Just like us, our dogs get stressed too. It is often caused by situations that trigger anxiety, anger or loss of control. Unfortunately, dogs can’t talk. However, they send us signals to tell us how they feel.
When a dog is stressed, he will send you calming signals. The better you get at recognising these signals, the faster you’ll react, and the less stressed your dog will feel overall. You must pick up on these signals. If you don’t, your dog might go into ‘fight or flight’. That’s what you want to avoid!
Like with humans, a lot of stress can result in gastrointestinal issues or a heart condition. Don’t let it get to that point.
It all starts with you
The dogs that come to us as fosters often have some behavioural issues that have been mistaken for aggression by the untrained eye. Lashing out at other dogs and people is most often a result of severe stress and anxiety. Because nobody picked up on the signs, it kept on getting worse. The owner reacted poorly by getting angry and pushing the dog further into a downward spiral.
Dogs learn through association. They are susceptible. If you walk your dog and the minute another dog approaches, you start pulling the leash closer, and he’ll know you’re uncomfortable. He doesn’t know it’s because of him. He only knows there is something to feel uneasy about. If you take it a little further and every time you see another dog, you start yelling ‘SIT! SIT! NOW!’ – your dog will associate other dogs with a tug on the leash and his owner raging, which means: pain and anger.
Here’s an example I often see when people come to me for behavioural training.
“A woman asked for my help because her dog always went crazy when passing another dog on the street. He would start barking, and she feared he’d get into a fight one day. The dog came to me for observation. He did well in our pack; nothing happened when I took him out. I invited her back here to go for a walk. When she arrived, the dog’s behaviour changed. Suddenly he was growling at our dogs, and on the walk, he went bonkers. Why? Because he picked up on her fear, stress and insecurities. I confronted her about it, and she started crying. She knew she had to work on herself first to help her dog.“
What causes stress in dogs?
Luckily, we are not the only reason our dogs are stressed. 😜 There are plenty of other reasons your dog might be stressed; the key is for you to pick up on it as soon as possible. You want to get to the root of the problem. Some things might seem like a trigger, while there’s an underlying cause. Here are some common reasons dogs get stressed.
- Anger, violence
- Too many stimuli
- Crowded places
- Loud noises
- Past trauma
- Other animals
- Illness, pain
- Vet, groomer
How can I tell if my dog is stressed?
- Excessive panting
- Excessive grooming
- Pacing left and right
- Whining, howling, barking
- Suddenly shedding a lot
- Ears pinned back
- Dilated pupils and lots of white to see in the eyes
- Tail between the legs, cowering
- Relieving himself in places he usually wouldn’t
- Trying to escape or avoid the situation
What are calming signals?
Calming signals are signals dogs send to each other to calm themselves or the other dog down. They will also send these signals to you, and you can send them to your dog to calm him. Your dog might show one or more of the following behaviours:
- Looking or even turning away
- Lip licking or smacking
- Holding one paw up
- Displacement behaviour: doing something entirely different all of a sudden, like sniffing the floor or licking their genitals
- Scratching or shaking their fur
- Fully freezing
It’s not because your dog yawns once that it means he’s sending a calming signal. But if your dog is yawning a lot or shows a lot of different calming signals, it’s clear he’s in distress. A whole new world opened up when I first learned about these signals. I suddenly realised that my dogs had been trying to tell me so many things before; I never picked up on them. At first, I felt terrible about not always understanding them, but now I’m glad for all the moments I could take their stress away since I’ve known about these signals!
The picture below might seem like a fun, harmless picture. If you look closely, you’ll notice the dog has his ears pinned back, and he’s licking his lips. He’s trying to tell you in his own, gentle way: “I don’t really like this, please stop”.
If you want to know more about calming signals, I highly recommend the book ‘Calming Signals’ by Turid Rugaas.
What to do when your dog feels stressed?
- Whatever you do: NEVER force him. Forcing your dog into a stressful situation will only lead to more stress, distrust and possible incidents. You have no other choice in some cases, like at the vet. But you can make the visit as pleasant as possible for your dog by providing comfort and patience.
- Send calming signals. Yawn, blink your eyes, look away, turn your back or ask the person who’s making your dog uncomfortable to do these things.
- Remove the stressor. If your dog gets anxious in crowded places, do them a favour and don’t take them there.
- Don’t coddle them. It’s good to know that you’re their safe heaven, but you don’t want to confirm their fear either.
- Use a distraction. With that, I don’t mean just giving them treats. You don’t want to reward them for feeling stressed. Instead, give a simple command like ‘sit’ and reward them for that positive behaviour.
- See a vet to rule out any medical issues that may cause stress.
- Exercise. Dogs also get runners high. Long walks, playing fetch, flyball, etc., release good hormones that will make your dog feel better and release tension in the long run.
Do you know which situations cause stress to your dog? How do you handle them?