Just as people can experience stress from having to cope with all sorts of situations and pressures in their daily lives, so can dogs. Stress in itself is not a bad thing. A mild amount of stress motivates us to get things accomplished i.e. knowing that we have to answer to a boss at work motivates us to get our tasks done on time. However, when too much pressure is placed on us (e.g. we are constantly overwhelmed with work which we know we cannot possibly complete on time and we fear being fired as a result) we start to suffer emotionally and physically. The same is true for dogs: proper socializing and training requires the dog to cope with mild amounts of stress, but putting too much pressure on a dog in the form of extra-long training sessions or harsh training methods can cause dogs to go into a state of distress (when the body’s resources are diverted away from normal biological functions) or can cause chronic stress (when the body remains in an emergency state for a long period of time).
Stress and your Dog - Sources, Symptoms and Solutions
Problems occur when a human or animal is frequently placed in situations where their minds and bodies go into “survival mode”. It takes a while for the stress hormones involved in preparing the body for flight or fight to dissipate and so repeated exposures to frightening or highly stressful situations mean that the body never gets a chance to return to a normal, healthy, resting state. This means that resources that would be used to help the digestive system function properly and which would keep the immune system healthy are used instead to keep the body in constant survival mode and so health begins to deteriorate. While there may be other causes for the phenomenon listed below, the following may all be symptoms of ongoing stress:
1. General nervousness/jumpiness (the dog is reactive to even mild stimuli)
2. Restlessness (dog cannot settle down)
3. Excessive inactivity or sleeping (some dogs shut down completely and just want to sleep all the time - unfortunately owners seldom complain about a quiet dog and don’t realise how much the dog is suffering)
4. Inappropriately aggressive behaviour (dog seems ready to take on anything that gets in its way)
5. Frequent displays of calming signals (licking lips, avoiding eye-contact, yawning etc)
6. Altered sexual behaviour (bitches may not go into season at all and males may not have any interest in mating)
7. Destructiveness (excessive chewing and ripping apart of objects)
8. Excessive barking
9. Self-mutilation (dog licks or chews himself until sores appear)
10. Loss of appetite
11. Diarrhoea - usually from colitis (irritation or inflammation of the colon)
12. Dandruff or sudden moulting (often occurs after a visit to the vet!)
13. Panting (other than after exercise)
16. Compulsive behaviour (tail-chasing, staring at shadows etc)
17. Lack of concentration
18. Withdrawn behaviour (dog becomes very quiet and non-responsive)
19. Inappropriate urination (marking in the house)
It is not only the fear of imminent danger that can cause a dog to experience stress. Failing to obtain expected rewards or daily needs (e.g. being denied social interaction, exercise, mental stimulation, play, shelter, rest and sufficient food and water) can lead to frustration, stress and even depression.
If your dog is displaying several of the signs listed above, it is worthwhile investigating whether there are any factors in his life which may be creating too much stress for him to deal with. Here are some of the things that can cause stress in more detail:
1. Not enough rest or “down-time”. While it may seem like a lot of time to us, dogs need at least 17 hours a day in which to rest and sleep. Actually this is not that surprising when one considers that dogs do spend most of their time just lying around! When a dog is constantly forced to become active (often simply as a result of a noisy or busy environment) he will become “rest-deprived”.
2. Overcrowding (too many dogs) in the home. When many dogs are kept together in a small home the individual dogs are often unable to withdraw from each other and are constantly under pressure to interact. While even too much positive interaction like play can be taxing, if the relationships between the dogs are strained it can be extremely stressful.
3. Too many activities. While training a dog is a very good thing and outings are important for exercise and socialisation, expecting a dog to exercise excessively (like on treadmills) or compete constantly in dog sports can place undue stress upon him. Everything in moderation!
4. Repeated frightening experiences. Examples of this would be if the dog is repeatedly bullied by another dog or abused by the owner.
5. Too much attention from the owner. While we should want to spend lots of time with our dogs and enjoy being affectionate with them, fussing over them constantly can put too much pressure on them.
6. An emotional, overly-loud, hyperactive or anxious owner. I have often noticed that people with hyperactive children have hyperactive dogs! Dogs definitely do pick up on the atmosphere in the home and are influenced by the emotional state and behaviour of the owner. When choosing a puppy/dog, consider which breeds or canine temperaments will best be able to cope in your household. Timid or shy breeds will generally not do well with overbearing or loud owners and only the most stable and laid back temperaments are likely to cope with highly strung, emotional people!
7. A chaotic household with lots of visitors coming and going constantly. When a dog constantly has to deal with people coming and going from the home (as is often the case with home businesses and guest houses) he will not be able to settle down and rest appropriately. The more territorial types may also feel very threatened by all the strangers constantly trespassing on the property.
8. Lack of routine. If a dog has no idea when he may next get a walk, be let in the house, see his owner or have a meal, he can become very stressed and uncertain about life in general.
9. Lack of training/rules. When a dog has not been trained or taught the “rules” of the home he is likely to come into conflict regularly with the owners and anyone else living in the home. This conflict (getting into trouble) is made worse when everyone has different rules for the dog. Training and rules provide security and give a dog a sense that the world is a predictable place where he can control what happens to him through his own behaviour.
10. Lack of social contact (human and canine). Dogs that are socially isolated and spend very little time interacting with people and with other dogs have higher stress levels.
11. Lack of exercise and enrichment activities. Dogs that have no means of releasing excess energy and nowhere to focus their natural behaviours become bored, frustrated and stressed.
12. Lack of freedom. Dogs that are confined in kennels or chained-up for long periods of time experience high levels of stress. Always being walked on a lead and not having the freedom to run around without restriction also contributes to higher stress levels in dogs.
Drawing up a plan to minimise stress:
Once you have identified which situations and events may be causing your dog stress it is important to come up with concrete ways in which you can eliminate them or at least minimise the impact they are having on your dog. The following guidelines may be useful:
1. Ensure that your dog is getting sufficient rest by making sure that he has a comfortable bed located in a quiet part of the house which he can retreat to whenever he wants. Teach children to “let sleeping dogs lie”.
2. Decide at what times you intend to walk, feed, groom, train and play with your dog and try to establish a regular routine for all these activities.
3. List those situations which are most stressful for your dog (e.g. visiting the vet, going to the dog parlour, being examined by a breed judge, having to walk past a neighbourhood dog that is particularly aggressive behind the fence etc.) and try not to have all these things happen in the same week!
4. Remove harmful influences from your dog’s life completely. If your dog is being teased by another person or attacked or badly bullied by another dog, do not allow this to continue. If a friend visits your home and teases your dog, ask them to stop and if they don’t, ask them to leave! If you know your relatives’ dogs are not sociable and will give your dog a very hard time, don’t take your dog with to visit!
5. Moderate exciting activities with quieter ones. Even really good things like running with other dogs and competing in dog sports can be over-stimulating if engaged in too often. If your dog has a really good outing and plays with 20 dogs one day, take him on a quieter walk just on his own the next day. Keep training sessions at home short and don’t expect your dog to do agility classes on Mondays, tracking on Tuesdays, obedience on Wednesdays, protection training on Thursdays, Fly-ball on Fridays, carting on Saturdays and ring craft on Sundays!
6. Take your dog for a moderate daily walk. Exercise is a good outlet for stress and helps to keep both mind and body healthy.
7. Do give your dog the opportunity to play with other dogs, if he is sociable. Play causes feel-good chemicals to be released in the brain and so heightens mood.
8. Play with your dog yourself - this is especially good for dogs that don’t play with other dogs and it will be just as good for you as it is for your dog!
9. Decide on the household rules and make sure that everyone in the family sticks to them so that your dog finds life in your household predictable and consistent.
10. Provide mentally stimulating games (e.g. hide and seek) for your dog
11. Avoid using punishment (leash corrections, yelling, smacking, shake cans, squirt bottles etc) as a training tool. Besides being highly ineffective punishment puts a dog into survival mode which floods the dog’s body with stress hormones.
As careful as we are with our dogs, things do sometimes happen that are out of our control. If your dog does have a bad experience and is very frightened or stressed as a result, give him plenty of time to recover e.g. if your dog has to undergo an unpleasant procedure at the vet one day, don’t expect him to compete in an obedience show the next day!
Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhart, Stress in Dogs, Dogwise publishing, 2007
James O’ Heare, Canine Neuropsychology, DogPsych, 2005
Both humans’ and animals’ bodies respond to danger by getting into an optimum state to deal with a threat. For example, if you awoke to a blood-curdling howl in the middle of the night, you would suddenly be wide awake, blood would rush to your muscles and all your senses would be heightened so that you would be ready to fight or to flee at the first opportunity. However, once you realized that it was just your dog having an interesting dream, your body would quickly return to a normal state i.e. your blood pressure would go back to normal and your senses dull again so that you could continue to function in a normal “resting” state.