How to spot signs of stress in dogs

Stress in dogs isn’t always obvious at a glance. Clinical animal behaviourist Inga Mackellar explains what to look for – and how to make an anxious pet feel better.

If your dog is feeling stressed or unhappy, it’s not always easy for him to make his feelings known. As owners, it’s up to us to be alert to signs of stress in dogs and help them through their fears. Read on to find out more about the causes of canine anxiety, learn how to recognise the symptoms, and discover some simple ways to reduce stress in dogs.

What causes stress in dogs?

Your dog could feel anxious for many reasons: changes in household dynamics, the loss of a companion pet or recovery from surgery can all be causes of stress in dogs. Even raised voices can make a dog feel jittery.

‘A lack of routine, inconsistent handling or conflict with another animal are also big triggers of stress in dogs,’ explains clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar.

During these worrying times of COVID-19, everyone’s lives have been affected – including your dog’s. ‘Dogs can become anxious with changes in routines, additional noise at home, or with inconsistency in interaction, so be aware that your behaviour may have an impact,’ says Inga.

For example, if your dog is more used to being alone for long periods of the day, avoid being around him constantly or over-handling him if you’re now at home – this could stress him out or lead to separation anxiety in the long run.

Telltale signs of stress in dogs

‘It can be easy to miss the small signs of stress in dogs,’ says Inga. ‘Owners may only realise there’s an issue when their dog starts responding with aggression.’

Look out for these visual signs of stress in dogs, and pay attention to where they occur. ‘Try to identify the source of your dog’s anxiety and remove it if you can,’ says Inga. If that’s not possible, we’ll look in more detail later at how to help calm a stressed dog.

Dog licking lips repeatedly

There are many reasons for lip-licking in dogs – they may just be hungry, or there may be a physical cause such as dehydration. But repeated lip-licking can also be a clue that your dog is uncomfortable or stressed out.

‘A dog licking his lips when there is no food or treats around can be a sign of stress,’ says Inga. ‘Dogs often do this when they visit the vet, or when faced with unnerving situations.’

Excessive yawning in dogs

A yawn can simply mean that your dog is tired – but repeated, prolonged yawning can also be a way for dogs to deal with feelings of anticipation or stress.

‘Your dog yawning when you wouldn’t expect him to feel tired could be a sign he’s uncomfortable with a situation,’ Inga explains. ‘For example, the approach of a child can cause this reaction, because your dog is anxious about what might happen next.’

Dog turning his head from side to side

‘On a walk, your dog is likely to look this way and that because it’s an exciting experience. But in a situation where you wouldn’t expect your dog to turn his head from side to side, it could mean he’s feeling stressed,’ says Inga.

Hunching down

A dog that is crouching or hunching down with his tail between his legs – making himself less visible – may be very stressed. If possible, try to remove him from the anxiety-causing situation. ‘Some dogs will also move away and try to hide,’ notes Inga. ‘Conversely, stress in dogs can cause an over-reaction in behaviour – such as jumping up and barking frantically.’

Unusual toilet habits

‘Urine-marking in the house can be your dog’s way of making himself feel more safe and secure,’ says Inga. Keep an eye on your dog’s toilet habits: ‘He may be finding it difficult to poo, have diarrhoea, or he might need to toilet more often. He may even have gone off his food.’

How serious are signs of stress in dogs?

The sooner you notice the symptoms of stress in your dog, the less chance they will escalate into more serious behaviour issues. Pets can cope with a certain amount of anxiety, but a ‘normal’ stress reaction should last a short time, and end when the trigger has gone. If it lasts longer, or happens more often, your dog’s anxiety could be escalating into a fear or phobia.

‘It’s important to know what your dog looks and sounds like when he’s happy and relaxed,’ says Inga. ‘Dogs have lots of early warning signals for mental health issues, so anything that seems unusual should be thought about.’

How to calm a stressed dog

Inga recommends these simple tips for reducing stress in dogs:

  • Provide safe, quiet places to hide – like a cupboard under the stairs, or a dog crate draped with blankets.
  • Don’t crowd your dog or make too much fuss of him – he may need his own space to feel safe.
  • Stick to routines for sleeping, feeding, exercise and play.
  • Manage your own voice and body language. Owner stress or erratic behaviour can lead to stress in dogs, so it’s important to keep as calm as possible around your pet.
  • To stop him feeling threatened, avoid approaching him head-on, get down to his level, and don’t make direct eye contact or lean over his body.
  • Try a pheromone plug-in diffuser or spray at home, or specially formulated nutritional supplements (available from your vet).

‘Remember, each pet is different and many factors come into play when handling a stressed dog,’ Inga concludes. ‘If your dog’s anxious behaviour persists even when he’s away from stressful situations, consider asking your vet to refer you to a qualified animal behaviourist who’ll help you come up with long-lasting solutions.’

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