It isn’t just people who can experience symptoms of stress. Dogs may also struggle with stress because of pre-existing mental health challenges, changes in the home or new environmental stressors. Living with a stressed dog can be challenging, frustrating and, yes, even stressful for dog parents. So, is your dog stressed? What are the underlying triggers of stress in dogs? Can you help your dog relax?
Common Causes of Stress in Dogs
Dogs, like people, get stressed by a variety of experiences in their world.
Common reasons for a stressed dog:
- Changes in the home, which may include moving or home renovations.
- Introducing new people, like a roommate or a partner moving in, the addition of children such as the birth or adoption of a baby, or children more regularly visiting the home.
- Introducing a new pet.
- An owner entering into a new romantic relationship, or if an owner’s romantic relationship has ended.
- Our dogs are very attuned to us, so if you’re stressed, some dogs may also become anxious and stressed.
Signs of a Stressed Dog
Different dogs react to stress in different ways, but generally a stressed dog exhibits symptoms in three different ways: fight, flee or freeze. This means that some dogs respond to stress by trying to get away from it, others by shutting down and not engaging, and still other dogs might appear very confident, or even aggressive when stressed.
Body Language Signs
A stressed dog might show physical symptoms, too. The Vet Behavior Team, in partnership with Doggie Doodles artist Lili Chin, has a great free visual poster that shows many physical signs of stress in dogs.
A stressed dog may exhibit some of the following physical manifestations:
- Excessive panting
- Dilated pupils
- Excessive drooling
- Tensed muscles
- Hackles raised
- Grimacing smile
- Ears pinned back
- Whale eye — or the whites of the dog’s eyes showing
A dog who is experiencing stress often struggles with digestive issues, such as vomiting and diarrhea. A stressed dog often also has a decreased appetite and will appear disinterested in food and treats.
A stressed dog is also likely to be uncomfortable or unwilling to take normally beloved and high-value treats. If you’re training your dog and he suddenly becomes unwilling to take treats, it’s likely that he’s over the threshold and too stressed to learn. At this point, you’ll want to slow down and return to the last level your dog was able to happily take treats and help him gain confidence before moving forward.
A stressed dog may seem more easily aggravated by other pets, or even people in the home. This can look like a decreased interest in playing normally with other pets or people, a dog choosing to be isolated from other people and animals in the home, or a dog resource guarding or becoming aggressive with pets or people in the home.
How to help a stressed dog
- Routines: Create consistency and routines for your dog. This is especially true if there have been changes in the home, like the addition of a new family member.
- Play/Training: Make sure that your dog gets plenty of physical and mental exercise in the form of play and training. Spending quality time with you can be very helpful in alleviating stress for your dog
- Boundaries: Respect that your dog may need space and time to adjust to new situations or changes in the household. Give your dog his own physical space. His crate or a safe, quiet space in a bedroom or other low-traffic area of the house where your dog can retreat would work.
- Calmness: Your presence can help calm your stressed dog, but it’s important not to feed into your dog’s stress. Being calm and reassuring is important, but fawning over your dog can reinforce his stress.
- Natural Supplements: There are a variety of over-the-counter supplements to help a stressed dog, including melatonin, Rescue Remedy and cannabidiol (CBD), as well as pheromone diffusers. All of these may help a stressed dog. Talk to your veterinarian before adding any supplements to your dog’s diet.
- Prescriptions: If you aren’t able to alleviate a stressed dog’s symptoms, your vet may discuss prescribing anti-anxiety medication to your dog. This medication may be administered on an as-needed basis for known triggers to your dog’s stress (like thunderstorms, fireworks, etc.) or given daily. Your veterinarian will talk with you about possible side effects as well as appropriate dosages.
When to seek professional help for your stressed dog
My personal experience with a stressed dog
My former street dog Charlotte has severe stress and anxiety conditions that require lifestyle adjustments for our family and medication. For Charlotte, it’s a balance of increasing her behavioral coping strategies through play and training for as many triggers as possible, and then adding in medication when needed for the stress she’s not able to work through. Some difficult stress triggers include storms and fireworks, which have previously (when she was unmedicated) resulted in her injuring herself by breaking out of a crate (which she normally loves) and attempting to break through a door in our house.
Should you seek professional help for your stressed dog?
Seek professional help any time your dog experiences symptoms of stress for a prolonged period of time, stress that is reoccurring, there any kinds of altercations between your dog and other animals in the home, or if your dog has become self-injuring and/or destructive.
A positive reinforcement-based trainer, your veterinarian and/or a veterinary behaviorist will be able to support you with understanding your stressed dog. To find a veterinary behaviorist in your area, check out the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). These experts will evaluate your dog’s specific situation, and support you with developing a stress management plan for your dog — which may or may not include medication management.
Tell us: Do you have a stressed dog? What helps manage your dog’s stress?
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Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author whose novels have been honored by the Lambda Literary Foundation and the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and assists with dog agility classes. She lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix, a Newfoundland puppy, two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at sassafraslowrey.com.
Thumbnail: Photography © Lindsay_Helms | iStock / Getty Images.