We ask a lot of our dogs. We expect them to live in our houses -- amongst our furniture, vacuum cleaners, chemical products, off-limits bins and blaring TVs -- and abide by our rules. We expect them to accept our guests and to distinguish between wanted and unwanted visitors.
We ask our dogs to walk along busy streets with noisy trucks, past restaurants, alongside strollers, cyclists and skateboarders. It’s not surprising that dogs are often stressed!
The Signs of Mild Stress in Your Dog
Most of the stress our dogs experience is temporary. Your dog might have to tolerate noisy vacuum cleaners, hair dryers or lawn mowers. He might be restrained for nail clipping or other grooming.
Look for these subtle signs of stress in your dog:
· Turning away with body, head or eyes
· Eye whites showing
· Licking lips or yawning out of context
· Going from a relaxed, open mouth to a closed mouth
It’s fine for most dogs to experience mild stress each day, but be on the lookout for small stressors that build up, especially in situations with potential dangers. Make sure to be extra-cautious with young kids: While you may think your dog is “fine” with the way young kids are interacting with him, he might only be enduring it and is actually showing subtle signs of stress. Watchful parents and dog owners need to stop or modify any interactions with vulnerable children when they see these signs.
Severe or Chronic Stress Signs in Your Dog
The signs of severe stress are more obvious. A dog that is severely stressed might start panting, whining or even growling. Yes, growling is usually a sign of acute stress. It is a warning that your dog is very uncomfortable and something has to be changed. Growling should be appreciated because it is not, in itself, aggression -- but it is as clear an act of communication as a dog can usually manage with humans.
Some dogs live with chronic stress. They’re almost always anxious and uncomfortable. This is often seen in animal shelters and other long-term confinement situations, which are challenging even when clean, spacious and beautiful. Other dogs live with anxiety because of a neurochemical imbalance, which could be caused by or independent of their living situation.
How to Help Your Stressed Dog
For short-term, minor stressors, try to reduce their significance. See if the item causing the stress can be moved further away (or move your dog further away). Muffle the volume of noisy stressors or reduce the severity of anything causing discomfort. Some dogs will habituate to common sounds and sights. But many dogs don’t get used to the sounds of engines with high-pitched components (vacuum cleaners, hair dryers) or sights like a standing human whizzing by on a skateboard or encountering another dog while on a leash.
To relieve more serious or frequent stressors, consider active counter-conditioning. This involves pairing the stressor with something that the dog naturally likes a lot. The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell is among several good books on the subject. Of course, a professional dog trainer who uses positive techniques can help.
If you suspect your dog is living with constant or frequent anxiety, talk to your vet about medication to correct your dog’s brain chemistry. Anti-anxiety medication can help with situational stressors like dealing with strangers, other dogs, separation anxiety, sound sensitivity and frustration aggression. Modern medications are not sedatives that will simply leave your dog “dopey.” They fix the imbalance of stress hormones and allow your dog the clarity to learn new behaviours and reactions.
By Stacy Braslau-Schneck for Exceptional Canine
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