We all know how draining stress can be. It can hinder our ability to think straight, it can affect our sleeping patterns, and it can significantly impact our physical, mental and emotional well being.
But dogs experience stress in the same way we do. The environment can cause your pooch to feel uncomfortable or nervous. And as a way to cope and communicate those feelings, dogs exhibit many different body language signals and behaviours.
It can be upsetting to think poor Fido is suffering in silence with their anxieties. But it’s our job as good pet parents to interpret the signals and offer them some form of relief. Here are the 15 most common signs of stress in dogs, as well as a few tips to help your pooch feel happier and calmer.
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Signs of stress in dogs – body language
Dogs use body language to signal all sorts of emotions. If your dog is feeling anxious or stressed, they may show any number of these common stress signs.
If your dog licks their lips after eating a meal, that’s perfectly normal behaviour and nothing to worry about. But if your dog licks around their nose or mouth excessively, they may be trying to tell you they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable in the current situation. You may find your dog licks their lips while being petted by an unfamiliar face, or when they’re sat in a crowded environment.
We often associate yawning with tiredness, but for our furry friends it’s their way of expressing their anxieties. Like us, dogs do yawn when they’re feeling tired or bored. But if they’re in a stressful or hectic environment, your dog may yawn to help them deal with their nervousness. This could be when your dog is sat in the waiting room at the vets, or in a busy dog-friendly café.
Dogs often pant to cool themselves down, but they also pant as a way to relieve stress. If it doesn’t feel overly warm, you’ll have a better clue it’s stress related and not a means to release heat.
Lowered or tucked tail
In general, tails on happy, care-free dogs sit naturally and slightly proud. If your dog is feeling stressed you may notice their tail is lowered to the floor or tucked between their legs. A stressed or nervous pooch will lower the tail to communicate they’re worried or anxious about something that has, or is about to happen.
Ears pulled back
All dogs’ ears are different, but many naturally point forwards when they’re feeling calm and relaxed. If your dog’s ears are pinned back flat against their head, this shows they’re worried or uneasy in their current environment.
Calm and happy dogs have soft and relaxed eyes with an equally relaxed body posture. When a dog shows the whites of their eyes (also known as whale eye), this can indicate your dog is stressed or nervous. If whale eye is combined with a hard stare and a stiff body posture, this is a threatening signal telling you to back off.
Health and behaviour signs of stress in dogs
Loss of appetite
Dogs suffering from stress can suddenly lose interest in their food or stop eating altogether. As this can cause your dog to lose weight quickly, it’s important to consult your vet. A decreased appetite can also signal an underlying health problem, so either way, it’s best to get advice for the sake of your dog’s health.
Just as stress and anxiety can cause gastrointestinal issues in us, it can also cause problems for our pups. Prolonged symptoms can also signal a food intolerance, so it’s always best to discuss with your vet if it’s been going on for some time. Diarrhoea and constipation are common signs of stress, but always seek help if it’s persisted for longer than 24 hours.
A stressed dog can display aggression towards other people and animals if early body language signals are ignored. If your dog’s aggressive behaviour is sudden, it can also signal a health problem, so your first step should be a trip to the vet. If your dog has no signs of ill health, you should seek help from a qualified behaviourist who will help your dog manage their stress and anxiety around triggers.
If your dog constantly isolates themselves from other people and animals, they may be trying to tell you they’re feeling anxious. Getting some alone time is acceptable to a degree, but if it’s excessive there could be something in your home environment that’s bothering them. Speaking with your vet can help you find out why your dog is often choosing to be alone.
If you’ve noticed your dog sheds more fur than normal, this can indicate your dog is stressed. Fur loss can signal medical causes such as mange or fleas. But if parasites or allergies can be ruled out, you might want to consider any life changes that could have affected your dog’s state of mind. Stress can cause a dog’s fur to fall out naturally, or it can be the consequence of constantly licking and biting at themselves to relieve stress.
You’ve no doubt become accustomed to your dog’s sleeping habits, so you’ll know if your dog seems more lethargic than normal. Stress and anxiety can significantly impact a dog’s sleeping pattern. They can use sleep as a protective mechanism to escape feelings of stress, just as we humans do. We also tend to feel more tired after having to handle stressful situations, and negative experiences can have the same affect on our dogs.
Scratching and chewing
If your dog bites and scratches themselves more than usual, this can be their way of trying to cope and relieve their feelings of unease. Just like we bite our nails or fidget in times of stress, our dogs can practice behaviours to self soothe too. Bear in mind excessive scratching and chewing can also signal a medical issue such as allergies or food intolerances. So always check with your vet to help you identify the cause.
Dogs can show signs of stress through destructive behaviours like chewing furniture and destroying items around the home. If you have a puppy that hasn’t been taught what’s appropriate to chew yet, that’s normal puppy behaviour they should eventually grow out of with training. But if your dog is destructive in certain circumstances, such as when they’re left alone or when you have people around, it can be a sign they’re nervous.
Barking, growling, whining, howling and whimpering in excess are all common signs of a stressed pooch. Dogs vocalise to communicate with us. It can often be a sign of over-excitement, but in many cases, it can be linked to some form of anxiety. Whether that’s to warn us of a perceived danger, to protect territory, when they’re lonely, or if they’re startled by something.
Why could your dog be stressed?
There are many reasons why your dog might be stressed. But if you’re able to identify the cause you’ll be better able to help your dog manage their anxieties. Think about your current situation or any events that may have affected how your dog feels. A few reasons your dog could be stressed include:
- You’ve changed your dog’s routine – Perhaps you’ve introduced a new dog into your home, moved to a new neighbourhood or a new partner has moved in. These events can disrupt the family environment your dog has come to rely on which can trigger a stress response.
- Noises around the home – Dogs are sensitive to sounds. A person walking by your home can make a dog feel they need to protect their territory. The strange noises from a washing machine or vacuum cleaner could also spark off their anxieties.
- Your dog could be bored – Mental stimulation gives your dog a task and something to focus their attention. Brain games and challenges are vital to your dog’s mental health. Not having anything to do around the home can fuel boredom and lead to destructive behaviour.
- Other people and animals – Not all dogs appreciate outsiders entering their personal space. Whether you have guests for dinner, you meet other dogs at the park, or a child runs up and pets your dog. Depending on how socialised your dog is, these can all make your pooch feel nervous.
- Your house rules are inconsistent – Dogs learn how we want them to behave through training. If your pooch isn’t allowed on the sofa, you need to show them what you expect while being consistent with the rules. Being allowed one day and not the other is extremely confusing for your dog. It only causes them unnecessary stress when they’re shoved or shouted at for doing so. Our dogs are eager to please us, but we can make them feel uneasy and agitated if we keep changing the rules.
How to relieve your dog’s stress
After you’ve identified what might be causing your dog’s stress, try using a few of these tips to help you manage their anxiety.
- Avoid stress triggers – If your dog gets stressed around crowds of people, don’t walk your dog through a busy town – stick to quiet side streets, undisturbed woodland or a discreet field. If they’re stressed because they can see people walking by your home, ensure you have suitable fencing or a gate they can’t see through.
- Follow a routine – Because dogs thrive on routine, run their daily activities by the clock. From what time they eat, go for walks and sleep, to training sessions and play time.
- Create a safe space – Give your dog a quiet, safe space in your home so they can retreat if they’re feeling overwhelmed. A comfy dog bed or mat works well. So if you’re having guests around or the kids are running riot, your dog can escape from the chaos to relax and recharge.
- Practice proper training – Give your dog the foundations they need to thrive as part of your family. Use positive reinforcement with treats and toys to teach your dog how you want them to behave. Dogs are happiest when they know they’ve pleased their human friend. Practice training sessions often and call it a day before they feel stressed and frustrated. If you’re not sure how to train your dog effectively, speak with a qualified dog trainer.
- Exercise – As well as regular physical exercise, provide mental stimulation in the form of brain games you can buy online. (The Bobalot is one of our favourites!) Create challenges around the home with games such as find it, hide and seek and scent tracking. Exercise, both physical and mental, are great stress relievers when kept fun and relaxing. They go hand-in-hand to ensuring your dog’s happiness and overall wellbeing.
- Echo your dog’s body language – Studies have shown that if we repeat our dog’s stress signals back at them, such as lip licking or yawning, this can offer comfort to help them relax.
- Create a calm home environment – Our dogs feed off our own energy. If you’re tense and agitated at home, your dog will pick up on those feelings. Try to create a tranquil environment at home. If you have children, speak to them about the importance of being calm around your pooch and giving them their own space when they need it.
- Try calming aids – Calming aids such as diffusers and thunder shirts are known to have a soothing effect on dogs. These can also be used when you know a stressful incident may occur, such as on fireworks night or at Halloween when trick-or-treaters may visit you.
Above all else, you should first look to find the source of your dog’s stress. This will help you identify techniques you can use to minimise their anxieties, allowing your pooch to lead a happier and more fulfilled life. Just as it should be!
What causes your dog’s stress and how have you helped them cope with their triggers? Let me know in the comments below…
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