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behavior and training

How to identify and treat stress in dogs — a helpful guide

Some dogs respond differently to specific situations, and it’s your responsibility to know when your dog is anxious or stressed

Updated September 28, 2021

Created By

Christy Caplan, CVT,

The essentials

  • Look at the whole body Considering the entire dog’s body, in addition to ears, mouth, and posture, tells you a lot about how your dog is feeling.
  • Feelings are contextual Body language is everything, and knowing the context around what’s happening helps fill in the blanks.
  • Every dog is an individual, and a vet or vet behavior specialist will determine an appropriate treatment plan Vets need to assess how a dog is feeling and rule out any health issues that may be the root of the cause.
  • Dog trainers are invaluable when managing a stressed dog After a vet rules out health issues, training can provide management tools for pet owners.

Looking at your dog’s whole body and individual body parts is an essential first step to determine if your doggie is anxious and stressed. Second, what’s the context, and how is the dog’s behavior changing based on what’s happening? For example, did a new delivery person just drop a package at the gate, and this individual isn’t the same person your dog is used to seeing each week? This scenario (it may seem like a small change to you) may bring your dog a tremendous amount of anxiety.

A dog’s age, health, breed, and past experiences impact how they choose to communicate their feelings and respond to certain situations. Many similar-looking signals are often confused!

A vet or vet specialist can help determine the root of the cause and provide a treatment plan to help your dog. Don’t panic! A vet also can help you understand a dog’s body language. Sometimes it’s tricky, and it takes years of living with a dog to know when a situation is too intense for them.

Baseline body language of a happy dog 

Dogs are thinking and feeling beings. It may seem easy to tell someone what your dog looks like when they’re relaxed but what does neutral look like for most dogs? For example, a relaxed face and body when a dog greets its owner is a happy hello. So spend some time reviewing what your dog looks like when they’re relaxed, and remember that different dog breeds may have different types of eyes, ears, and even mouths.

  • Eyes. No direct contact means your dog is feeling happy or peaceful
  • Ears. Soft, flexible ears
  • Mouth. Can be open or softly closed
  • Posture. No tension in the face or body and “just hanging out”

👉 Take a look at common doggie body language that your pup may show, from when they’re friendly to threatened. 

First signs of stress in a dog

Focus on the significant signs of stress pet owners may see when a dog is anxious or uncomfortable. These may be subtle, but they’re clear signs your dog is uncomfortable. Of course, growling isn’t the only sign, and many of the typical symptoms of stress happen way before a growl, bark, or even a whine. Fear and anxiety make an animal unpredictable.

Many of these below signs indicate your dog feels trapped or conflicted.

  • Lip or nose lick
  • Stress yawn
  • Showing whites of their eyes or “whale eye”
  • Head-turning away
  • Ground sniffing
  • Scratching or licking
  • Shaking off
  • Zoomies
  • Freezing or stillness
  • Pacing
  • Cowering or hiding
  • Tucked tail

Lab with "whale eyes"

Chronic stress may harm your dog’s health 

Stress that persists over time may cause diarrhea or even inappetence. This is especially true with an older or senior dog. For example, if a new puppy is brought home and an older dog feels ignored, this may cause the aging canine great stress.

Can stress in a dog cause chronic diarrhea?

Yes! Gastrointestinal (GI) upset can occur if your dog is anxious and a reason to see the vet immediately. A term frequently used called “stress diarrhea’’ is common when a dog experiences short or long periods of stress.

Common causes of stress and anxiety

When a dog enters an environment or situation they’ve never seen before; their first agenda item is to make sure it’s safe. If your dog is preoccupied with the environment and doesn’t feel safe, you’ll see signs of stress, anxiety, and even what humans label as aggressive. According to PubMed, “the well-being of dogs can be affected by changes in human lifestyle, eating habits and increased stressors that lead to behavioral disorders including fear, hyperactivity, and anxiety, followed by negative affective moods and poor welfare.” For most dogs, you’ll see a subtler discomfort and the above first signs of stress.

As people return to work during the pandemic, preparing their pets is essential as many may be anxious about being home alone. According to a survey by DOGTV, 65%of dog parents are no longer comfortable leaving pets home alone for an eight-hour workday, and 62% haven’t prepared their pets for increased time alone. Unfortunately, there are many causes of stress, and some reasons are not top of mind for pet owners.

  • Illness and a change in overall health (acute or chronic illness)
  • Seniors or older dogs may experience some level of dementia
  • Any immediate change in an environment like moving
  • A change in routine (e.g., owner going back to work following the pandemic)
  • Any loud noises like thunder and fireworks
  • Strangers or any person uncomfortable (e.g., fearful) around dogs
  • Separation anxiety which a vet may determine
  • A change in diet (e.g., kibble to fresh food or vice versa)

A vet can help prepare a stress treatment plan

Your vet can interpret different types of dog communication and rule out potential health issues. Many health conditions may present, like anxiety or stress, and blood work can help uncover possible illnesses. In addition, there are vet behavior specialists available to address specific behavioral issues, and a referral is often needed to take this vital step.

Vet behavior specialists focus on anxiety, stress, and behavior

These unique veterinarians work with individual pet owners, other animal professionals, and facilities that care for animals to manage behavior problems and improve the well-being of animals. Specialists determine which medication, if any, is most appropriate as part of an integrated treatment program that includes behavioral modification plans. All veterinary specialists receive extensive training.

“Veterinary behaviorists have 2-3 years of additional training after veterinary school that focuses on animal behavior. After training they take a rigorous test which allows them to become board certified in behavior.”

Dr. Dwight Alleyne, DVM

Medication for stress and anxiety

The most common prescription meds used today are Trazodone, Fluoxetine, Alprazolam, and Clomipramine. The drug prescribed is based on a veterinarian’s preference after examining your dog.  Usually, all it takes is some blood work to ensure your dog’s organs are functioning correctly.

Calming supplements

Many calming supplements and herbs are also used, and these include CBD products. The most common ingredients in calming products for dogs are typically L-theanine and L-tryptophan. These are both amino acids known to help reduce the overall stress response. If CBD products are legal where you live, you may also want to talk to your vet about introducing a CBD treat or chew.

Your vet may recommend a dog trainer

Signing up your dog for obedience training may be a recommendation from your vet. Two popular training techniques are desensitization and counter-conditioning. A professional trainer can introduce you to both of these helpful methods.

Other techniques to help your dog relax

After you visit with a vet and perhaps a trainer, there are a few ways to be proactive when you know specific scenarios always trigger a reaction from your furry friend.

Ensure your dog is getting daily exercise Always spend at least 30-minutes walking your dog or going on a sniff walk before any stressful event. For example, you have someone coming over to fix a pipe or drain.

Give your dog toys and treats for mental stimulation Puzzle toys are one of the best ways to enrich your dog, and they are guaranteed to exhaust them. Try LickiMats and freeze them the night before!

Avoid stress triggersEvery trainer will ask you to set up your dog for success. For example, if your dog every day sits in the window and barks at the mailman, they should no longer have access to the window!

Over-the-counter products to calm your pup

Products like ADAPTIL Travel Spray For Dogs and Thundershirts may help anxious dogs.  Neither of these is a cure for stress or anxiety but may help calm your dog down during stressful events, including thunder or fireworks. A Thundershirt applies gentle pressure to your dog’s body like a weighted blanket. The ADAPTIL travel spray may be applied to a bandana and mimics a mother’s nursing pheromone.

Our favorite calming supplement: Front of the Park Harmony

This product is a non-drowsy calming supplement that helps promote a sense of calm in under 90 minutes. They are one-time-use stick packs, and you can sprinkle the product directly into your hand. The customer reviews are off the charts, and many pet owners rely on this product for stressful situations.

Ingredients 

  • Certified organic† ashwagandha extract (Sensoril®; Withania somnifera [root, leaf])
  • Relora® (a proprietary blend of a patented extract from Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense)
  • L-theanine (Suntheanine® enzymatically produced/solvent-free)

Disclaimer: Usually, these products are made from natural products and are safe for your dog to consume. That being said, any dog could be allergic to anything that goes inside its body. Whenever you give something new to your dog, watch them closely for 24-48 hours. Call your vet if you notice any hives, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Keeping your pup stress-free

A stressed-out dog may experience a loss of appetite, gastrointestinal issues, and medical issues over time. Always search for the sources of stress, so you can determine what’s causing your pup’s new behavior. For example, if you notice the above body language when a thunderstorm occurs or guests are staying over — bingo! A treatment plan is needed to help ease your dog’s stress. Always consult with a vet or vet behavior specialist to rule out any possible health issues.

Doggie Language by Lili Chin