Signs your dog may be stressed and how to help

Our dogs will always be there to pull us over from the dark side to the bark side with their pawsitivity and stress-relieving wizardry.

But we must remember that our dogs also feel stress and it’s as much a part of their life as it is ours. By understanding how your dog communicates, you can take steps to minimise stress triggers and help your pooch feel happy, healthy and furbulous. 

Common signs of stress in dogs

Dogs are wonderfully expressive and often use their body language, vocal cues and even scents to tell us how they’re feeling. It might be easy to tell that a dog bounding about with their favourite toy is a happy pup, but signs of stress can be a little harder to recognise.

Some common signs of fear or anxiety to look out for are: 

  • Leaning away whilst lip-licking  
  • Yawning (unrelated to tiredness), leaning away
  • Ears back, lip-licking (unrelated to expectation of food)
  • Pausing with ears back, tail lowered, paw lifted
  • Leaning back with tail tucked, ears back
  • Lowered body posture, tail tucked
  • Approaching with low, wagging tail and ears back
  • Teeth exposed in ‘smile’ shape, ears back, eyes squinted/ shut tightly
  • Panting, pacing

 Signs that your dog needs space immediately:

  • Crouched and growling with ears back and tail under
  • Tense, leaning forward, tail outwards/up, staring, snarling, growling
  • Rolling onto side or back, tail tucked, ears back, tense, one or both back legs raised  

These are all strong indicators that your dog is experiencing stress and needs their own space, but it’s important to bear in mind that every dog is unique and will communicate their feelings in their own way. Your dog may show a combination of these signs when they are feeling stressed, and they may even exhibit these behaviours when they are feeling excited, tired or another emotion entirely.

Taking into account the situation your dog is in, their body language as a whole, and their usual character will give you a good idea of what your pooch is trying to tell you.

How to help your dog when they’re feeling stressed

It’s important to remember that stress can be triggered by injury or illness

If you believe your dog is stressed, we advise booking an appointment with your vet as your priority to rule out any underlying health issues.

You can help your dog avoid or minimise stress by:

  • Thinking about your dog’s routine – are there particular places, people or events with which your dog appears to struggle? If so, try to minimise these triggers or even avoid them if possible. To best understand why your dog may react to certain triggers with signs of stress, we recommend seeking professional advice from a vet and then a behaviourist 
  • Calmly removing your dog from a situation that they are finding difficult 
  • Tackling boredom related stress by teaching your dog to enjoy chilling out. Watch our training video to learn how to teach your dog to settle or make your dog their own snuffle mat for a relaxing and rewarding activity
  • Giving your dog their own space within the home, such as a den. Find our how to make your pup their own doggy den
  • Having a tried and trusted daily routine for your dog. Dogs enjoy being able to predict what will happen in their day since this allows them to feel in control, safe and secure
  • Training your dog is a great way to give them all the skills and tools to help them adapt to all the distractions that come with living with people- from having visitors and coping with noises to walking nicely on a lead and coming back when called. Find out more about training with rewards.
  • Visiting the vets is a common source of stress for dogs so teaching handling skills is key for your dog’s wellbeing
  • Avoid telling your dog off generally, since this can increase stress. It's also important to avoid telling your dog off for behaviours such as growling, since this could lead to them suppressing the behaviour and responding with an escalated behaviour such as biting next time.

What else can you do?

Keep on top of situation stacking  

Often, stress in dogs isn't caused by one individual factor but by several stressful events happening in quick succession. Situation stacking, also known as trigger stacking, is when a dog goes from one exciting, worrying or stressful event to another without having time to return to feeling relaxed. For example, a dog that has had an exciting day at home with lots of visitors is more likely to respond to stressors - such as loud noises or large, bouncy dogs - when out on a walk. These can be situations in which your dog normally feels confident, but when each exciting episode stacks up, your dog may lose the ability to cope and this can result in an emotional outburst. This is what behaviourists term 'passing the threshold'. 

By giving your dog regular 'downtime' and their own space, you can prevent the stress response that results from situation stacking.

Build a strong bond with your dog

When it comes to reducing stress, building a loving and supportive bond with your furry friend really is the best cure - for dogs and owners alike. When our dogs trust us, they feel secure in the knowledge that we'll always meet their needs and keep them safe.

While we can't avoid stress altogether, we can take crucial steps to reduce triggers for our dogs to help them flourish as their most confident selves.

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