No doubt your four-legged friend is a valued and loved part of the family. We want to do what’s right for them, especially as all they ever give is immense loyalty and unwavering love. We take them to the vets, we feed them a healthy diet, we provide the right stimulation to keep them happy, but how do we know what’s really going on in their minds?
Any dog owner knows there are times when you wonder ‘what are they thinking?’ We probably have a basic knowledge that their behaviour is their language, but how do we interpret it?
Firstly there’s the obvious. Bright eyes, energy and a wagging tail are sure fire signs you’ve got a happy hound. Whimpering associated with obvious pain equals poorly pooch and a trip to the vet. What about the harder to tell situations?
Stress is one of those harder to tell emotions. Just as in humans, stress can manifest itself in different ways in different dogs. However, it should be remembered that stress is generally a condition that is time-relevant – it goes on. Therefore, look at your dog’s behaviour over time, and see if you identify any of the following signs:
- Loss of appetite or gradual weight loss
- Excessive chewing (especially outside of puppyhood)
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Skin irritation caused by excessive licking or chewing/nibbling their own skin
- Regular poor behaviour which wasn’t evident before
- Toileting accidents, especially inside, or on the items which belong to a ‘usurper’ (for example, a new baby, or new pup).
- Increased aggression
- Increased sleeping and withdrawal
- Ears back and eyes wide, frequently
- Excessive drooling
- Excessive yawning
As you can see, there is a huge range of signs and this list is far from exhaustive! This can leave you wondering if stress is really the cause. We suggest you consider any changes in your dog’s routine or situation, as together this can point to a stress-related problem. If you’re at a loss, then it’s always worth getting your dog checked out at the vet.
What causes stress in dogs?
All they have to do is eat, sleep, walk, play, be loved, right?! So why are they stressed?
Firstly, remember their frame of reference and context of understanding is substantially different from yours. Common stress triggers for dogs include:
- Changes in routine: Dogs are highly routine driven. Disrupt their routine, even simply by changing your own bedtime, and they could feel stressed.
- Boredom: Being a doggy day care service we frequently have clients reporting behaviour which doesn’t happen if the pooch has been at day care. Doggy day care is stimulating, and there’s no chance for boredom (but still time for rest). A dog left at home for hours can quickly become a stressed dog through boredom alone.
- Noise: Dog’s hearing puts ours to shame. The onslaught of noise, from doorbells to telephones to banging doors and traffic can overwhelm your dog.
- Unfamiliarity: New visitors, new situations and new anything are enough to unsettle the most even-keeled dog. This can occur in other situations like house moves and holidays.
- Usurpers: Dogs are pack animals. They know exactly where they fit in the ranks. Bring in a new baby or another new pet, and they can end up questioning where they fit.
- Your emotions: The flip side of your dog being immensely loyal to you is that they can easily pick up and absorb what you feel.
How to help a stressed dog
Identifying what is causing the stress is an important first step. In some instances you will be able to remove the trigger, or simply give your dog more time to adapt. In others, you may need to make a more concerted effort to reduce their stress.
You should start from the point of being comforting and understanding, even in the face of difficult behaviour. This doesn’t mean you aren’t going to address the behaviour, but you will help both yourself and your dog if you can be tolerant as the issue is addressed.
By offering affection and attention during an episode of stress, your dog is more likely to calm down and return to their usual behaviour more quickly.
If you’re still struggling to alleviate their stress, then there are some other approaches you can take. Your approach will, in part, depend on what is causing the stress.
- Exercise: Exercise is a great stress reliever and stress preventer. Make sure your pooch is getting regular walks to burn off energy and restore their sense of calm.
- Prevention: Remove the stressors, where possible, from the environment. If the crowds of the school run are a problem, leave your dog at home. If the doorbell is grating them, change it to a different ring. You may need to experiment to see what works.
- Praise: Offer praise and reward when your dog does something ‘good’ and help to build their self-esteem back up.
- Give them a safe space: Ensure your dog’s ‘patch’ is always theirs. Whether you use a crate or a bed, make sure that everyone in the household respects that this is the dog’s safe space (and that includes moving crawling babies!).
- Routine: Keep your routine identical until the period of stress has passed. Training can also be beneficial here so that your dog knows exactly what is expected of them.
- Consistent care: Make sure your dog isn’t left alone too long, and receives their care in a supportive environment. Dog day care is ideal for dogs who find being left at home stressful.
- Aromatherapy: Depending on your own experience, you may like to try aromatherapy for your dog. Essential oils, such as lavender, diffusing in a room can help to bring a sense of calm.
- Playtime: Dedicating some time for a game of tug, or fetch, can help to expend energy and provide stimulation.
Calm home, calm dog
Keep a good routine and a calm home, your dog’s behaviour should follow. If you’re still struggling to help your dog banish their stress, then do head to the vet. Dog behavioural experts can help.