We all experience stress differently in different situations. Sometimes you might be able to tell right away when you’re feeling under stress, but other times you might keep going without recognising the signs. Stress can affect you both emotionally and physically, and it can affect the way you behave. The same goes for your dog.
Some dogs, like some people, are more prone to the mental and physical signs of stress than others. What might trigger symptoms in one dog will have no effect on another even when both dogs are exposed to the same stressors. While mild stress can actually be healthy and provide beneficial physical and mental stimulation, research has shown that there is a definite link between high stress and illnesses such as heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
How does stress affect my dog?
During a time of stress, both goes through changes to enable it to cope. Energy is diverted to muscles ready to fight or flight, and the heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure all rise to send this energy as quickly as possible around the body. Digestion is suppressed and many systems simply shut down in seconds, including growth, muscle repair, and the immune response because they would ‘steal’ vital energy resources that you need to use to run away from the predator chasing you. This is why stress is useful.
Good health, however, relies on the body’s ability to return to its ‘normal’ state after the stressful event has passed, but if stress is sustained or continually repeated, the body simply can’t do this this and so they are never able to de-stress. If the body continues to work at its optimum stress response level and is unable to return to normal, it is only a matter of time before the immune system is impaired, giving way to adaptive illnesses such as digestive upset, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer.
What are the signs of stress?
Signs that your dog is feeling stressed in a situation include lip licking, pacing, shaking, whining or barking, yawning, drooling, rapid blinking, cowering and panting. You can read these signs easily and help your dog cope with the situation by moving them away from the stressor. There are also signs that your dog may be under more chronic (long-term) stress which include:
- unable to settle, jumping at the slightest sound or movement
- destructive behaviours
- vocalising excessively
- excessive self-grooming or shedding
- spinning or tail chasing
- more frequent urination
- digestive upset
- skin problems
- inability to sleep
- low energy
- lack of appetite
- limited desire for interaction with people/dogs
- growling, snapping or biting
What are the causes of stress in dogs?
One of the most common triggers is being left home alone for long periods of time. Dogs are social beings and they require company so if they spend too much time alone, not only do they feel lonely, they may also feel scared. This can also be coupled with feelings of confinement which can exacerbate the stress response and can lead to destructive behaviours.
Change can be a common stress trigger in both dogs and humans; moving home, going on holiday, going to kennels or doggy daycare, losing a pet or family member, getting a new pet or family member or even just getting work done on the house can all be worrying times for your dog.
Unless they are habituated to the sights and sounds in our human lives, many everyday activities could cause stress in dogs include travelling in a car, loud sounds like fireworks, umbrellas, recycling trucks, vet visits… the list is almost endless!
When dogs aren’t trained to learn how to live with humans – an unnatural situation for them – they lead more stressful lives. This is because they’re constantly trying to guess what their owners want of them, and then constantly worry about the consequences of getting it wrong – such as their owner shouting at them or being in some way abusive or disapproving. There are also new studies that show that shouting at your dog causes long-term damage to their emotional state. The more quietly you speak to dogs, and the greater the respect in your approach to them, the more likely it is that they will listen to you – not least because as soon as a dog is stressed he stops being able to concentrate or learn.
The other main cause of stress in dogs is… your stress.
Dogs will readily pick up on our emotional state, so you might need to take a look at how you can manage your own stress levels to help them.
Dogs are often better at hiding their stress and coping with pain than humans, which is why so often many owners don’t recognise that their dog is actually in discomfort or distress unless, or until, they have a condition which becomes acute.
What can you do to reduce stress for your dog?
Reducing exposure to the stressor is important. It may help you to make a list of everything your dog might consider stressful, prioritise what you think the biggest triggers are, then work through that list tackling each issue slowly, reducing their exposure to each stressor as much as possible.
Desensitisation using counter-conditioning and confidence building techniques can help really help to minimise stress, but you need to do this carefully, and under instruction from an experienced dog trainer or behaviourist.
Controlled exercise is also a great way to alleviate stress for both dogs and people as exercise has been shown to encourage confidence, stabilise mood and reduce reactivity as well as improving the relationship between dog and owner, but don’t overdo it as too much exercise is a stressor too. (I know, it really is a minefield!)
Problem solving games and toys can help activate the thinking brain in stressful situations, which in turn deactivates the emotional brain and allows the dog to concentrate on something more positive than the negative emotion, but dog’s that have become shut down with learned helplessness from too much stress may not be able to participate in these activities.
Complementary therapies can ease the long term effects of stress when used in conjunction with the behavioural modification techniques above (for both you and your dog).
Massage therapy induces a relaxation response which lowers the heart and respiratory rates and blood pressure; boosts the immune system; and decreases the physical effects of stress.
Herbal self-medication provides your pet with access to herbal products that can help them get back into physical and emotional balance and find an easy state of relaxation.
Reiki is an energy therapy that can induce change in the body, enabling it to function in a balanced healthy way and supporting the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
These therapies are great ways to allow your dog to let go of the emotions they are holding on to that may be doing harm.
They can also help the humans, so take time to work on your stress levels too!