What is Canine Stress?

Dogs can get stressed for the same reasons humans get stressed.  Dogs get stressed in situations where they feel unable to cope.

What is canine stress?  What does it look like? And how can we help them to release the stress?

Dogs can get stressed for the same reasons humans get stressed.  They can get stressed when we are angry with them or punish them.  They get stressed in situations of threat, of pain or discomfort, and even stressed by excitement.  Dogs get stressed in situations where they feel unable to cope.

When stressed, they get more hormones running around, and the adrenaline starts pumping.  The stress levels together with the activated defense mechanisms are necessary for your dog to survive.  It helps them react fast enough and be strong enough to survive danger.

Dogs can show stress in many ways.  When stressed, they will usually start using “calming signals” to ease the stress.

You will find the reasons for your dog’s stress by looking at yourself and your surroundings.  Sometimes it may be helpful to ask someone to help you.  This will allow you to see the situation from another point of view.

It’s up to you what kind of relationship you have with your dog.  Will he learn to fear you and live his life being afraid and feeling bad, or will you make him feel good and have trust in you.  Such a dog will hardly ever come in a defensive position and is likely to bite.

What can make a dog stressed?

  • Direct threats by other dogs or us
  • Rough handling, pulling him along, jerking at the lead, pushing him down
  • Unknown places, noises, odors
  • Violence, aggression in his environment
  • Pain and illness
  • Inadequate diet
  • Being alone
  • Too little exercise or too much-overexcited playing with balls or other dogs
  • Hunger, thirst
  • Sudden changes
  • Freezing or being too hot
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Never being able to relax, always being disturbed
  • Too high demands in training and daily life

Identifying Stress

  • Licking or biting himself excessively
  • Panting
  • Scratching excessively
  • Barking, howling, whining
  • Shaking as if shaking off water
  • Unhealthy looking fur that seems to be hard, breakable, standing on end
  • Tense muscles
  • Sudden “attack” of dandruff, for instance
  • Diarrhea
  • Looking nervous, hiding behind the handler
  • Running after his tail
  • Losing his appetite
  • Using calming signals
  • Unable to calm down, restless
  • It doesn’t smell nice, both mouth and body
  • Having to eliminate more often than normal
  • Allergies, many are really stress scratching
  • Behaving aggressively
  • Losing concentration – can’t concentrate for more than a short time
  • Refusing to interact with family; previously playful dog not wanting to play

What can you do to help reduce stress?

  • Change the environment and routines
  • Have the dog do downtime in a safe and quiet place
  • Stop using harsh methods in training and handling
  • Find your dog’s balance of exercise he needs
  • Avoid putting him in a situation of hunger, thirst, heat, cold
  • Make sure he has access to relieve himself when he needs to
  • Letting the dog be a part of the pack as much as possible, so he is with you or someone in the family more
  • Learning to identify and use calming signals
  • Stop using all force, punishment, aggression, and anger

Calming Signals

  • Turning of the head: this can be a swift movement to the side and back, or the dog may hold the head to the side for some time. It may be the whole head or just a tiny movement to the side.
  • Not turning the head but having the eyes only to the side looking away to avert the direct stare is a signal similar to head-turning
  • Lowering the eyelids and not staring in a threatening way
  • Turning to the side or turning your back to someone is very calming
  • Freeze, stand, sit or lie still without moving a muscle
  • Play position; going down with front legs in a bowing position. You can do this by resting on your knees and then stretching your arms straight out in front of you on the floor.
  • Walking slowly and using slow movements
  • Turning his back to you and then sitting down or just sitting down when approached can be a signal.
  • Yawning
  • Lying down with belly on the ground can be a calming signal
  • Sniffing the ground in a swift movement and up again. Or just holding the nose to the ground.  This signal is really not something we can do
  • Going physically between dogs or people is a signal
  • Wagging tails; if a dog is crawling towards you, whining and peeing, the wagging tail is a “white flag,” trying to calm you down. Another one we can’t use.
  • Smacking their lips
  • Licking faces
  • Blinking their eyes
  • Lifting their paws
  • Making themselves small

Final Note

Dogs also have threatening signals like staring, approaching a dog by walking straight up to him. Stooping or bending over a dog, barking, growling, attacking, showing teeth, and more.

I have listed the most common calming signals dogs use to reduce stress.  Help yourself and your dog by learning calming signals. Try them on your dog and see what happens.  Some reasons listed for stress may not be stress-related at all, but a medical reason.  Consult your veterinarian.

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