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Monday, 01 September 2014 00:00

Stress in Dogs: What it Looks Like and How it Affects Them

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You can tell by the way this dog's weight and ears are back, its tail is tucked and there is tension that it is under stress.

Stress is the body's reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. Dogs who are experiencing complex behaviour concerns such as fear, reactivity or anxiety are dogs that tend to be in a high state of stress and arousal. A stressful emotional response will inhibit clear thinking and activate the dog's emergency response system (the flight of fight system). During this state, learning cannot happen. Stress can be caused by a variety of factors including changes in the household, pain, or exposure to a frightening situation. Any biological or psychological demand will result in stress, and the demand does not necessarily have to involve an aversive; meaning not all stress is bad stress.

However, when working with our dogs that suffer with fear and/or reactivity concerns, it is important that we understand the effects of stress and what stress looks like. Chronic stress can have negative impacts on your dog's health and cause them to be in a constant state of arousal. We must work at calming their lives, minimizing their exposure to stressful events and working them through their concerns. Keeping a dog confined in a house, or continually avoiding situations where you dog may react or show signs of fear does not help them and is unfair. We must work to reduce our dog's fears and move them through their reactivity concerns. To do this, we must understand what stress looks like so we know when not to push our dog further, or when the stress is too much and learning cannot happen.

Stress Symptoms in Dogs

Body Language: Stress signs through body language that you will notice will include ears and weight held back, dilated pupils, lips pulled back, tension in face and body and tucked tail. The dog will likely be demonstrating calming signals. A stressed dog will also typically have sweaty paws.

Body Odours: Bad breath is common because dogs pant more and the stress intensifies the secretion of gastrointestinal acids which become more noticeable through unpleasant odours.

Defecation and Urination: This will be an abnormal or excessive response. A dog coming into class may frequently urinate or defecate, or a dog that is fearful of people may urinate when they are being greeted.

Destructive Behaviour: Most dogs tend to indulge in destructive chewing as an outlet from their nervous energy. It may also mean that the dog is trying to signal its discomfort or nervousness regarding a person or another animal.

Excessive Barking or Whining: If you notice that the dog has been barking too much or has been whining unusually, especially in its sleep, there must be something that has been troubling it. The barking may continue for an extended period of time without any particular reason. This can be seen just in certain situations such as during dog play or when new people come into the house.

Excessive Grooming: This can be excessive licking which is normally directed at the tail or genital area and can lead to open wounds or loss of hair. As painful as it may be this behaviour can be self gratifying and compensate for the level of stress that the dog feels.
Excessive Hunger or Thirst: A dog under stress may show an increase in hunger or thirst. They can be demanding and seem obsessed with food or water.

Lethargy and Laziness: When a dog is stressed out, it will refuse to indulge in any kind of physical activity like playing, going for walks, etc. It will refuse to move about within the house and will confine itself to a corner in the home or its crate. In extreme cases, it may also refuse to eat or drink.

Mounting: This kind of behaviour is not necessarily sexually motivated but can be stress induced. This does not have to be directed at other dogs but can be directed at people or objects like cushions or cuddly toys. It can also be stress created by overexcitement.
Panting: Stress panting is when a dog should not be panting from exercise or from hot temperatures. The corners of the lips will be pulled back into a v shape and there will be tension in the face.

Physical Changes: The dog may have persistent skin and coat problems. They will often have diarrhea and may be prone to eye and/or ear infections. They will typically have considerable weight loss as well.

Restlessness: Restlessness in dogs could be a heat related stress symptoms in dogs, especially in female dogs. Female dogs in heat tend to get increasingly restless due to the various changes taking place in them during that period. It could also indicate that the dog is suffering from stress and anxiousness.

Trembling or Shivering: This is one of the most obvious of stress symptoms in dogs. If the dog is trembling or shivering, it is obvious that something is causing it to be fearful or that it is feeling threatened by some person or object.

Unusual Behaviour: This is one of the foremost canine stress symptoms that signals that something is amiss with the dog. An unusual change in its mood, inability to follow commands and concentrate on training, no response to pampering, etc. fall under the unusual behaviour category.

Watch your dog and learn what signs of stress are more typical for them. When you see stress, try to resolve your dog's concerns and make them more comfortable. You can do this by delivering food and teaching the dog the situation or person or animal means good things versus scary things. Remember when you are working with your dog, that if they are too stressed, they cannot learn or focus. They will ignore cues that they know and will not look at you. Do not get frustrated, but rather quietly wait until your dog stops reacting and looks at you, or provide more distance to achieve a level your dog is more comfortable with and can focus on learn. Training is supposed to be fun, so if either of you are feeling negative stress, brainstorm how to make the situation more successful for you both!

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Megan’s Musings are by Megan Armstrong, Owner/Operator of dogma

Megan became one of Calgary's only Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) in 2005. The CPDT designation means her programs are based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge about dog training. In other words, Megan's dog training expertise is grounded in a thorough, extensive education and examination process. 

View Megan's bio