You might think that your dog’s life is a total walk in the park, literally and figuratively. It’s all sit for treats, snooze, repeat. But no matter how laid-back their days may seem, canines can experience their fair share of stress.
“All sorts of things can cause dogs to stress,” says Kayla Fratt, associate certified dog behavior consultant and CEO of Journey Dog Training in Denver. “Some of the most common are unexpected or unfamiliar noises, travel or changing schedules, fast movements from things like kids or bikes, and loud noises. Essentially anything unusual or unexpected, from your dog’s point of view, can be stressful.”
Part of a dog’s stress may stem from their breed, especially paired with certain environments. Dogs bred for herding and guard dogs, for example, are especially prone to being anxious in urban environments. On the flip side, dogs bred to be guide dogs tend to have extremely resilient temperaments. That being said, any dogs, regardless of type, can feel stress. “Breed is not the whole story,” says Fratt.
The good news is that dog stress often manifests itself in visible and audible cues that you can pick up on. Read on for signs your pup might be stressing, plus steps to take if you think he is—and help calm his nerves in no time.
What Makes Dogs Stress Out
Some of the same things that might cause a spike in your heart rate could also be stressing out your dog. Okay not work deadlines so much, but things like worrying about where someone is and hearing loud noises (think unexpected honks or the sound of construction outside) could be culprits.
“In the city, especially in high-rise apartments or condos, we see a lot more anxiety around high-traffic times of day as people pass by the apartment door,” says Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA, author of Considerations for the City Dog and co-training director of The New England Dog Training Club. Typical guard-dog breeds might be especially stressed by these urban noises. “That’s why we see so many border collies that bark constantly at cars and German Shepherds that are borderline dangerous to walk; put those same dogs in an environment more suited to their breed, and you’d likely see lots of that stress melt away,” says Fratt.
But no matter where you live, common things can cause your dog stress—like sudden noises from thunderstorms or garbage trucks or just anticipating that their owners are going on vacation (a.k.a. separation anxiety). “Once you determine the kind of anxiety or stress your dog is suffering from, in many cases there can be a predictable schedule to prepare for and help a dog cope through those occurrences,” says McCue-McGrath.
What Stress Signals To Look For
“Just like with people, dogs can express stress in a variety of ways and degrees,” says McCue-McGrath. Some of the classic visual cues: crouching, pulling their ears back, tucking their tail, excessive blinking, shivering or trembling. Your pup might also pace or stand with one foot in the air, and if you can see the whites of her eyes easily, that’s another sign she’s anxious.
Many dogs will also “stress pant,” which can be hard to tell apart from normal panting at first, says Fratt. You’ll know the panting is likely stress-related if there isn’t a physical reason to be panting—for instance if your dog wasn’t just exercising and it’s not hot. “Any behavior that doesn’t make sense given the situation—like yawning repeatedly when nothing else is going on or lip licking when no food is present—may be a signal of stress,” says Fratt. Check out the Dog Decoder app for help spotting physical signs of stress (and other emotions your dog might be feeling too).
What to Listen For
Visual signals might be the first thing you notice when your dog is anxious, but those aren’t the only clues your canine’s offering; they’re likely also being vocal in different ways than usual. “Dogs are less vocal than us, but some dogs will make noises when they’re stressed,” says Fratt. Growling, whimpering, whining, or escalating from a whimper to full-on barking can all be audible signals that your dog isn’t relaxed.
There are a few physical and vocal cues that should serve as a warning to keep your distance from your dog (or other dogs you might come in contact with). Watch out for growling, if your dog moves toward the threat instead of running away, or if he stands stiffly while staring hard. “If you notice one of these more serious signs of stress, be careful as they might lead to a bite,” says McCue-McGrath.
When to Look and Listen for Stress
The time of day when dogs get stressed totally depends on the dog and what he’s anxious about. For instance, “Dogs that are sensitive to commotion outdoors might struggle during the morning commute or when people walk outside,” says Fratt. “Or dogs that get stressed by being alone will probably be most stressed mid-day.”
If your pup frequently seems bothered in the evening, it could be a symptom of a hormonal imbalance, says McCue-McGrath. In that case, a supplement might help him relax and wind down at the end of the day; consult your vet if you suspect that could be the problem.
What To Do If Your Dog Is Stressed
First of all, try to understand what seems to set your dog off. Once you’ve pinpointed stressors, you might be able to control your pup’s environment to eliminate the causes. If your dog gets startled by certain noises—like the mail or garbage truck coming up your driveway—turn on a fan, noise machine, or music when you know it will happen.
You might also try to flip the script so your dog will slowly start associating their stressors with happy feelings. To do so, “Reduce their triggers as much as possible, then slowly pair those triggers with good things,” advises Fratt. For instance, if your dog gets stressed around dogs he doesn’t know, try to avoid new dogs on walks and give your dog treats whenever another dog passes by.
If your dog’s stress or anxiety seems unusually high, talk with your vet and see if medication or supplements might help. If meds aren’t the way to go, try working with a dog trainer or behavior consultant, suggests McCue-McGrath. Some resources for finding one near you: the Council of Certified Professional Dog Trainers or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. A veterinary behaviorist might also help, especially in more extreme situations. “These are veterinarians who are board certified in animal behavior and can treat serious behavior problems including anxiety,” says McCue-McGrath; she recommends finding one at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
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