Stress In Dogs – Causes, Signs, Prevention, Treatments & FAQs

stress in dogs

Just like us, dogs can become stressed. Reoccurring stress in dogs can develop into anxiety and/or depression which are both much more difficult to help. We know how unpleasant it is to feel stressed. Especially when you can’t prevent or understand the topic of stress in some situations, such as a loud noise.

It is our role as owners to identify when you have a stressed dog, figure out why, and do what we can to help them feel better. We will thoroughly explain these three steps below. So you can do everything possible to help your dog feel calm and happy once more.

Signs of Stress in Dogs

Firstly you need to be able to identify when your dog is feeling stressed. In the same way every person displays stress differently, so do dogs. Even one of these symptoms can be a sign of dog stress, which is why we need to be aware of them all.

Growling

Growling is a physical sign from dogs that they are overwhelmed and under some signs of stress. It is usually a warning sign to another animal or person to stop the behavior they are doing. Growling is often a later sign of stress that hints towards high tension. Biting may be the next option a dog will take to prevent the behavior that is currently stressing them, according to the canine ladder of aggression. Growling can also be a physical expression of pain alongside stress. Which is why it is so important to consider when and why your dog is growling. A behavior can be identified as negative but handled incorrectly because of a misjudgment of why. Growling is usually used to indicate a dog does not want:

  • Any more affection or physical touch
  • To be approached anymore
  • Something they currently possess to be removed

Whining or Barking

Whining and barking can be a sign of stress to alert other organisms, such as a fellow dog or even you, their owner. This communication can also be them expressing their stress verbally due to feeling overwhelmed, and not necessarily to alert someone. Whining can be any dragged out, closed mouth vocalizations. These can be brief or persistent and whining may occur for a matter of seconds. Or, in cases of deep distress, hours or longer. Barking on the other hand are sharp, open mouth forms of vocalizations which are often used to warn or alert someone. Dogs may bark just a few times or may continue to bark for long periods of time.

Dogs whining is more often associated with pain, stress, or fear. As opposed to the belief of barking to hint towards excitement, anxiety, or even aggression.

Body Language

There is a lot of behavior that can be discussed in regards to a dog’s body language when they are stressed. We will be summarizing some of the most important body language to notice to identify stress and unhappiness in your dog. Here are some of the body parts you should look at and the specific behaviors to identify that display stress:

  • Eyes: Dogs will warn their unhappiness through their eyes in a behavior known as ‘whale-eyeing’. This is when a dog’s eyes will become strained and they will show the white of their eyes. However, some dog breeds always have the whites of their eyes on display because of selective breeding
  • Ears: Signs of stress in ears can be summarized as not relaxed. Depending on the context, your dog’s ears may be upright and alert, or pushed back towards their head
  • Mouth: What may look like a smile to us is actually the sign of an unhappy dog. The lips curve backward in tension to show stress and unhappiness
  • Body: You will be able to physically see your dog’s body become rigid and tense in times of stress. Depending on the situation, they may be stood up and alert, or huddled into a small space with their body made to be as small as possible
  • Tail: A tail that is not relaxed can be a sign of stress. It may be firmly pressed between their legs due to fear or sadness, or it may be rigid and alert
stressed dog body language
Check your dog’s body language to see if they are stressed.

Freezing

Some dogs may freeze out of stress or fear as a form to become more aware of their surroundings. There is not one position they will do this in, they may be lying down, stood up, or sat up. However, when a dog freezes, they will always show signs of physical tension and rigidity. Even if they are lying down with their head down, their ears, eyes, mouth, and limbs may appear tense. This can last a few seconds or longer, depending on the situation. Often, dogs will do this to try to listen to the noises around them better or to try to not be noticed. Therefore, this can influence the length of the freezing.

Stereotypical Behavior

Stereotypical behavior can be defined as an action that is repetitive with no achievable or real goal. In the case of dogs, they may display pacing, licking, or tail-chasing. These behaviors can result in health issues but are displayed from high amounts of stress. Here are how some of the behaviors will be displayed:

  • Pacing: Your dog will walk along the same route back and forth. This will often last a few minutes or longer, although it can take place for just a few seconds
  • Licking: General licking does not apply. Stereotypical licking is usually in the same area of their body until the point of hair loss, raw skin, and sometimes even bleeding
  • Tail chasing: This is not the same as a puppy playfully chasing their tail for a few seconds. This is a behavior seen often and continuously until the dog falls over of catches their tail, only to start again

Causes of Stress in Dogs

We have summarized the top six reasons for dogs to become stressed below. Therefore, you can identify which factors may be affecting your pup.

Confusion and Memory Loss

When situations are new or interrupt your dog’s normal schedule, they can become confused and this leads to stress. Your dog cannot ask for clarification when new people visit or if their bed is washed and moved. Therefore, their confusion is, understandably, usually accompanied by stress. Furthermore, you can’t always provide answers or comfort in the situation. For example, if a plumber comes over to visit, you’ll most likely go greet them and show them the affected area. During this time, your dog will be stressed about the stranger entering their home, you leaving, and you not being able to comfort them.

Although it is more uncommon, your dog can experience memory loss which can be incredibly stressful. This is seen more prominently in elderly dogs as they often suffer from dementia. This is an umbrella term for memory loss with other negative cognitive behaviors. Your dog may forget what they are doing, who you are, or even where they are. This can cause them deep stress that can affect them immediately.

Fear

An afraid dog is one that is overwhelmed with stress. The fear they are experiencing does not need to be severe for a stress-induced reaction. From a single loud noise to a few hours in a new environment, fear of all different kinds can still lead to stress responses.

Your dog may feel an immediate but fleeting feeling of fear, such as their reaction to one loud noise and feel stressed for a short period of time. This is usually due to the anticipation of a further sound happening. A longer feeling of fear may be an introduction to someone new. The initial introduction will be stressful and they will need time to adjust to this new person and begin to trust them. Long periods of fear may be an introduction to a new environment or something overwhelming, such as a party. These fear responses induce the most severe levels of stress for much longer periods of time.

Separation from Puppies

When a mother dog is separated from her puppies, this can bring her some stress. It is important to note that it is a necessary step as a breeder if you do not plan to keep the puppies. She may feel even more stress if she is left with puppies nibbling her teats and no space to call her own when they are fully weaned.

Excess and unnecessary stress can be induced by the mother is separated from her puppies too early. Puppies and mothers have a strong bond along with hormonal attachments. They need each other until they are properly weaned. Beyond the obvious concerns, puppies have very fragile immune systems, and levels of high stress can be damaging to them. When a vulnerable dog experiences stress, it weakens their already weak immune system, making them more susceptible to illness. As for the mother, she can experience stress when the puppies are removed, which can lead to a wide variety of stress behaviors.

Loss of a Loved One

Whether it is the death of one of your dogs or your dog is being re-homed, losing someone from their family is just as difficult as it is for us. Stress is tied to a wide range of feelings a dog uses to cope.

Alongside all the emotions we will usually feel, dogs also feel confusion and stress because they may not understand what has happened to their loved one. If their owner or your other dog has passed away, they may not know this, especially if they did not pass away at home. Therefore, they may be anxiously waiting for their return. If you have to re-home your dog or re-home a rescue dog, they may initially experience a large amount of stress because of the loss of those they knew. They may be awaiting a past owner’s return and therefore pace or cry. However, their level of stress will depend on their individual factors such as personality, age, and time since being re-homed.

Change of Residence

When you move, this is a large change for your dog and it can certainly be reflected by stress. Dogs have to become aware of a whole new surrounding in combination with new smells, sounds, and what each area allows. For example, they will have to discover which room is the bedroom and their refuge, or which room can they go to get a drink in.

When they are aware of their surroundings, they feel much more comfortable. This is because they know where they can take refuge is they are anxious and what areas they can expect different activities in. For example, the living room may be the most noisy, so they may leave that room if they are having a more stressed day. However, if they do not know which is the most noisy and which holds shelter, this can induce a lot of stress.

Loneliness

Loneliness can be induced from owners being away are work, a lack of affection, or less social interaction between pets than normal. When your dog feels lonely, this can cause stress in dogs as they are naturally social creatures. Play, affection, and general socialization are all needed for a healthy and happy dog. A lack of any of these can lead to an unhappy dog.

But why would stress follow from the sadness a dog feels because of loneliness? Stress often comes from a lack of control. As your dog is unable to prevent or control their socialization, this can lead to the stress of not knowing if they will ever receive this fulfillment again. It may seem dramatic, but to a dog, they truly have no idea when they may next get social interaction. This stress will increase overtime as their needs become unsatisfied for a longer period. This is what leads to repetitive stress behaviors or changes in personality.

loneliness in dogs
Loneliness can cause stress in dogs.

Dog Stress Prevention and Treatment

There are multiple changes you can make to help prevent or minimize your dog’s stress level. Once you have identified the reason, take a look at this list of treatment and prevention to get your dog feeling themselves once more.

Regular, Daily Exercise

Providing your dog with regular exercise satisfies more than one need. First and most obviously, your dog will be receiving an outlet for their energy. Furthermore, they are getting one-on-one social time with you. This socialization can combat loneliness and help to ease many other kinds of stress, as can exercise. The act of a physical outlet can be a release and lead to positive endorphins to help improve their mood.

However, if the reason your dog is stressed is another reason disregarding a lack of socialization or a lack of exercise, this is a method that will help to improve their mood but will not treat the actual problem. Therefore, do not use this method as a general form of treatment for your dog’s stress if the affecting factor is still existent, it will only minimize their stress levels slightly at best.

Mental Stimulation

Boredom and frustration can lead to an unhappy and stressed dog. This is why it is so crucial to provide mental stimulation for your dog. Mental stimulation can relax your dog, enrich them, and give them enjoyment, what more could you want? Some of the best ways to provide mental stimulation can include interaction toys, snuffle mats, and treat dispensers.

Offering your dog an interactive toy does not mean there are necessarily mean they are provided with treats, although they can certainly be added both generally and to first pique their interest. This may be a better option for a dog that is overweight. You can also consider snuffle mats for dogs who enjoy sniffing, digging, and eating yummy treats. These mats have long pieces of material and compartments for your dogs to forage in and find little treats inside. Treat dispensers can be time-based or influenced by your dog unlocking, them, either way, they offer your dog a form of enrichment to minimize stress.

Crate Training

Purchasing a crate for your dog offers an area of safety for them to retreat to in times of stress. But in order for them to fully understand and use the benefits of their crate, you need to train them. This means beginning by using positive reinforcement to encourage your dog to enter the crate. Once they begin to enter the crate, they can begin to associate the crate with the positive feeling of receiving a treat.

Then by adding a crate cover, your dog has a darker and quieter area to distress. This is especially important when your home is louder or has strangers. Your dog may need further positive association based training once the crate cover has been added. This is to help them feel comfortable with the new addition. Dogs can become stressed and anxious from adjusting to new surroundings. So be sure to allow them to take their time.

Avoid Leaving Your Dog Alone for too Long

Dogs can develop separation anxiety if they are alone for too long. This is especially common if your dog is vulnerable, such as being a puppy, elderly dog, or those with some form of illness. These individuals suffer more because they are more prone to stress and becoming overwhelmed more easily.

There are also breeds of dog that are more likely to feel separation anxiety, such as the Siberian Husky or Jack Russell Terrier. If you are aware that your breed of dog is more likely to suffer from separation anxiety, then you may need to alter your schedule so they are not left alone for too long. You can also consider the services of a dog sitter to keep your pup company when you cannot.

Security Blankets

Whether it is an actual blanket or an alternative, such as a piece of clothing, many dogs will find comfort from the equivalent of a security blanket. These pieces of material will often smell like you, them, or home, which all smell of comfort. Dogs are highly influenced by their olfactory sense and this can be one of the biggest sources of comfort and fear to your dogs depending on the association with that smell.

You can either consider purchasing a security blanket for your dog or even re-purpose a piece of clothing. This can be left with them to sleep or in their crate of bed generally. If they often bring an object to you when they greet you at the door, gently remove it and give them the blanket. When they bring you the blanket, be sure to praise them as that is theirs to hold when they need to.

Calming Background Noise

It may be surprising but background noises or even music can be appreciated by dogs. It was found in a study conducted by the Scottish SPCA that dogs have favorite music types, with their average preferred genre being reggae and soft rock. However, each individual also has their own favorite music.

If you spend the time getting to know which noises bring your dog comfort, such as a style of music or background noise, you can then know what provides them with the most tranquility. Background noises can include bird songs, different TV shows, or even classical music.

Avoid Using Sedatives

Sedatives may seem like the right choice when your dog is stressed, but we strongly recommend against them. They do not treat your dog’s stress and help them to feel better, they merely cover up the symptoms to keep your dog quiet and not displaying unwanted behavior. Always find out why your dog is stressed and then do what you can to aid them and treat this stress.

Redirect Stereotypical Behavior

Stereotypical behavior is very difficult to stop and sometimes even impossible to do so. In order to try to minimize or prevent stereotypical behavior, the best thing to do is to redirect this energy into something positive and try to distract them.

A common stereotypical behavior seen in dogs is repetitive licking. If your dog does so, try to distract them with play, a walk, or even attention. Never scold them for this as they are as unhappy about it as you are. Redirecting will benefit both you and your dog and even prevent future health issues.

redirect stereotypical behavior
Licking is a common behavior in dogs.

Stress in Dogs – FAQ

If you have any further questions about stress and your dog, we want to make sure we are giving you all the answers. Below we have filled out a FAQs section to give you any further information you need to know.

How can I relieve my dog’s stress?

This all depends on why your dog is stressed. A general answer would be to check their diet, exercise, enrichment, and affection needs are all being fulfilled. But stress should not be simplified, and instead, analyzed.

Find out what has changed or what is not appropriate for your dog in their current day to day life. Has the stress suddenly appeared or has it gradually gotten worse? Have there been any dramatic changes recently that could have caused the stress? By knowing your dog, you can find the best way to treat them.

How do you know if your dog is stressed?

Monitor their behavior to see if they are stressed. For some dogs, this means a dramatic change in behavior from the norm, for others, it means a lack of or increase in certain behaviors. It is complicated to diagnose, so it is worth identifying that your dog is feeling and acting abnormally.

Next is a vet visit to identify if your dog’s behavior comes from illness or pain. If this is eliminated, you can then work out how much of a role stress plays in your dog’s behavior and go from there.

Why does my dog have so much anxiety?

The answer to this question depends on your dog’s breed, personality, health, and environmental influences. High amounts of anxiety usually come from a traumatic event, influences during a dog’s second sensitive period, or even a combination of factors. Each dog’s anxiety levels will depend on their own individual factors with the combination of influences

Can stress make dogs sick?

Stress can quickly influence your dog’s immune system to the point where they are no longer able to fight off harmful pathogens. These pathogens are what cause disease in your dogs. Stress can, therefore, make your dog inevitably sick. Therefore, minimizing stress in your dog’s life not only helps them to feel happier, but physically healthier too.

Stress can be severely detrimental to your dog. Identifying what is causing this stress will allow you to make changes to improve your dog’s stress levels and overall happiness.

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