Is Your Dog Stressed? How can you say, Part One

By Joan Hunter Mayer

As dog lovers, can we understand our dogs communication style, their comfort level or anxiety symptoms, triggers and what can cause anxiety or stress? How can we use this information to support our dogs in their lives as trusted, loving companions?

In Part One of this two-part series, we’ll look at potential sources of stress in dogs, how to determine if a stimulus is triggering a stress response, and how dogs can communicate fear or anxiety through their body language. In part two, we’ll discuss what we can do to help our curious dogs lower their stress levels so they can be happier, healthier, and better-adjusted family pets.

Why might your dog be stressed?

In fact, there is quite a list of potential dog stressors. Here are just a few:

New experiences – When an animal encounters something new for the first time, it is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). Basic care such as checking for ticks or foxtails after a walk may be frowned upon by your dog if dogs are not gradually and carefully introduced to daily handling. Unusual or seasonal events, such as children in Halloween costumes or a houseful of guests at Thanksgiving, can be stressful.

Memories of past experiences and events– Sometimes we ourselves or our environment unintentionally create associations that we do not want our dogs to learn. For example, while driving, your dog hears a loud noise and gets scared. As he progresses, he may be afraid of driving – he has learned to associate driving in cars with loud scary noises.

Certain human interaction- Meeting and greeting people can be stressful for some dogs. Do they want to be pets by avid dog lovers? Even if it’s not intentional, a person’s enthusiasm can confuse a dog, especially if it doesn’t expect to be approached. Dogs may prefer to take things slowly and get to know and trust someone before becoming a pet.

Children (or adults), running around erratically and surprisingly, putting their hands in the dog’s face and hovering over it, yelling things about how much they love dogs can trigger a stress response. Or just seeing kids running around and playing with loud or challenging toys can be a bit overwhelming for dogs.

Not enough human interaction (isolation)– A dog may not want to be left alone for various reasons. Some don’t like being outside alone, for example, because they’ve had a scary or traumatic experience, like being shocked by an electric fence collar in their yard or being stuck outside during a fireworks display or thunderstorm.

In addition, many dogs simply seem to be prone to separation anxiety, a distressing condition in which symptoms can gradually worsen over time. (We talk about help in the second part.)

Other dogs – How does your dog react around other dogs? Does he seem relaxed, neutral, excited, nervous, scared? Note what your dog does the first time he sees another interested dog. (Reading your dog’s body language will help you determine if you need to implement a training plan.)

Resources- Can you tell if your dog is happy to share things? Even if we don’t want that nasty bone, toy, or dirty napkin, a pet dog may not understand the concept and may react emotionally if we get too close.

Strange sounds– Loud noises such as fireworks, thunderstorms, and loud music can set puppies off, even after the offending stimuli have stopped.

Some experiences in dog obedience training – Using clunky, outdated, outdated methods of training, waiting too fast, and not understanding or ignoring the dog’s communication and body language can increase the dog’s anxiety. For example, flooding is a technique considered by many to be cruel and unethical because it involves subjecting the animal to a high level of stimulus anxiety until it no longer responds (out of desperation). Yes!

Unfortunately, the list of potential stressors goes on. And, like us, dogs have a limit, or breaking point. Too many small things can add up (referred to as trigger stacking), causing stress and anxiety levels to reach critical levels.

Behaviors to Watch

Watch for signs that pets are out of bounds. You may see one or more of the following:

Refusal to eat – A lack of interest in food, especially if it is unusual for your pet, can be a common indicator of stress and anxiety.

Learning decline – Learning is inhibited in stressful situations.

Increased fear-related or aggressive behaviors – Dogs are sensitive creatures and there are no guarantees in life. When multiple stress triggers (see above) pile up, even the friendliest, calmest, most social dog can become aggressive without adequate time to recover. (Then again, we all have a breaking point, and our canine companions are no different.)

Avoidant behaviors – When pets are frightened, their first response is often to choose between fight or flight. If they can’t run away (due to restraint or because of the ant), they may feel they have to fight to put distance between themselves and an approaching scary threat – and unfortunately, this can result in a bite.

Directed Action- Redirection, also called displacement aggression, redirects the aggression onto something else (if it’s not the wall they’re angry at, picture an angry person slamming into a wall). In domestic animals, we could see aggression directed at someone, something, or another animal as a substitute for the real cause of the animal’s fear, pain, or anger.

Ideally, we can make corrections and/or seek help from a certified professional compulsive behavior counselor before our pets reach their threshold and increase the risk of potentially harmful consequences—injury to your dog, yourself, or other animals and people.

Understanding Your Dog’s Triggers

Be aware of your dog’s surroundings and possible effects on their behavior. If Fluffy shows any change from her original, relaxed appearance, try to identify and record what the trigger might be:

  • Something new? Different?
  • Does he show signs of conflict or stress over “sharing” resources?
  • Can you tell if your dog is willing or afraid to greet you?
  • Are they afraid? Did something happen to cause their fear?

Paying attention to the dog’s body language, especially the more subtle signals, plays an important role here.

Signs of stress

The way a dog communicates with its body language and vocalizations can tell a person a lot about how it’s feeling. The more familiar you are with how Fido expresses himself, the more you will be able to help him overcome his fears and anxieties and remove him from stressful or distressing situations.

Signs of anxiety or conflict for dogs can include (but are not limited to) turning away, curling lips, licking lips, and even yawning. Pacing, stress panting, whining or whimpering, drooling (when not eating or hungry), refusing and not eating higher value foods, shaking, frowning, flat ears, and/or wagging tails can also be some indicators of stress and anxiety. can Digging can also be a stress signal. One, several, or all indicators may be present.

If you notice any of these signs, it could mean that your furry friend is worried about something and not sure what to do. Our job here is to respect the animal and do everything we can to improve its situation so that it feels safe and calm.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll talk about how dog handlers can use training and management to avoid stress triggers from crowding and pushing pets to their limits.

Until next time, thank you for being a concerned dog guardian and doing your part to ensure safety, passive Interaction between pets and people!


The Inquisitive Canine Santa Barbara was founded by Joan Hunter Mayer, a certified dog behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer. Joan and her team are committed to offering humane, compassionate, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their people face in everyday life. Here’s to barking dogs, cheering people, and having fun!

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