Living in the human world can be confusing and difficult, this causing stress for many of our dogs, but there are ways to help your dog and manage the stress. Sarah Whiffen advises...
While a little stress can be beneficial, when it’s excessive or a constant factor it can have adverse effects on your dog’s physical and mental health. Some dogs deal with it better than others, but ultimately it’s not ideal for any canine as it can influence many bodily functions, including the metabolism and immune system, and aggravate existing conditions. It can also be responsible for behavioural issues such as frustration, agitation, aggression, defensiveness, depression, and affects the ability to learn and retain information.
What can cause my dog to become stressed?
Stress is the body’s response to a situation posing a real or perceived threat, challenge, or physical or psychological barrier. We tend to think of things that stress our dogs as being external events or incidents — meeting a reactive dog out on a walk, having their nails clipped, a car ride for some, or perhaps a trip to the vet. But stress can also be internal, where your dog experiences feelings of anxiety and emotional strain; these may be linked to external stressors, or due to other things such as bereavement, and an erratic routine. Some stressors are brief, short-term challenges, but others may be long term.
Stress isn’t linked only to unpleasant or scary things — excitement and pleasurable experiences can also cause it to some degree, such as spotting a cat across the road or chasing after a ball. Everything that happens in your dog’s life has the potential to be a stressor, some more obvious than others. He may, for example, struggle with constant disturbance from pedestrians walking past the house, the noise from passing traffic or airplanes overhead, or even the radio or TV being constantly on.
Pain is often an important stressor, but because dogs can be very stoic, it may be overlooked until it becomes very obvious. Physical discomfort can also amplify a dog’s reaction or response to other stress triggers. The most obvious trigger is not always the root cause, so looking more deeply may be necessary; your vet should be the first port of call so you can eliminate possible physical causes.
Signs of stress in dogs
Changes in your dog's behaviour and body language can be indications of stress in dogs. Sometimes the signs of stress are very obvious, such as barking, whining, howling, destructiveness, inability to concentrate, licking lips and yawning, restlessness, and reactivity. The signs of stress in dogs can also be very subtle, or easily misinterpreted; for example, a quiet dog might not be happy or relaxed but may be internalising feelings of stress, shutting down, and becoming depressed. Remember your dog’s response to any situation may change as he moves from puppyhood, through adolescence, into adulthood and old age.
How to calm a stressed dog
Stress can’t be avoided entirely, but you can help minimise it for your dog. Try to avoid creating it where possible, reduce it where it can’t be avoided, and use activities your dog enjoys to help him recover and unwind. Areas to explore include: Exercise: It plays an important part in reducing stress, but give some thought to the type.
I often hear people say they don’t understand why their dog can’t relax after fast games; it’s usually because they cause the release of stress hormones and create a high degree of arousal. This makes it hard for the dog to unwind, so when you get home from your walk, and would like your dog to settle down for a snooze, he’s unable to do so! Low to moderate intensity exercise on the other hand lowers stress hormone levels and increases serotonin — the brain’s ‘feelgood’ chemical — and dopamine, involved with the wake/sleep cycle and emotional responses.
Sleep: Lack of good quality sleep and opportunities for inactivity can be both a stressor and impact on how well your dog can cope with stress. Try to ensure your dog gets sufficient opportunity for rest, so it doesn’t end up becoming a vicious circle, which is difficult to break.
Training: Consider whether the style of training you’re using might be stressful for your dog. Is the reward being offered meaningful to him, is he having fun, or would he rather do less repetitions of a particular activity? Is he comfortable and able to learn in the training environment, or might he be struggling with other dogs in the class setting? Is he having enough breaks from training? Conversely, are you equipping your dog with the life skills he needs to thrive in the lifestyle you lead?
A quiet place: Some households can be very noisy and busy places to be, especially if young children are around. Make sure your dog has a quiet place he can go to when he wants some peace and quiet, such as a bed or covered crate in a quiet area, or even a separate room to the main living space. Make sure children and visitors know to leave him be when he’s in there. In addition to noisy environments possibly being a cause of stress, an increased response to noise may indicate the presence of some physical discomfort that warrants veterinary investigation.
Human interaction: You may be able to hide your feelings from people, but never from your dog! Take time to reduce your own stress levels as dogs are highly attuned to our emotions and state of mind and likely to be affected by it. Raised voices can also be really stressful for dogs, so try to avoid arguments, or shouting in the presence of your canine companion.
Extend that quietness to verbal cues you give your dog; you may be surprised at just how much more effective a whisper can be than a bellowed command. Think too about how and when you touch him; physical contact may be good for lowering your own blood pressure, but might not always be welcomed by your dog.
Provide choices: This can be as simple as allowing your dog to decide which direction to take on a walk, using activities such as ACE Free Work, and can even extend to providing beds and water bowls in several locations around the house. Using consent-based games can even allow your dog choice during activities such as nail clipping. By observing and acknowledging preferences, you can reduce stress and it may make training easier and more effective.
Routine: Regular routine can be reassuring but accustoming your dog to occasional, easily coped with changes will mean that if needs dictate a change in daily schedule it doesn’t create anxiety.
Boredom: Mental stimulation is as important as food or exercise; it can take all sorts of forms. Knowing what is meaningful to your dog and having regular activities that relax him means you are better placed to help him. Make sure your dog finds any problem-solving game you introduce enjoyable and rewarding or you may increase rather than decrease stress levels. Also ensure that any food puzzle is in a position where it is physically comfortable for your dog to access, so you aren’t reinforcing any unhelpful posture.
Desensitisation and confidence building exercises: These can help reduce the effect of known stressors such as fireworks and nail clipping, but only when taken at your dog’s pace.
Activities to reduce stress in dogs
Sometimes the mind and body may need a little help to unwind and de-stress. Try the following:
- ACE Free Work provides a gentle form of physical activity, which engages all of the dog’s senses and activates the seeking system without building excess adrenalin. It also highlights which activities your dog chooses, so you can provide meaningful opportunities for him to relax and unwind.
- Sniffing activities, which might include using a snuffle mat, hiding treats for your dog to discover, laying a scent trail for him to follow, or providing scents for him to sniff at in bags or boxes.
- Chew toys and treats can help your dog to decompress; chewing and gnawing engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated, among other functions, with restoring calm after a stressor.
- Stuffed Kongs and similar toys can provide a combination of licking and chewing but observe your dog’s interaction with them to make sure that, as with puzzle-solving games, you aren’t creating frustration or reinforcing physical discomfort if he’s struggling to access the food. Reposition the toy and make it simpler or easier if this is the case. The same applies when using licking mats.
There can be a vast number of stressors in your dog’s life, some more impactful than others. Sometimes you may find it difficult to identify them, or be unaware of things you’re doing that are causing stress. Seeking professional help can cast a fresh eye on matters, especially if you see behaviour changes such as an increase in reactivity, or perhaps reduced enjoyment of a previously favourite activity.
Other articles you may find useful:
- Is my dog fearful or frustrated?
- Anxiety and phobias in your pet
- Reducing your stress levels
- Does a wagging tail always mean my dog is happy?
- Has lockdown made my dog more anxious?
- Tips to help a nervous dog