We all know about daily stress and anxiety. We feel it at work, in traffic, at home and even when we surf our social media accounts. What about our dogs? Do they feel our stress and how do we know when they have their own stresses? How do we know when they are feeling anxiety and what if anything can we do about it?
Much of what we notice as stress in a dog is expressed in their body language. When they feel fearful of an unusual situation they express their stress to us and other dogs with their body. Stressed dogs may take a stiff posture and a wide-eyed look. They will nervously scan the surrounding area for an escape route or may just turn their head and avoid eye contact altogether. They will often drop their head, blink excessively, yawn, press their ears back close to their head, and may pull their lips back into a tight lipped “smile”. This can happen just before a growl or snap. They will have a tendency to retreat behind their owner (or safe person) if they have that option, or may growl, wag the tail excessively, bark or charge if they feel very threatened or challenged.
Like us, dogs can also experience physiological symptoms of stress such as panting, trembling and sweaty paws. (I know, we have sweaty hands not paws) They can also experience loss of bowel control, diarrhea or uncontrolled urination. If the stress or anxiety bleeds over to their home life, they can lose interest in food, become very clingy or even show destructive behaviors to themselves (licking and chewing their feet or legs) or to objects around the house (chewing or digging).
In order to recognize your dog’s stress or anxiety, you must observe them when they are relaxed and calm. Get to know their relaxed eyes and ears and their normal behavior when they feel comfortable. When early signs of stress or anxiety emerge try to remove the stressful stimulus if possible or distract the dog with his/her favorite treats. Dogs can be trained to accept stressful things, but it has to be done in a gradual, kind fashion using only positive reinforcement. Clicker training, exercise, consistent routines, healthy diet, and above all, early socialization with other pets, children, strange places and the veterinary hospital will provide a strong base for a dogs future stress levels. If you missed the socialization window when your dog was a puppy, generally thought to be between 4 and 14 weeks of age, they can still learn to remain calm in stressful situations. Work with professionals to get the proper training and exposure in a kind gradual manner and be sure that they are not pushed beyond their ability to keep cool.
Be sure to ask for help from your veterinary team or a veterinarian board certified in behavior medicine before your dog’s anxiety becomes too severe. There are many things that can be done, to help you and your pet live a low stress, life.
Dr Julie Cappel