Written by Anna Hollisey
Some dogs show clear signs of stress. Those signs include cowering, putting their tails between their legs, trembling, or backing away from something which threatens them. In most cases, you can identify the trigger for those physiological responses – maybe you got the car keys or there was a knock at the door. However, some chilled dogs suffer from daily or low-level stress. How can you identify it and help them?
If you have a well-socialized, obedient dog, you might be surprised to notice that they are displaying signs of stress. But many pups are naturally prone to anxiety; or they could be sensitive after suffering past trauma, or nervous about being left alone.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s possible that we have more dogs who are accustomed to constant companionship – and, when you begin leaving them alone, are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.
How does your dog show their stress? In some dogs, it’s obvious – you’ll quickly notice destructive behavior or nervous body language. But some signs are so subtle (and less ‘human’) that you might not have detected them.
Here are some of the subtle signs of stress displayed by dogs:
Treating stress is complex and will take time. If possible, take these two steps immediately:
1: Removal of the stress trigger. If your dog is responding to a situation or person, move them away from the perceived threat. It isn’t always possible to remove the trigger – for example, if your dog’s stress is caused by thunder, fireworks, or car journeys. In the home, ensure that your dog has a safe place (like a bed or crate) which they associate with relaxation. If your dog’s stressed by uncontrollable or necessary events like car journeys or grooming, you could try desensitization – more on that in a minute!
2: Distract your dog. Boredom causes a state of stress in dogs, but being distracted will help them to cope with other forms of stress, too. Your dog’s busy brain and pulsating adrenaline should be put to another use. Give them a command to earn something nice to chew; take them for a walk; or take them into the yard and play with their favorite frisbee. Petting can help to produce natural hormones which have a calming effect (animal behaviorist Patricia McCornell explains why petting won’t reinforce fear). Tip: Fill a Kong with wet dog-food and keep it in the freezer to pull out when needed. It will occupy your dog for longer than fresh treats.
When we manage our own stress, we’re likely to try those two steps (removing the trigger and distracting ourselves) first. But we can’t always walk away from the stress trigger and do something that we enjoy; our obligations get in the way.
If you want to help your dog to cope with stress, day-to-day, try some of these ideas:
Get more advice about handling a dog with Separation Anxiety. Would your dog benefit from an L-Theanine supplement? Here’s advice about managing your dog’s stress during fireworks season, and helping your dog to manage car sickness.