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Reducing and recognising stress in Dogs

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Written in 1994 by Val Bonney, Author, International Trainer, Matriarch of Bonnies Canine Group, yet is still remarkably pertinent today.



Val Bonney and the Bonnies Team
Seated in the Centre - Val Bonney

Reducing and recognising stress in Dogs


Stress doesn't pick favorites among dog breeds – it's a challenge that affects them all. It's like one of the toughest things a dog has to deal with.

The whole stress thing can come from different training and behavior methods. A lot of times, it happens because us humans don't really get how our furry friends' minds work.

So reducing and recognising stress in dogs is really valuable and a real art too. Every dog pretty much goes through stress at some point in their life, but some handle it better than others. Some get stressed over small stuff, and then there are some poor pups who seem to be stressed out forever.

You'd think that the Positive Only Method of training would be a chill way to ease a dog's stress, but sometimes even with all that positivity, stress can still sneak in. Fear, anxiety, and feeling lost are the troublemakers that can mess things up, even if we're trying our best.

Actually, all sorts of training methods can make a dog more anxious if we're not paying attention and helping them out.

Physical issues mess with their stress levels too. Getting older, not eating right, being sick, dealing with crazy heat or super cold weather – all of it adds to their stress. And when their mind's all over the place, their body might start acting weird. They might not wanna eat, or they could get a stomachache, lose energy, get a fever, or just seem really down. Owners often say, "My dog's just not acting like itself lately," and that's a clue that something's up.

And it's not just about training and physical stuff. Bad communication, not understanding what's going on, changes in their life like losing a buddy or moving from their old home, not getting out and meeting other dogs and people – all of these can make a dog seriously stressed out and anxious.


SOME SIGNS OF STRESS:

To identify Stress in our dogs, we need to look at the whole dog.

  1. Are his ears back?

  2. Are his pupils dilated?

  3. Is its tail down and under?

  4. Is its body lowered (as though it is cowering) ?

  5. Is it sweating through its paws?

  6. Is it panting rapidly with the corner of the mouth back?

  7. Does it tremble when you take it out for a training session?

  8. Is its body hard?

  9. Is it shedding hair or dandruff?

  10. Is it vocalising by whining, or repetitious barking?

  11. Scratching?

  12. Yawning?

  13. Comic Relief?

  14. Shaking as though wet?

  15. Avoiding eye contact?

The above are some of the things that denote Stress in our dogs.  You may know of others.


dog stress
Stress signs - Most people miss

VOCALISATION

Barking and whining, can be caused by different stress situations.  The owner has gone and left the dog alone.  The dog finds by barking it releases the endorphin in the brain which gives the dog a sense of calm.  It can be the dogs way of covering up an unpleasant situation. People who have to work through the day, often have a barking dog, which then becomes the neighbourhood menace.  These owners then have to look for alternate ways to reduce the stress in their dog which has been created by being left alone.  They have to provide their pooch with an alternative, and a feeling of security.


PANTING

If the weather is on the cooler side (not hot), and you notice your dog panting heavily and drooling a lot, it might be linked to stress. But keep in mind, panting is something dogs do naturally, especially after exercise or when they're excited. Even after a bit of light training, dogs can pant as a normal response. However, this shouldn't be excessive and it definitely shouldn't lead to drooling.


SWEATY PAWS

If the weather isn't rainy, and your dog hasn't been dipping its paws in water to cool down, but you find wet pawprints on your floor, it's worth noting that this could indicate stress in your dog.


HARD BODY

If you touch your dog and it feels unusually rigid, or you observe your dog moving with noticeable tension, and you notice tightly clenched jaws, these are all potential indicators of stress in the dog.


HAIR SHEDDING OR DANDRUFF

These situations arise when the body becomes tense due to stress. Of course, dogs naturally shed hair during various periods, like the transition from winter to summer. Hair loss is a common occurrence. Additionally, exceptionally hot weather can trigger shedding, which is also a usual process. However, a stressed dog might shed hair during times that are typically not associated with coat shedding.


EYE DILATION

dog stress
Eye dilation stress in a dog

Is a clear indicator of stress. Even in normal lighting conditions, if you notice your dog's eyes significantly dilated, it's a strong signal that something is stressing them out.

The dog's inherent instincts encompass Fight, Flight, Bite, and Hunt responses. In some cases, dogs display stress through Freezing in place. This can stem from fear, triggering stress. Aggressive behavior can also be a result of stress. Dogs that haven't been properly socialized struggle to communicate appropriately when faced with other dogs, causing stress to escalate into a fight response. Flight, on the other hand, is evident when dogs run away from you or flee from overwhelming situations. Biting is another manifestation. Dogs resort to biting when they're scared or stressed. It's important to remember that any dog, when provoked by stress or any other factor, can bite.

As an owner, it's crucial to introspect whenever you notice signs of stress in your dog. Pinpoint what might be causing the stress to build up and work on addressing those triggers.


SCRATCHING

When a dog that's supposed to be in a sit stay or down stay, starts scratching itself, your first thought might be fleas. But more often than not, it's actually linked to stress. The dog requires a sense of trust in you as its owner – that you'll come back and that there's nothing to worry about.


YAWNING

Similar to sniffing, dogs will also yawn. It's not an indication of fatigue but rather a sign of stress. While dogs do yawn and scratch when they're bored, tired, or simply itchy, it's crucial to distinguish and interpret the underlying meaning.


SHAKING OFF

Except in cases like after a swim or similar activities, dogs can experience relief from stressful situations by shaking themselves. To soothe them, stroke them in the opposite direction of their fur growth. Make sure your strokes are long and firm, extending along the dog's body several times. This disruption of their fur will prompt the dog to have a good shake, yet the stroking action itself helps to calm the dog down.


WHAT CAN WE DO TO REMOVE STRESS?


Calming Signals

Utilising Calming Signals is a fantastic method to ease a dog's stress. A compact book authored by a Norwegian individual named Turid Rugaas titled "CALMING SIGNALS" is a valuable resource. I recommend obtaining a copy of this book; it offers invaluable insights. Rugaas elaborates on various ways to identify and communicate calming signals to dogs.

Several indicators of calming signals in dogs include: When a dog averts its head from another dog that seeks confrontation, you can also employ this action with your own dog to defuse tense situations.


Moving in an arc

Typically, when dogs approach each other, it's uncommon for them to meet nose to nose. Instead, they tend to follow an arc or curved path, passing by each other's noses to sniff rear ends while standing alongside. This behavior is quite prevalent, especially among breeds like the Border Collie and other working breeds.


Moving Slowly

If a dog wants to give signals to another dog when it sees it, if normally starts to move slower.  This slow movement is a calming signal on its own.  I don't want to worry you  or cause you concern, I am no threat to you.”  We can use this signal for calming often.  Approach a dog you don't know or you are concerned about in a slow walk, but positively.  Don't slink along as though you are afraid.  This movement could have the opposite effect to the one desired.

Watch, when a young dog or an inexperienced dog bounds up to another dog, possibly wanting to play, but not giving the calming signals first, there can be a problem.  The dog which is being approached in this boisterous manner can see this as a threat, and treat the situation accordingly.  We can now have a brawl on our hand.  All because the calming signal wasn't given first.


Free running areas

Have you ever wondered why there are relatively few conflicts in a leash-free area where dogs are running freely? Yes, there are definitely some occasional altercations. This is primarily because the dogs in such an environment are typically stress-free. They're not constantly under the watchful eye of their owner with a leash in hand. Now, they have the freedom to engage with other dogs, expressing the body language necessary to diffuse most situations. Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule, and occasionally you might encounter a dog that acts like a natural bully, picking fights without provocation. However, in general, dogs tend to run and play together in these settings.

Take a moment to sit and observe their body language – it can be quite captivating. They engage in play bows, leap on each other without any hint of aggression, and simply enjoy running and playing in a carefree manner. Allowing dogs to interact with one another without human intervention is beneficial. It offers valuable socialization opportunities, particularly for dogs heavily involved in obedience training. This natural interaction helps alleviate various forms of stress.

Interestingly, you might find more drama originating from the humans in the leash-free area. Dealing with them can be challenging, especially when they believe their dog can do no wrong.


Averting eyes or blinking

Any experienced handler will tell you that it is easier to gain a dogs confidence, especially when it is worried, by avoiding direct eye contact.  An even better method is to turn the head or even the body away from the dog. You can even go as far as turning the side or back to the dog.  Slitting of eyes is common when one dog confronts another.  This can  also be a calming signal. Don't make a mistake and misread it.


Lip Licking

When the dog is stressed it will often give a quick little flick with the tongue.  We often miss this little sign, but it is the dogs way of saying calm down to everybody.

Removing the cause of the dogs stress is of course the answer.  Sounds easy.  It is if we know why the dog is stressed.  We really have to have a wonderful relationship with our pet, and have bonded with it and understand it totally, before we find relieving stress easy. It's not an easy thing to do.  However often Stress can be alleviated by removing the cause of the stress. For example:- The dog who barks every time the children next door come out into their yard.  Ever watched those children.  They may be poking sticks or hands over the fence, causing your dog to stress.


You can't remove the children, so you have to move your dog away.  Bring him in when the children are outside.  Dog will be happy.  It's now inside with you. If you are outside working in your garden, Put the dog on a lead and stake him out next to you.  He'll be happy to be next to your side while you work anyhow.


The dog who barks as soon as you leave for work...Sometimes just changing your pattern of leaving will stop the stress from developing.  Change when you pick up your car keys, leave by the back door instead of the front, stop saying goodbye to the dog, anything that you have formed a pattern of leaving may need to be changed. We are creatures of pattern, so we may need to look hard at just how we do leave.  Think about it, you will possibly solve your own problems if you start to think DOG.


Lots and lots of things that happen daily in our own lives, as well as the lives of our dog are Stress Related.  Sometimes, it is easy to call things that happen Stressful.  It is a term, I believe, that often is very loosely used.


If we remain calm, confident and above all quiet in the manner in which we deal with things, then our Stress will be less, and its amazing, but so will the dogs level of stress drop.


When we yell all our commands to our dogs, dogs like people can develop selective hearing.  Remember, a dogs hearing is so much better than ours, but we continually speak or yell loudly in the presence of our dogs.  THEY DON'T NEED US TO DO THIS.  A quiet word will get us a much better response from the dog, will lower not only our blood pressure, but everyone else around us also.

There is so much can be written on this subject, but I hope this small amount may give someone out there a little hope and understanding when dealing with Stress Related Dog issues.


Regards,

Val Bonney (Canine Behavioural Specialist / International Trainer.) www.bonnies.com.au | info@bonnies.com.au


Reduce Stress in Dogs
Not stressed


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