, whining or howling is a sign that the dog is seriously stressed and as above, this can create friction in the owner-dog relationship, making the dog more stressed.
- Tummy upsets. Diarrhoea and vomiting are common signs of stress.
- Allergies. With chronic stress that has been there over a long period of time, the dog’s immune system is weakened, which may bring about all manners of allergies. For example, food, mites, flea, grass, pollen, etc. It can also bring about eczema, itchiness and open wounds.
- Change in appetite. This is a very easy sign to see if your dog is stressed or not, without having to look out for too many body signals. Often, when dogs are put in new situations or they have been over-burdened with training, they will often refuse or spit out those tasty titbits they used to love. Equally, a dog may gulp down whatever he can find (including inedible things like stones, socks, wood, paper, etc). This is understandably very dangerous to the dog, as it can cause intestinal blockage. Chastising the dog for doing this will make him even more stressed.
- Unpleasant body odour and bad breath. In most mammals, stress induces the release of gastrointestinal acids that become noticeable through the dogs panting and body. Of course, there may be other reasons for this, so it is advisable to always have your veterinarian give your dog a clean bill of health before assessing any behavioural problems.
- Raised hackles. Dogs display this behaviour when they are emotionally charged, afraid, insecure, stressed or even extremely happy (in some dogs). So you will need to see the whole context and determine in which circumstances your dog displays this behaviour. These signs are often mis-interpreted as aggression.
- Tense muscles. It is important to allow your dog to move and release the tension in his body when he is stressed. You may see your dog tremble for this same reason, to help release the tension in his body. Calmly walking about will help your dog get rid of some of the tension in his muscles, which may otherwise cause him painful cramps and even more stress. If you see your dog shaking after a mildy-stressful interaction (this includes excessive play) then it is his way of releasing some tension in his body caused by the stress. Now, imagine being asked to sit still when you are very stressed, it would be impossible. We usually flap our arms, pace about, talk a lot, etc. It is the body’s natural way to release some of the tension. You will notice that your dog will try to keep an eye on whatever it is that is stressing or scaring him, to ensure it is not going to be dangerous to himself and be ready to fight or run away. Forcing your dog to look away from whatever is upsetting him, will only make him more scared and stressed. Imagine being made to close your eyes, then you know there is a tarantula 20 feet from you!!
- Dandruff. This may be due to dry skin, but it may also appear during or after a stressful situation.
- Sudden moulting or loss of coat condition. This can be seen as many hairs being released after a stressful situation or over a period of time, bald patches around the dogs body.
- Changes in eye colour or condition. It could be that the change in colour may be caused by the high blood pressure and the tiny blood vessels behind the eyes. The dog may have a sickly appearance with sunken and dull eyes. Under a high level of stress, like us, the eyes will be wide open and in some cases there may be some uncontrollable eye movement.
- Panting. As we have all experienced, stress increases muscle tension and heart rate, in the need for more oxygen. This also makes us hotter. Dogs regulate their body temperature by panting, which at the same time provides more oxygen if stressed. Like humans, dogs sweat when stressed, but unlike us, they do not have as many sweat glands, so they sweat through their paws.
- Runny nose. This can be seen in some dogs.
- Poor concentration, forgetfulness or too passive. This can often be seen in training classes, where the dog is so stressed that it cannot concentrate and learn, it will also not be able to carry out what it has already learnt. If your dog displays this, it is not that he is not intelligent, it is likely that he is too stressed in that environment.
- Compulsive behaviour. In some extreme cases of dogs being put a huge level of stress, they may display obsessive behaviours like constantly running in a figure of eight, chasing lights, snapping at imaginary objects, running in circles, excessive licking, chasing their tail, staring intensely at objects like flies and lights, excessive licking and many other extreme repetitive behaviours.
As mentioned previously, it is very important that you take your dog to your vet to get a clean bill of health, before looking at any behavioural problem, as many stress symptoms can be caused by an underlying medical condition. For example:
- Blindness, deafness, over/under-sensitive to touch, mobility problems (joints, muscles, fractures, etc).
- Problems with organ function like the kidneys, digestive and circulatory systems.
- Chronic pain due to injuries, trauma, infections, shock, arthritis, spondylosis, etc
- Sexual functioning. A dog may become stressed due to pent-up sexual drive. Also, female dogs may be stressed by the constant male attention when she is in season.
Along the above medical reasons, there may be other reasons why your dog is stressed. Here are a few:
- Change of environment – new babies/children, new animals/other dogs, new house, etc, etc
- Grief due to loss of owner or other animals in the household
- Change in pack dynamics, due to an introduction of a new dog/cat/other animal or person. Maybe there are too many dogs in the household.
- Lack of sleep or relaxing sleeping and rest areas
- High expectations in training and working/ rough play or uncontrolled puppy play/puppy parties.
- Over exhaustion due to lack of sleep, too much exercise (mental or physical), too much interaction or exposure to new stressful environments.
- Being left in isolation/separation anxiety.
- Unhealthy human-dog relationship – e.g. too much emotional dependency on the dog or maybe the dog is not shown any affection. Maybe there are too many or too few house rules.
How can you help your stressed dog?
So what can you do about it? Obviously, the first thing is to identify that your dog is stressed and why s/he is stressed. The help of a properly qualified dog behaviourist will help in this. They will also set out a proper plan for you to follow to help your dog.
In the meantime, here are some pointers:
- Establish a consistent daily routine that meets your particular dog’s needs. For example a good diet, a quiet and comfortable sleeping and resting area. Two walks per day, distance depending on your particular dog’s needs. A daily walk is not just important for physical exercise, but more so, for mental stimulation. It allows the dog to let go and behave like a dog. Off lead running in a safe place is the best way, ensuring there is no livestock or wildlife they can chase.
- Have a good grounding on your basic obedience. This is an important way to communicate with your dog, on what you need him to do. If your dog ignores you, then he doesn’t understand or you are not being clear or consistent on what you are asking your dog to do. Go to a reward-based trainer and get hold of your basic obedience again. Ensure there are no harsh training methods involved, as this will just stress your dog more. Dogs love to learn and to get it right, so reward-based training is a great way to build a strong bond with your dog. It will keep your dog mentally stimulated and he will love to get it right for you for your praise and perhaps the odd titbit here and there! Also, it will teach your dog that you have control of situations, so that he can relax and let you protect and care for him/her.
- Ensure you provide a safe environment for your dog. If you have issues within your dog pack, then see a dog behaviourist who will be able to help.
- Have rules in your household and teach your dog what they are (in a happy and calm way). The most important thing with rules is total consistency. Make sure everyone in the household follows these rules. An unpredictable environment will just make your dog more stressed.
- Don’t put too much pressure on your dog in training. Remember if your are competing in sport, it is your choice, not the dog’s. If the dog enjoys it (as most do), then great! If not, then re-think, get another dog who will enjoy it and provide your current dog with either less pressure to perform, or find another sport/hobby which he will enjoy.
- Don’t depend emotionally on your dog. They cannot deal with this and will stress them out. Make sure you have a routine, stick to it, and give your dog a healthy amount of love and attention (not too much and not too little).
The main thing is to enjoy life together with your dog. Provide a predicable environment for him/her and somewhere where they feel safe and that you are in control of situations, so that they don’t feel they have to.