Signs of Stress in Dogs and How to Relieve It

Stress is a common thing for all of us. However, it is necessary to distinguish between eustress, which has a positive effect on vitality and helps get going, and distress, which has a destructive effect on our mental and physical state.

Just like humans, dogs can get stressed out, too. So what are the major signs of stress in dogs?

12 major reasons why a dog may get stressed

There 12 major reasons why dogs may get stressed:

  1. Loneliness
  2. Fatigue
  3. Close contact that a dog would like to avoid
  4. Thirst or hunger. This goes for both the lack of food and water in general and cruel training methods based on food and water deprivation, which some unprofessional trainers say they do for “greater motivation”
  5. Cold
  6. Lack of attention
  7. Fear
  8. Physical or mental overload
  9. Boredom
  10. Illness 
  11. Pain
  12. Punishments

What are the physical signs of stress in dogs?

When a dog is stressed out, their body experiences the following:

  1. Accelerated heartbeat
  2. Increased depth and rate of breathing 
  3. Stronger muscle contractions 
  4. Decreased blood flow to the bladder and intestines
  5. Constricted blood vessels

How does stress influence a dog’s behavior?

We can say that the dog is experiencing excessive stress when the dog cannot influence the circumstances in which they find themselves or when a situation is too unpredictable for them. The dog doesn’t know what is going to happen next, so their world is full of danger and chaos. 

 As a rule, animals’ response to threats fits into the “4F” framework:

  1. Flight – cowardice, excessive timidity
  2. Fight – aggression, including unmotivated aggression
  3. Fawn – the dog shows signs of reconciliation or, for example, pees when the owner comes home
  4. Freeze

While the first three signs are quite visible for owners, even for those who are not very fluent in dog’s body language, freezing is usually left unnoticed and ignored. But it’s so important for owners to recognize and respond to this behavior! 

The freezing reaction is particularly dangerous because the animal may look totally fine. However, they get thick with infectious disease, then their hair falls out, then the animal has dandruff… As soon as one thing is cured, another one aggravates and so on.

15 most common signs of stress in dogs

There 15 most common signs of stress in dogs:

  1. Blown pupils (the so-called “wild” look)
  2. Rapid pulse
  3. Panting
  4. Increased sweating of the paws (there may be traces on the floor)
  5. Erection
  6. Anxiety
  7. Itching and/or dandruff
  8. Biting their leash or grabbing the owner by their clothes.
  9. Excessive thirst
  10.  Foul odor 
  11.  Foul breath
  12.  Constantly licking or biting their paws.
  13.  Destructive behavior (chewing on furniture, etc.)
  14.  Urinary incontinence
  15.  Tense muscles

Of course, different dogs show different reactions. However, all the signs that are mentioned above should alert a dog parent. 

It is important to quickly notice any signs of stress in your dog and, if you can’t help your pet yourself, seek help from a canine specialist.

What is stress for a dog, and how do they respond to it?

Stress is a set of non-specific adaptive reactions of the body to the impact of various factors (both physical and mental) that disrupt homeostasis (self-regulation, the ability to maintain constancy and balance). 

Stress is usually associated with something negative. However, there are two kinds of stress: positive (eustress) and negative (distress). In other words, when we are extremely happy about something or pleasantly surprised, we are in eustress. If we are in pain or we are extremely sad, it’s distress.

But whatever the stress, positive or negative, the body’s response is the same. So, it is worth knowing how stress affects your dog and how you can help your pet cope with it. Especially given the fact that the main stress factor for a dog is often a human. 

Let’s say your dog is hunting and has seen prey. At that moment, your dog’s pupils will be blown, their muscles will get tense, and their blood pressure will increase. These body reactions are important for a dog either to catch prey or to survive in a fight. Their body is on high alert. 

When a dog is actively playing with other dogs, they are also in a “combat readiness” and experiencing stress.

When the dog runs the agility track, they experience stress, too. At the finish line, when they meet their beloved owner and get a round of praise and applause, they experience stress, as well. 

So, it is safe to say that stress for a dog is a survival mechanism that gives their body the ability to work at maximum capacity.

So, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stress as long as it’s not excessive. However, extreme or chronic stress can be detrimental to a dog.

How does a person affect a dog’s stress level?

Dogs have cohabitated with humans for centuries, and their bond has become extremely tight. 

However, times and living conditions have changed. Previously, people and dogs had to actively fight for their survival. They had to hunt for food, fight enemies, attack, and escape. They never suffered from lack of movement.

Even though our way of living has changed, your dog’s body still works as it was “programmed” initially. Today, dogs, like humans, often suffer from overeating, inactivity, and boredom. In turn, owners, who, of course, love their pets, can still inadvertently transfer their sedentary lifestyle to them. This is quite a  disservice to the dog, and it can cause major harm.

Violent training methods are also a source of canine stress. Alas, despite the fact that in past decades science has made huge breakthroughs in the study of dog psychology, many owners continue to use dangerous and outdated methods. For example, some still believe in the theory of dominance.

Excessive physical activity, especially those that may lead to injuries, are also a risk area. Some owners want to diversify their pet’s life as much as possible, and they do everything at once: agility, grazing, frisbee, flyball, freestyle, etc.

Moderate physical activity is perfect, but if owners apply the Olympic “faster, higher, stronger’’ motto to their dog’s activities, they stop paying attention to their pets’ condition, they don’t notice signs of stress or overexcitement, and they don’t give their pets any chance to relax and recover. As a result, what is supposed to be eustress turns into distress and can be just as detrimental as a sedentary lifestyle. 

Remember that dogs are smart social animals that make our lives better, and it’s our duty to carefully monitor their condition and protect them from excessive or chronic stress.

Stress relief for dogs

When a dog is stressed out, the level of cortisol – the so-called stress hormone – increases in their blood. Excessive cortisol affects the animal’s body at the physiological level, which in turn affects the behavior of a pet.

First of all, distress or chronic stress “hits” the urinary system. Sometimes “potty issues” at home are not a sign of “bad manners,” but a symptom of urinary incontinence – one of the consequences of stress. Indigestion is also often associated with stress.

Chronic stress has huge negative effects on the functioning of a dog’s immune system. 

An increase in cortisol levels negatively affects neural connections and affects the areas of the brain responsible for reducing the level of excitement.

That is, a dog acts “badly,” for example, by barking too much or walking poorly on a leash, not out of spite or vindictiveness, but because it simply cannot cope with stress. It does not learn new commands because it is stupid, but because it is too stressed.

So, is there a way to relieve your dog’s stress? Sure, there are a few!

A stress relief program for dogs 

First of all, make sure not to bring additional stress into your dog’s life. Your aim is to become a wise and calm defender for your dog – a person that they can always rely on.

Here’s a stress relief program that will help to calm your stressed dog.

  1. Go to your vet. Exclude possible diseases, especially if the dog has dandruff, skin problems, incontinence, diarrhea, etc.
  2. Provide your dog with “safe haven” – a place where they can always feel safe
  3. Establish a set of clear and consistent rules. Remember that being kind to your dog doesn’t equal permissiveness
  4. Rethink your physical activities and make sure that they are not excessive. Sometimes it’s necessary to have “dull days” (3 or 4 days) to lower the level  cortisol
  5. Find the right balance for your dog’s physical and mental activities. There shouldn’t be boredom or overexcitement
  6. Find and practice some relaxation exercises
  7. Introduce some exercises aimed at developing your dog’s body possession and balance
  8. Entertain your dog with brain games
  9. Use only comfortable and safe walking gear
  10.  Have a consultation with a nutritionist and rethink your dog’s diet if needed
  11.  Use some massage techniques
  12.  Think about using aromatherapy and music therapy

How to balance physical activity to help your dog cope with stress

In order to protect your dog from excessive stress, you should carefully balance your dog’s physical activity. To do so, follow these simple rules:

  • Increase and decrease your dog’s physical activity gradually
  • Your dog should have regular physical activity. As a rule, 3 times a week is enough.
  • Physical activity should be moderately intense, and a session should last up to 30 minutes
  • Always keep your dog’s individual characteristics in mind
  • Set realistic goals. Maybe you want to have a champion, but ask yourself: is your dog suitable for this role?
  • Track your dog’s emotional and physical state before and after training sessions

To help your pet overcome chronic or excessive stress, you need to be their best friend and the guarantor of their security. Let your pet know that you’ll be there for them and that they can always relax in your company.

April 27, 2021

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