Is your dog stressed?

Sleepy Pug

Stress Indicators and How to Help

Our dogs can experience stress and anxiety just like we do. We are used to noticing signs that we are stressed like irritability, tiredness, headaches, etc., and are able to communicate what is wrong with us and take appropriate actions to alleviate it. Our dogs are not able to tell us outright when they are stressed, so we must look for the signs. Indications that your dog is stressed can range from so subtle that they almost seem like normal behavior to obvious.

Signs to Look For:

Pacing / Shaking

Pacing and shaking can be fairly obvious signs of stress depending on the situation your dog is in.

Your dog probably shakes after a bath, when they come inside from the rain, or after jumping up from a particularly good belly rub. They may also do this in stressful situations, like when they are finally allowed to get down from the table at the vet’s office.

When your dog is pacing back and forth in the backyard, patrolling the fence for squirrels, or bouncing from one window to another when guests are at the front door, these are normally expected behaviors in response to the situational environment. When pacing lasts for long periods of time or doesn’t seem to have a purpose, it can turn into anxiety and stress. For example, pacing around the room at the vet’s office is a sign that your dog is anxious.

Whining / Barking

Whining and barking can be normal ways for dogs to express themselves and alert you. When your dog is in a situation that causes them to be afraid or tense they may bark to get your attention to stay away, alert you, or whine as a way to self-soothe.

Yawning / Drooling / Licking / Panting

Your dog probably yawns when they are tired and bored, might drool when it’s time for dinner, cleans themselves regularly, and pants when they run around and are excited.

If your dog is stress yawning, your dog will be alert, and it will be out of context. This is called displacement behavior. For example, does your dog yawn when a child comes close to your dog or attempts to “hug” them? This is a calming signal saying, “Hey, I’m not really into this please give me space.”

Signs of drooling due to stress is often combined with heaving panting or the “grimace grin” that was not brought on by activity or heat, and you may end up with puddles of drool on the floor. Pay attention to what’s happening in your dog’s environment that may have triggered the stress. Drooling is also a sign of pain, so rule out a medical reason.

Your dog may lick excessively as a way to self-soothe, many will focus on specific areas like their paws or a blanket/pillow. Without a purpose, again this could be a way dogs “cope” with stress or anxiety. Licking, chewing, and sniffing are all stress-relieving behaviors for dogs.

Changes in Eyes / Ears / Body Posture

Dilated pupils can signal that your dog is stressed out, but can also be difficult to notice. They may also open their eyes much wider than normal. Relaxed body language looks like an open mouth, loose mid-line tail, relaxed eyes, and ears.

Pay attention to your dog’s ears – how do they normally look? If they are normally relaxed and floppy, but now are flat against your dog’s head, they could be signaling that they are stressed.

Your dog’s body posture is a huge indicator of your dog’s stress level. Provided your dog does not have any orthopedic issues, most dogs stand on all four legs during normal activities. Shifting weight to the rear legs or cowering can indicate stress. Your dog may also tuck their tails or fix their tails in a certain position when they are scared.

Changes in Bodily Functions

Stress can trigger sudden urges to go to the bathroom. This can show up as your dog cowering and urinating where they are standing or simply running around, marking territory after meeting a new friend. Refusal of food is another sign your dog is stressed.

Avoidance / Displacement Behavior / Hiding / Escaping

Your dog may simply decide to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, they may focus on something else like sniffing the ground, licking themselves, or just ignore a person or dog.

Another form of avoidance is for your dog to hide or escape from the situation. They could simply hide behind you, try to nudge you into leaving or find a spot where they can not see what is making them uncomfortable anymore. Always allow your dog to have an exit route if they are uncomfortable. Giving a dog choice in the matter actually builds their confidence.

What can you do?

The first step in helping your dog deal with stressful situations is to become familiar with their body language, displacement behaviors, and environment. When you know how your dog normally acts, you are able to notice those times when they are doing something that is out of character.

  • Remove your dog from what is causing the stress.
    • If you are at home, have a quiet place where they can go.
    • If you are out, calmly leave the area to avoid causing more stress.
  • Redirect your dog by practicing their training.
  • Check with your vet to make sure there is not a medical reason behind the behavior, like pain, congnitive, sight or hearing issues.
    • They may also be able to prescribe medication if you are not able to treat your dog another way.
  • Consult a dog trainer.
  • Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise and sniffing time.

While we all want our dogs to be as happy and as comfortable as possible, sometimes stress is unavoidable. Your dog needs to go to the vet sometimes, thunderstorms happen, and stress is a reaction to dangerous situations.

Avoid underestimating your dog’s stress because even the most basic common household items can cause stress. “Numerous signs of canine fear and anxiety were reported by survey respondents and observed in the videos, in response to both daily, and irregular but “normal,” household noises. Responses were significantly stronger to sounds characterized as high frequency intermittent than to sounds characterized as low frequency continuous. Respondents appeared to underestimate their dogs’ fearfulness, and the majority of humans in the videos responded to their dogs’ behaviors with amusement; welfare concerns were rarely expressed.” Read more about the latest research published in Vet Science Journal on this topic.

Need help dealing with your dog’s reactions to stressful situations?

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