There were layoffs at work this week, and Tina was left with twice the responsibilities. She’s worried about the pandemic. She watched the news for an hour. She is stressed! 

As she turns off the television, she looks at her dog, Max, and thinks, “He’s so lucky. He doesn’t have to worry about any of this. He eats, plays, takes naps, and goes to the park. What could a dog stress about?”

While she wishes she could trade places with Max to have an easier life, Max could be stressing enough to make himself sick. 

A dog’s emotions are not that different from our own. They experience happiness, mourn losses, and can be angry or scared. They can love. And they can be stressed or anxious. The difference is in how they express these emotions. They can’t call a friend on the phone or write a poem about it. But through body language and behaviors, they can get their message across loud and clear. 

As a pet parent, it’s essential to be aware that dogs do experience stress. You can spot those signs of stress. You just have to watch and listen.

What Is Dog Stress?

Stress vs. Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are similar in the problems they can cause your dog. Anxiety is the anticipation of a perceived, impending threat. (A person hurt the dog in the past, so other people who look, sound, or smell like that person must be threats, too.) Stress, however, is a reaction to a real stimulus. (A person is trying to hurt the dog right now.)

There is always some stress in our lives, and some forms of stress are beneficial. Positive stress pushes us to learn new things, face challenges, and accomplish goals. But when the stressful situation creates a sense of helplessness or becomes overwhelming, it turns into a problem. 

Positive and Negative Stress

Stress can be either positive or negative. Yes, even good things can be stressful. For people, positive stress may be caused by preparing for a wedding or moving to a new home. For your dog, it may be caused by you coming home after an extended absence. 

The more familiar negative stress, of course, comes from those problems we can’t control. For your dog, that might be the parent’s long absence or being confronted by an aggressive dog.

The Response to Stress

Stress is a warning sign. The body and mind perceive a threat, so the dog prepares to fight or flee the offending situation. Blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and blood supply to extremities increase to get the body ready to run away or defend against the problem. When stress is constant over time, that physical response is prolonged. 

Eventually, that natural instinct to protect oneself turns into physical and mental problems. For a dog, who cannot talk through their problems or do a little research into why they feel the way they do, stress can weaken and, in severe cases, even shut their bodies down to a level where they can barely function.

Causes of Dog Stress

Just like people, there are as many causes of dog stress as there are dogs. For example, one dog may love walking around with you in a crowded place, while another wants to get out as soon as possible. Some things that may cause stress include:

  • A significant change in the dog’s daily routine;
  • No routine at all;
  • Lack of socialization;
  • Leaving the dog alone for long periods;
  • A trip to the vet;
  • Strangers coming to the house. 

You may not realize that you can cause your dog’s stress, too. Dogs are pack animals, and you are the leader. If your actions do not provide that leadership in your dog’s eyes, they will not feel secure. They need to know what to expect and what is expected of them.

Dog Stress Signs and Symptoms

As mentioned earlier, both positive and negative situations can cause stress. For your dog, positive stress often leads to hyperactivity. They may have a huge case of the zoomies and tear several laps around the house. There may also be wild barking, jumping on people, and inattention to commands. It may take a while to calm them down. 

Negative stress brings on depression-like symptoms: inactivity, lethargy and sluggishness, fear, and an inability to pay attention and learn. They are not relaxing; they are coping by shutting down. For example, we’ve all seen images of dogs brought into a shelter who cower in a corner and lash out when someone tries to touch them.

What Dog Stress Looks Like

Your dog may pant excessively, drool, and tremble, depending on the stress levels. Their tail is tucked firmly between their legs. In extreme cases, the dog may bark or growl at friendly people, and they may even bite. Some dogs may lose their appetites or lose control of their bladders and bowels. Others may self-mutilate. They have not learned to cope effectively with the situation, so they react helplessly. 

Here are two symptom lists to give you an idea of how varied stress reactions can be. Note that some of these behaviors are normal, but they become symptoms when they are excessive. 

From the American Kennel Club

  • Growling;
  • Whining;
  • Barking ;
  • Body language, e.g., showing the whites of their eyes, tucked tail, panting;
  • Freezing (stiff posture);
  • Pacing.

From PetMD

  • Pacing and shaking;
  • Increased heart rate and panting;
  • Yawning;
  • Drooling;
  • Compulsive behaviors, e.g., compulsively licking themselves, floors, or walls, barking, and chewing;
  • Hypervigilance;
  • Hiding or behaving depressed;
  • Soiling in the house;
  • Shedding.

A Parting Reminder

Dogs can suffer from stress just as we can. Different things trigger it, and they respond differently, but the outcome is the same: problematic behaviors and, if prolonged, chronic physical and mental health issues. 

The most important thing for you, as a pet parent, to do is recognize your dog’s stress behavior. Once you realize there is a problem, you can help your dog deal with it. In Part 2 of the dog stress series, we will discuss how to do just that.