Dogs and Stress: Full Guide
Stress in dogs is something that only recently has caught the attention of the general public and the average dog owner, and many of the behaviors we have assumed to be a result of poor training or bad behavior have been proven to instead be a result of stress and/or anxiety.
Undesired conducts like excessive barking, dog aggression and sudden aggression towards humans could all be stress-related, and the only way to help your dog overcome it is by figuring out what triggers it.
There is also an ongoing debate regarding whether anxiety exists in mammals in the wild, or if it is something unintentionally caused by us humans. Are we stressing out our dogs and causing their anxiety? Or do dogs experience stress the way we do? Let’s find out!
Explaining Stress in Dogs
Us humans often associate stress with being late for work, being stuck in traffic when we are headed to pick up our children or simply having too much to do, and it can seem strange that a dog – that might not do much more than to sleep, eat, walk and play – can also be stressed.
Dogs have no bills to pay, they don’t have to worry about cleaning the house or about finding a new home when the lease runs out, they never have to go grocery shopping and they don’t have jobs to wake up for every morning.
So, can dogs really feel stress the same way we do? This is an interesting question, and it depends on how you look at it. No, dogs do not feel stress for the same reasons a human might, and they could potentially react to stress differently.
However, stress is a psychological process in the brain and body, and not the effect that specific process has on us. This is where many people get confused and think that stress cannot affect dogs when in reality, it most definitely can.
Stress is generally a dog’s response to danger or an approaching threat, and this sets off an interesting chain of events in the dog’s brain. It is here that the brain will either tell the dog to run away from whatever the trigger is, or to stay and fight.
A dog experiences stress depending on the situation they are in and on previous experiences, but there is a difference between the situation or occurrence that causes stress and the actual reaction in the body.
To understand the phenomenon of stress in dogs, we first need to understand what stress is, and accept that stress is not the situation causing it, nor is it the reaction stress causes. We have the trigger, then stress itself, and then the reaction – three different things, and it is important not to confuse these. These are some of the hormones that contribute to the reaction in the canine brain known as ‘stress’.
+ Adrenaline. The first change in the body when faced with stress is the surge of adrenaline – a hormone that raises the blood sugar levels increases the heart rate and prepares the dog’s body for springing into action. You will notice how the dog starts breathing more rapidly, due to the increased need for oxygen in the blood that inevitably comes with a faster heartbeat.
+ Cortisol. While adrenaline prepares the brain for what is to come, it is another stress hormone – Cortisol – that preps the body. When a dog experiences stress, their body will begin to produce cortisol, which increases the levels of glucose and fatty acids in the dog’s bloodstream, to have both the muscles and the inner organs ready to face an oncoming threat.
+ Testosterone. The third stress hormone is something most of us have heard of but might not have realized how it impacts a dog under pressure. It is testosterone; a hormone almost always associated with males, but that is released during stressful moments by both female and male dogs.
Aggressive responses to fear to provoke situations are often connected to the increased levels of testosterone and knowing this can help you understand why your dog acts a certain way.
Normal Stress Reactions vs. Chronic Stress
In a stressful situation, the levels of testosterone, cortisol, and adrenaline will rise, and the body’s natural response should be to have these levels return back to normal once the threat is no longer present. Almost all dogs experience stress at some point, but it becomes a problem when this hormone regulation no longer works as it should, and when the stress becomes permanent.
Chronic stress occurs due to an imbalance in the system, and in relation to long-term exposure to a stress trigger. This is why it is so important to take canine stress seriously; to try to find the source and the trigger, and to come up with a plan for how to combat it.
When a dog has been frequently stressed for too long, the cortisol levels may stay higher than normal even after the situation diminishes, something that could lead to a series of problematic health problems.
Common Stress Triggers
It can be difficult to pinpoint a common stress trigger, as all dogs are different, and they react differently to situations depending on their past experiences, fears, and whether they were socialized properly as puppies. Some dogs are naturally more fearful than others, and they have different personalities just like we do.
If a dog is showing symptoms of stress, it is important to look at that individual dog’s background, daily routines, and behaviors, in order to pinpoint what causes the trauma, anxiety or upset. Some common stressors in dogs are (but are not limited to):
+ Fireworks and thunder. It is extremely common for dogs to be fearful of loud noises, such as when someone is setting off fireworks or when there is thunder. This could be due to their sensitive hearing and it simply being uncomfortable for them, but it could also be a reaction to the owner’s behavior when there are loud noises present, but more on this later.
Some dogs also experience stress tied to more common sounds like dogs barking outside or cars driving by, and the stress may build up over time and become a serious issue.
+ Unfamiliar objects and experiences. Have you ever seen a dog freak out at the sight of a plastic bag by the side of the road, when being asked to step onto unfamiliar material (such as a slippery floor or snow), or when being introduced to a new piece of furniture or object inside your house?
The thing with dogs is that they only know what they have experienced first-hand because while we may see something on TV or read about something in a book, a dog won’t know what an object or experience is until they have familiarized themselves with it. This can be a problem for some dogs, while others show no fear of new things.
+ Other dogs and animals. Why the sight of dogs, cats, and other animals may release stress hormones is somewhat debated, but it can sometimes be a result of bad experiences, or simply because your dog feels uncomfortable.
Many dogs react stronger to other dogs on a leash or dogs that are behind a fence, than a dog they meet at the dog park when they are both unrestrained. This type of stress often shows as aggression but could have its roots in stress and/or anxiety.
+ Feeling restrained. Speaking of restraint, dogs generally don’t like being held too tightly, even if your only intention is to give them a loving hug or to be approached and pet by people they are unfamiliar with. You should avoid immobilizing a dog, as this could build up stress and eventually lead to a negative reaction.
+ Boredom. When a dog doesn’t get proper physical exercise and mental stimulation, it can cause stress. Imagine being locked inside the house or in the backyard for 24 hours a day, without the possibility to call someone, watch a show on TV or entertain yourself.
It is very common for this to lead to stress building up, often becoming chronic, and interestingly enough – there is also a scientific reason for why a lack of exercise causes stress! When dogs use their body physically, it reduces the levels of adrenaline and cortisol – both hormones known to cause stress – and it also works to release endorphins.
+ New people. When someone new comes into the family, like a new partner or a new baby, it can cause stress in your canine family members. A new person introduces a small but significant change to your everyday routine, and your pup might become anxious and start displaying behaviors you haven’t observed before, such as restlessness, fear, barking or even aggression. This can be prevented by preparing a dog properly for a new family addition.
+ Moving to a new home. Moving can be extremely stressful for dogs, due to many reasons. You may have noticed how dogs tend to get agitated when you are packing for a trip (perhaps because they don’t want to get left behind?), so imagine how they feel when you spend days or perhaps weeks packing up the whole house?
This can be a difficult time even for well-adjusted and confident dogs, and for an insecure dog that stresses easily –, it can be an enormous trigger and something you need to prepare for.
+ An interrupted routine. Sometimes, something as small as a change in your dog’s everyday routine can become upsetting. If you suddenly aren’t home to feed the dogs at their usual dinner time, if they are locked out of a room they are normally allowed in or if someone is occupying their spot on the couch could all be situations that would stress your furry friends, depending on how set they are in their routines.
+ Fear of punishment. There are many different ways to train a dog, and a big reason for why experts promote positive reinforcement methods is because a negative approach to training – where punishments are involved – can lead to extreme stress in some dogs.
They may become so fearful of punishment that they cannot function properly even in everyday situations. This is a common problem in rescue dogs with traumatic backgrounds.
+ Car rides. One of the more frustrating stress triggers is car rides, as this makes it difficult to transport your dog and to take him or her with you to the park, for a family vacation and more. It may be all the sounds, the moving landscape outside the window and the movement of the vehicle that makes it such an unpleasant and stressful experience for many four-legged friends, which is understandable.
+ Groomer– or vet visits. Do you generally enjoy visiting the doctors or the dentist? Probably not, and dogs tend to feel the same about veterinary visits and trips to the groomers. The reason for this is that these two are rarely associated with positive memories, as you usually take your pet to the vet for a shot or an exam, and to the groomers to get bathed and combed. It is normal, but some dogs take that discomfort a step further, where it turns into a vicious circle of anxiety, fear, and stress.
Canine Stress and Why It Is a Problem
When a threat approaches or when the dog finds itself in a dangerous situation, it is only natural to experience stress and anxiety. As long as these symptoms go away once the stressor does, and provided the stress is based in something rational (like an approaching bear or an unexpected loud noise), you don’t need to worry. The real problems begin when the stress becomes chronic, as this could lead to similar health problems as those you find in humans.
Stress will affect the quality of your pup’s life, as it will be difficult for him to fully enjoy everyday activities. A fear of car rides will make transport difficult, panic when running into another dog will take the fun out of walking and so on, so if you are experiencing stress-related behaviors in your dog that affects your everyday lives – it might be time to consult a professional dog trainer or to start working with your dog to reduce these stress symptoms.
A dog being exposed to stress for a long time can lead to depression, which often presents itself with lethargy and unwillingness to participate in regular activities. It can also bottle up until the dog hits a breaking point, something that tends to be the reason for why dogs snap, bite or attack unexpectedly.
We occasionally hear about how a child or an adult is suddenly bitten by the family dog – a dog that has always been friendly, and long-term and chronic stress may be the reason for these unfortunate events.
Other Negative Health Effects
Stress can also cause other physical consequences, especially if it happens a lot or for prolonged periods of time. Hopefully, your dog will never get to this point, but it is crucial to know what living in a stressful environment without anyone interfering can do to a dog’s health. Examples are:
+ A weakened immune system.
+ Sudden aggression.
+ Destructive behaviors.
+ Diarrhea and vomiting.
+ Cardiac disease.
+ Painful stomach ulcers.
These are things most dog owners are not aware of, and that is because there is a lot of talk about the cause of stress and how stress presents itself in dogs, but there isn’t much said about the potentially irreparable health consequences.
Positive Stress – Does it Exist?
Something positive can also cause dogs to start showing symptoms of stress, but this type of stress isn’t necessarily problematic. It all depends on the magnitude. Some dogs get extremely excited when it is time to eat, when you take out the leash, when it is time to go to the dog park or when known individuals come over for a visit.
The dog might start barking, running in circles, jumping up and down and act excited, which is something that isn’t a cause for concern, unless it starts looking more like anxiety than excitement.
There is such a thing as a ball obsession, for example, where excitement over a toy slowly turns into a negative behavior where the dog could bark excessively or demand to play over and over again with extreme intensity.
A trained eye will easily see when behavior is based in pure excitement, and when stress is the main drive behind the conduct, but even an inexperienced dog owner can usually pick up on when something is becoming a potential issue if proper attention is paid.
There hasn’t been a lot of research done on stress in house pets, and most studies have instead focused on how pets can reduce our stress! Perhaps it is time to become more aware of how our habits and lifestyles can cause stress in our dogs.
It is not new that us humans tend to sometimes focus on ourselves and what dogs can do for us; we have service dogs, working dogs, and dogs that keep us company, but we sometimes forget to consider what we can do for our dogs.
Stress Symptoms & Behaviors
+ Reduced or increased appetite.
+ Excessive panting.
+ Diarrhea and digestive issues.
+ Hiding and shying away.
+ Tucking the tail between the legs.
+ Repeatedly licking lips.
+ Whining and whimpering.
+ Urinating on the spot.
+ Obsessive barking.
More On Separation Anxiety
When talking about stress in dogs, one issue many dog owners struggle with is separation anxiety. This is the stress that comes with being left alone as the owner leaves the home, and it is the canine stress disorder most are familiar with. Dogs are pack animals and it is not necessarily normal for them to be left alone, which can cause mild to severe anxiety.
Common signs of separation anxiety are barking, howling, scratching doors and chewing on prohibited items like cables and shoes, and it is one of the biggest reasons to why dog owners contact professional trainers and dog psychiatrists. While a good anti-chew spray may help, it is best to get to the root cause and train your dog out of chewing.
Once a dog has developed separation anxiety, it can be very difficult to get rid of, but it is possible. What you need to know is that it is a stress-related behavior, where being alone is causing discomfort for your dog.
PTSD – Can Dogs Get It?
It isn’t just us humans that can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it is a condition that is also known to exist in dogs.
It springs from trauma or negative experiences, just like normal stress symptoms, and it could be an accident where the dog was hurt and/or scared, losing an owner they were very attached to or something related, and it will often show itself much like chronic stress would, where the dog might tend to avoid anything that triggers a memory of the particular event that caused the PTSD.
A dog with PTSD almost always needs professional help from trainers and veterinarians, and yet it can still take years to help them overcome their trauma. PTSD in dogs is both hard to diagnose and to treat, so don’t be surprised if it goes undiscovered for a long time.
Talk to your veterinarian if your dog has been through major trauma, or if you suspect he or she might suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
How Your Stress Affects Your Dog
It has been known for years that dogs can sense when their owners are sad and that they often seem to show up to offer emotional support when we need it the most. Taking this into consideration, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it seems we can also pass on our stress to our dogs!
A study performed at the Linköping University in Sweden suggests that dogs can pick up stress from their owners, but that it is unlikely for a human to become stressed from being around a stressed dog. This due to the dog’s world centering almost entirely around their owner(s), while we humans also have other friends and social connections.
This study was performed by collecting hair samples from 58 people and their dogs (Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs), where they would then look at the cortisol levels in both the human hair and in the dog hair, and they made the surprising discovery that the human and the dog in each tested pair had very similar levels of cortisol – indicating a clear connection between the stress levels of the two.
If you needed an excuse to start taking things a little easier and to reduce your own stress levels – this is it! Nobody wants to cause their dog’s potential harm, and one of the best things you can do for your four-legged friend is to find harmony and tranquility in the life you share with them.
How to Act Around a Stressed Dog
When you see your beloved fur friend hovering in a corner, shivering with fear, it is natural to want to step in and make it all better. Perhaps provide a few extra hugs and tell them everything will be okay?
This may not be in your dog’s best interest, as it will only show them that you too are worried and that something really is wrong. The best thing you can do is to hide your own concern and act as normally as you possibly can.
Some dogs respond well to distraction, so try and see if your pup will want a treat or perhaps to play with their favorite toy, as it could potentially break the cycle of stress. You should be prepared to be patient, as most stress triggers can’t be neutralized in one day, and it might require several attempts and consistency before you manage to help your pooch.
Stress Reduction Through Training
When dealing with stress, it could become necessary to reach out to a professional dog trainer, for help with how to deal with your pup’s problems. Search the internet for local dog training classes and trainers or contact your local kennel club for information.
If none are available in your area, there are online resources to turn to, such as video tutorials and trainers that offer digital classes.
Training helps add structure to your dog’s life, and dogs do very well when provided with a routine and set rules. Positive reinforcement methods should always be used when training a nervous or stressed dog, and you should avoid any negative energy or yelling as this could worsen their condition.
Instead, focus on what the dog does right, and look past any wrongdoings until they succeed with what you are asking them to do. Failed training usually says more about the trainer (in this case you) than it does about the dog’s ability to learn.
Alternative Stress Relieving Methods
When nothing else works, there are a few methods you can use for stress caused by loud noises, car travel or other temporary occurrences, to make things easier for your dog, and to potentially also make it easier to work with your dog while they are experiencing stress.
A body wrap or a so-called thunder jacket has shown signs of working well for some dogs, and it is believed that the pressure it adds helps the dog feel safe and comfortable. There is little research to back this up, but some dog owners are convinced it works.
Calming music is another option, and video websites like YouTube have special playlists with calming music for dogs. Again, there isn’t much research backing this up either, but it can’t hurt to try if your dog gets nervous easily! What works for some dogs may not work for others, so it is always best to try something yourself before you rule it out.
Some essential oils or flower essences have also given experts reason to believe it might work, as this can be calming also for humans. Edward Bach invented flower essence therapy back in the 1930s, and he used several different flowers to treat a variety of mindsets in humans, which proved to be successful.
Less research has been performed on pets, but those with experience using flower essences for stress-related symptoms report that it appears to have an effect, and no negative side effects have been reported.
You might be interested:
Calming Treats for Dogs
When to Consult a Veterinarian
A veterinarian should always be contacted if you notice any big changes in your dog’s behavior, or if you have concerns, as there are many illnesses and diseases that could mimic the symptoms of canine stress.
Stress is a big issue that could potentially become medical (ulcers, heart conditions and a weakened immune system), so make sure you consult a professional veterinarian before you take any other action.
Severe cases of stress in dogs may require some type of medication, to help your dog calm down during the most difficult of times. This is something you cannot afford to experiment with, so you should never give your dog medication or supplements without first speaking to your trusted vet.
Stress is a serious condition both in humans and dogs, and it is something we – as responsible dog owners – need to stay on top of. For a dog to be momentarily stressed due to environmental changes, a bypassing dog or thunder is normal, but it is when it crosses the line and becomes excessive or constant that we should start worrying.
The best way to help a stressed dog is by understanding what it is that causes stress, because only then can we find a way to help the dog overcome it. It can often be enough with small changes in routine, or even in our own behavior, as we tend to pity- and try to comfort dogs that are in distress.
This, however, can do more harm and good, and an important lesson is to remember to stay calm and to avoid treating the dog differently during these stressing episodes. Knowledge gives you the upper hand when trying to be the owner and best friend your dog deserves.
References and Relevant Links