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Ever taken your pup to the vet and noticed he keeps his tail tucked between his legs the entire time? Or that her fur starts shedding?
These are classic dog stress symptoms.
While some dogs are more easygoing than others and seem almost immune to stressful situations, others are canine scaredy-cats. Yet, almost all dogs will experience one or more stressful situations they'll react to at some point in their life.
Because they can't talk, it's up to us, their owners and best friends, to be aware of the stress signals in dogs. So that we can help alleviate them. And prevent long-term effects, both behavioral and biological.
When you ignore the signs of stress in your dog, there's a risk your dog will "engage in damaging and potentially dangerous behaviors," says Steven Appelbaum, President of Animal Behavior College.
These behaviors can be dangerous for people. A highly stressed dog might attack if he can see no other way to escape whatever is scaring him.
Or they can be self-harming behaviors like when a dog won't stop biting herself or stops eating.
Signs that your dog is stressed can be either (or both) behavioral or physical.
Keep in mind, many of these can be symptoms of other problems as well, including any number of illnesses.
Always look for context to help you interpret what you're observing with your dog. For instance, if your dog trembles uncontrollably during a thunderstorm, it's a safe bet he's feeling stress. But, if he's trembling uncontrollably on a regular basis and nothing obvious seems to have changed in his environment, he could have a neurological disorder.
If your dog suffers from any of these symptoms on a chronic basis, reach out to your vet to eliminate the possibility of illness before treating for anxiety.
Before we get to the list of signs of stress in dogs, let's take a quick look at some of the most common causes of stress and anxiety in dogs.
The infamous fireworks! Also, thunderstorms, gun fire, and even things like construction work or a room full of screaming children can stress your pup out.
Moving is hard on everyone and that includes your dog. The same is true for a new baby or pet in the family. Even introducing a new piece of furniture can cause your dog to be anxious. And, let's not forget about the vet. It may not be a new place, but your dog either doesn't remember going or only has bad memories of the last time she was there.
Another classic stressor for dogs. Many dogs don't like to be left alone for long periods of time. Others freak out the minute you walk out the door.
Dogs love their routines. Any changes to that routine, whether it's you coming home later from a new job or a change in meal times, throws their world into chaos.
Dogs need correction from time to time. But constant punishment, and particularly harsh punishment (hitting, shouting), can lead to an insecure and fearful pup.
Some dogs have certain behaviors literally built into their DNA. Australian Cattle Dogs need to herd. Dachshunds need to dig. When they're prevented from doing these things, it causes internal anxiety that they need to release… somehow.
A spat between you and your significant other. Your own depression and anxiety. Your emotions affect your dog!
For whatever reason, some dogs are just afraid of specific things. There are dogs that are afraid of men. Some dogs fear children (all that tail pulling!) Others are afraid of trucks, vacuum cleaners, even certain toys.
"Behavioral indications of stress vary widely depending on the individual dog, environmental factors, and the level of stress the dog feels," Appelbaum says.
What follows are some of the most common stress signals in dogs.
Dogs can't talk but they do vocalize. And sometimes their vocalizations are their way of telling you they're scared or feeling threatened. Whining, in particular, is a good sign that they're either stressed out, uncomfortable, or in pain. It's an automatic response that they can't control, so it should be a red flag.
Growling, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. There may be something legitimate that's got them concerned. The same holds true for barking, which dogs will also do when they're happy and excited.
A dog's body language will often change when it's stressed or anxious about something. Dog stress body language signals to look for include tucked ears or tail, raised hackles, and "whale eyes" (when a dog reveals more of the whites of their eyes than is normal).
Another common signal of dog stress is crouching down or freezing in place. When a dog has reached freezing, he's usually at a critical level of anxiety and you should proceed with caution.
Additionally, if you notice your dog is avoiding eye contact or looking away from someone or something, that can be a sign of fear. This can include you, especially if you've been yelling.
For some dogs, a side effect of stress and nervousness is excess energy, which your pooch needs to release to feel any level of relief. Chewing on objects is one form of energy release.
As is scratching and licking of lips or paws. Which might not seem so bad, but can be severe enough to result in bald patches or open sores.
Other energy-release behaviors include pacing and barking.
Many dogs will try to escape whatever is stressing them out. This can be as simple as hiding behind your legs if you encounter another dog out on a walk. Or as acrobatic as jumping over a high fence. Which is why it's so important to keep your dog inside during fireworks or a thunderstorm.
According to Appelbaum, dogs have even been known to dig their way under a fence if stressed enough.
Dogs can be aggressive for many reasons, but fear and stress are common causes of aggressive behavior.
Signals to watch out for include growling, barking, snarling, whale eyeing, and tucked ears. If you see any of these, especially in combination with each other, proceed with caution.
Dogs communicate stress through body language, but there are a number of physical symptoms of stress your dog may display, as well.
Anxious dogs often produce excess saliva, which can result in drooling or even what appears to be foaming around the mouth. While more messy than anything, excess moisture on your dog's fur and skin can have long-term consequences like matted fur or yeast infections.
Full-body tremors are a common involuntary reaction for many dogs when they're scared. It can be alarming to see, but extreme excitement can also cause tremors and shaking, so context is everything.
More commonly associated with overheated dogs, panting can be a sign that your dog is stressed.
Excessive shedding in a short period of time is often a sign that your pup is anxious. More common with long-haired breeds, you'll often notice this during trips to the vet.
Stress-induced upset tummies aren't just for people. Your dog can have the same reaction, too.
Some dogs stop eating when they're under extreme stress. For example, you've heard of dogs that won't eat when their humans are away on vacation? That's a reaction to the stress of being lonely, of having their normal routine interrupted, and the fear their owners won't come back.
If you notice your dog is sleeping way more than usual or can't seem to quiet down at all, check for anything that might be stressing him out. Similar to humans, a dog might start sleeping more if he's depressed. Or might not be able to sleep at all if something has him riled up.
Another sign of stress in dogs that is exactly the same as how some humans react to anxiety. The more internal energy your dog uses up feeling and dealing with stress and anxiety, the more tired and listless he might start to act. This can include not wanting to play, tiring easily, or even not wanting to spend any time with you.
The best way to calm anxious dogs is to counter condition them to get used to the things that cause them stress or fear. But this can take many weeks or months to do.
For more immediate help, adding a calming supplement to your dog's diet can help take the edge off.
"Calming supplements can work wonders in some cases," Appelbaum says, but warns dog owners not to expect a "magic solution."
The best way to use calming supplements, he says, is as part of a behavior modification program. Not only will it help relieve the dog of immediate stress, it will help speed up the counter conditioning process.
Calming supplements can also be used when a short-term solution is all that's needed, such as the first few weeks in a new home.
At Veterinary Formula Clinical Care, we offer once-a-day Pet Calm Plus chews, which contain ingredients like chamomile, melatonin, and tryptophan to help your dog stay calm during stressful situations.