• Mandy

Dog's and Stress: How to recognise and help

(Available under Resources as downloadable PDF) I'm sure we can all relate to times when things just get too much, a bad day at the office, an unexpected bill, an argument with the kids: we feel miserable, on edge and are far more likely to snap at those around us, perhaps for something small but it's the final straw. This scenario is just as likely in dogs: a scary (to our dog) meeting with another dog out walking, a stranger enters the house, an unexpected loud noise outside, stress upon stress often referred to as 'trigger stacking'. The build up of stress could be gradual and the following could all contribute: boredom frustration medical issues/pain a lack of mental, physical or emotional enrichment. As the dog get's stressed it may become withdrawn, or we may see what we would call unwanted behaviours like barking, lunging, growling, defecating in the house, destructive chewing. When a dog is carrying background stress the next 'little' thing that happens could be the final straw and the dog lashes out in some way.

Stress is a physiological event as well as emotional, hormones are released such as adrenaline, particularly in response to a frightening event when the dog goes 'over threshold' which means it finds the event it is faced with too much and is scared, often initiating in the dog a 'fight or flight' response. The physical effects can stay in the dog for some hours or days, and if they keep repeating long term health issues can result. Just like people some dogs can cope with stressful events better than others, and some can quickly recover from stressful situations where others don't, some will get to a heightened state of stress while others seem not to. Some dogs can release stress easily and others need more help. Carers should learn to recognise the signs of stress in their dogs, learn what is stressful to them so these situations can be avoided if possible and what helps them return to a normal state.

A common way of thinking about stress is to consider the 'stress bucket', for some the bucket is small and we can do training to try and increase it, building confidence in our dog. Some dogs have lots of stressful events filling the bucket and we can do management and training to take some of those things away, or address items like pain and boredom. We look for ways to help the dog cope and find ways for the dog to open the tap and let stress out.

A dog living in a stressed state or faced with a situation which causes it great stress can move up the stress ladder and worst case the result is a bite. Recognising the signs that the dog is moving up this ladder allows us to take action, help our dog and move back down the ladder. If a bite does occur this does not mean we have an 'aggressive' dog, we have a dog who is scared and just can't cope, it is our job as the carer to help our dog.

This video shows great examples of dogs showing early signs of stress when faced with young children being inappropriately close to them, there are no bites shown:

The Hierarchy of Dog Needs (Michaels, L. Do No Harm Dog Training and Behaviour Manual) shows the needs our dogs have and each need should be met to help the dog be happy, confident and stress free. Dogs should not be left alone in a house without the right training to cope, Never leave dogs 'to cry it out'. Do not shut in crates unless going to vet or in car and trained to be ok with it.

They must have mental enrichment (toys, games, training) as well as physical exercise. They need good quality food (check rating on and plenty of rest and sleep time. Do training for anything they are scared of such as fireworks to desensitise them. Do not allow the dog to go over threshold, barking and lunging at dogs or people as these are highly stressful situations, be aware of when such a situation may arise and avoid it. Seek help for the reactivity. Look out for any possible medical/pain issues and consult a vet if in doubt. Create a safe space in the house if possible as below where the dog can go to rest and escape from anything they find stressful like a visitor, make it a happy place for them (gate to area can be left open).

Signs of stress:

In more extreme cases the dog may be exhibiting serious behaviour issues which will tell you there is a problem such as growling, destructive chewing and snapping at people. The dog may cower, tremble or keep backing away from people. A loss of appetite or diarrhoea could be signs. All of these items could indicate the dog is stressed but root cause could vary greatly and help from a qualified force-free behaviourist may be needed. Less extreme signs are: yawning out of context, pacing, lip licking, ears pinned back, furrowed brows, staring, wide eyes known as whale eyes, turning the head away. Frantically running around known as 'zoomies' can be a sign of stress but equally can just be a release of energy when excited. Context matters for all the above, in some contexts signs like yawning and lip-licking can be seen as 'calming signals' (, the dog is saying 'I am ok with you, hope you are ok with me'. A fearful dog stands tense, low to the ground, ears flat back and eyes narrow or looking away, tail tucked low between the legs and in extreme cases the dog may tremble, urinate and defecate.

The fearful dog may whine, growl and bare teeth. Out of fear this dog could turn aggressive in self defence and it often goes through an anxious stage first, lowering its head, ears partially back, furrowed brow, tense with tail down and showing calming signals such as yawning and licking lips in the hope of defusing the situation. It is important to note that a fearful dog is well up the stress ladder and if not able to escape the perceived danger and become less fearful aggression may be an outcome.

Watch for submissive behaviours: Active submission can be seen as behaviour seeking contact: licking, jumping up, nuzzling, pawing and play-bows and is all ok. Passive submission is often about diverting attention away from itself and is offered by the dog feeling some discomfort in the given interaction. The dog may be showing signs of anxiety with ears folded back, and tail down. The dog will usually avoid eye contact, lower its body and may go belly-up or freeze. Learn to read your dog - here's a great mobile app which can help:

De-stressing activities:

Anything that allows the dog to use natural 'doggy' skills like snuffling, chewing, licking, searching, scenting will help them to de-stress. These activities release feel good hormones for the dog. Choose good raw-hide free chews, olivewood and coffeewood are good. Use a snuffle mat and licky-mat for feeding. Use a KONG with treats frozen inside. Play scent games where the dog has to find something smelly in return for good quality treats. Sleep is a great de-stressor. If the dog has trouble relaxing this can help:

Dogs should enjoy games and training, and when set up for success this will help them gain confidence so they can deal with novel events more easily. These games (training) should focus on building engagement between the carers and the dog. Good engagement will deliver quality loose lead walking where the dog regularly checks in with you and can relax on the walk, enjoying lots of slow sniffing.

Decompression walks are great for dogs who are having reactivity issues and are a great way to help a dog de-stress. The key is to have a slow walk with lots of sniffing, give the dog choices as to where to walk. Choose quiet areas, woodland, open fields or a Business Park will do nicely. Watch:

Luna: snuffling for kibble