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Stress in Dogs

Posted by  on April 24, 2014

Sleep 17 hours or so, eat a few tasty morsels, play outside a little, cuddle all night in a comfy bed.  How could this be stressful?  You might be surprised at the things that can cause your dog anxiety, but if you don’t educate yourself about it, you’re missing out on an important way to help your dog be even more comfortable.

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Confinement can be a stressor for your dog.

Spend just a few minutes thinking about life from your dog’s point of view.  Every morning, his best friend gets up, throws some food his way, and lets him outside for just a few minutes.  He wants to play, but instead he is shut up in a kennel or maybe isolated to a certain part of the house, then left alone for at least 9 hours.  Again, he receives some food and a short time outside, then if he’s lucky and the kids don’t have basketball practice, he might get a walk or some play time before everyone settles in for the night.

On the weekends, again assuming there are no extenuating circumstances, the dog might get to spend some quality time with the family in between the grocery store, house cleaning duties and social obligations.  How’s that “dog’s life” sounding now?

The truth is, one of the leading causes of stress for your dog is being left alone for long periods of time.  While dogs can’t tell time exactly like we do, they do know that they stay home alone from time to time, even if the whole family doesn’t work outside the home.  Your dog may or may not suffer from separation anxiety, but if you work and don’t provide the proper entertainment for your dog, you can bet the dog experiences boredom.

So, you might think, I’ll sign up for doggie daycare.  That’s a great boredom buster; however, you need to be aware that a change in routine is also stressful for the dog in the short run.  Other changes in routine, such as going to the groomer’s or vet’s office, taking an unexpected car ride, or sleeping outside rather than in bed with you can cause acute anxiety.

Other causes of stress include illness and injuries, including recovery from surgery.  Even something relatively minor, like a slight case of ear mites or a sprained ankle can be cause for stress.

Last but not least, a dog who is physically restrained ends up experiencing stress because he is not able to chase the prey outside his area including squirrels, chipmunks, and small children.  This is not to say you shouldn’t restrain your dog; it is for his own safety that you fence your yard or keep your dog chained when outside or kenneled while inside alone.

According to Melissa Bain, a veterinary behavior specialist with the Animal Behavior Resources Institute of the American Humane Association, the most common causes of stress are:

  • Trauma
  • Physical restraint
  • Confinement
  • Change of routine
  • Noise
  • Boredom / lack of stimulation
  • Separation
  • Unwanted interactions such as with overly aggressive people or other dogs

How do I know if my dog is stressed? 

Given the fact that most dogs experience at least one of the anxiety-producing situations listed above at one time or another, how can you tell when stress is a problem?  There are certain symptoms, as identified onWebVet.com.   Symptoms include whining, yawning, hiding, drooling, lip licking, dilated pupils, repetitive behaviors, aggression, loss of bowel or bladder control, and loss of appetite or overeating.

Many of these symptoms are normal behaviors when seen alone, but taken together, they can indicate a problem. Just as in people, chronic stress in dogs can lead to long-term emotional and even physical problems, so it’s important to spend some time observing your dog to watch for signs of stress and take action to combat it.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff and Coroner’s Office Canine Specialized Search Team points out that many of the symptoms of stress are subtle, and that observation of the dog must be paired with consideration of what is going on at the time the symptoms are seen.  For example, if your dog whines, yawns, and licks his front right paw repetitively every time you put him in the car, you can be pretty sure that car rides make him anxious.

Because of the nature of the Specialized Search Team, their website also points out the importance of the human’s moods in keeping the dog on track.  When the handler becomes tired, frustrated, or worried, the dog will be very aware of it.  Dogs communicate with each other through body language, and there is no reason to assume they aren’t equally adept at reading our behavior.  And the stress they perceive in you can make them assume there is something unpleasant ahead and kick off their own stress reactions.

Vet visits are common canine stressors.

Vet visits are common canine stressors.

Helping your dog cope with stress 

Depending on whether your dog is reacting to an isolated event or a continuing situation, you will approach treatment in different ways.

For isolated events, you simply need to provide the dog with calming signals like yawning, blinking, and avoiding direct eye contact.  These are the very actions a dog uses to calm himself when stressed, and if he sees you using calming behaviors, he will deduce that it’s okay to relax.  Make sure you relax yourself by thinking of something happy and relaxing any tense muscles.  Talk to your dog in a soft, calm voice, reassuring him that all is well.  Finally, take a break if possible.  A change in scenery can do wonders.

For situations that you know your dog will have to learn to endure, you will train your dog to recognize that conditions are not that bad and to calm himself without your help.  For example, if you crate your dog every day while you are at work, but your neighbors complain that he continually whines and scratches, your job is to find a way to make the crate less stressful.  Make sure the crate is large enough that the dog doesn’t have to lie in the same position all day.  Try giving the dog toys to chew on and play with inside the crate.  Especially valuable are puzzle-type toys that your dog has to spend some time with to figure out how to get to the treat inside.  If possible, come home at lunch time or hire someone to come to your house mid-day to get the dog out of the crate and have some play time to break up the day.

If your dog becomes stressed when you have people over, enlist your friends to practice having people come in the house over and over, socializing your dog to the experience.  Praise the dog for good behavior as he gets used to people coming and going.  Keep safety first!  If your dog shows any signs of aggression toward strangers, you may have to start the socialization training from behind a baby gate.

Your dog may also be able to calm himself with the help of certain calming scents.  Valerian and chamomile are thought to ease stress.  You might try a Calming Collar, which is an herbal blend sewn into a cloth collar your dog can wear during stressful events like thunderstorms.

There is also a product that looks like a plug-in air freshener called the Comfort Zone Plug-In that diffuses dog appeasing pheromones into the air.