By Joan Hunter Mayer
As dog lovers, can we understand our dogs’ way of communicating, their level of comfort -or signs of discomfort, triggers, and what might cause anxiety or stress? And how can we use this information to support our dogs in their lives as our trusted, loving companions?
In Part One of this two-part series, we’re going to look at potential sources of canine stress, how to identify when a stimulus triggers a stress response, and review how dogs might communicate fear or anxiety through body language. In Part Two, we will discuss what we can do to help our inquisitive canines keep their stress levels lower, so they are happier, healthier, and more well-adjusted family pets.
What Could Your Dog Possibly Have to be Stressed About?
Well, actually, there’s quite a list of potential canine stressors. Here are just a few:
New experiences- The first time an animal encounters something new, it is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). If dogs are not gradually and carefully introduced to routine handling, basic care such as being checked over for ticks or foxtails after a hike, might be considered unpleasant by your dog. Unusual or seasonal events, such as kids in Halloween costumes or a houseful of guests on Thanksgiving, can be stressful.
Past experiences and memories of events– Sometimes we ourselves, or the environment, inadvertently create associations we don’t want our dogs to learn. For example, while riding in a car your dog hears a loud backfire and gets scared. Going forward, he might be fearful of riding in cars – he has learned to associate riding in cars with loud scary noises.
Certain human interactions- Meeting and greeting people can stress some dogs. Do they want to be pet by enthusiastic dog lovers? Although unintentional, a person’s enthusiasm might startle a dog, especially if they are not anticipating being approached. Dogs might prefer to take things slow and get to know and trust someone before engaging in being pet.
Kids (or adults), running up, in an erratic and surprising manner, extending their hands right into a dog’s face and hovering there, squealing something about how much they love dogs can trigger a stress response. Or simply seeing children running around and playing with loud or unwieldy toys might be a little challenging for dogs.
Not enough human interaction (isolation)– A dog might not want to be left alone for various reasons. Some don’t like to be left alone, outside for instance, because they had a scary or traumatic experience in their yard such as being shocked by an electric fence collar, or stuck outside during fireworks or a thunderstorm.
Additionally, many dogs seem to simply be predisposed to separation anxiety, a heartbreaking condition where symptoms can gradually worsen over time. (We discuss help in Part Two.)
Other dogs- How does your dog react in the presence of other dogs? Does she appear relaxed, neutral, excited, upset, afraid? Make note of what your dog does when she first spots another inquisitive canine. (Reading your dog’s body language will help guide you in determining if you need to implement a training plan.)
Resources- Can you tell if your dog is happy about sharing stuff? Even if we don’t want that nasty bone, toy, or dirty napkin, a pet dog might not understand this concept and could have an emotional response if we get too close.
Strange noises– Loud noises such as fireworks, thunderstorms, and loud music can put a pup on edge, even after the offending stimuli have stopped.
Some practices in dog obedience training- Using aversive, outdated, old-fashioned methods to train, expecting too much too fast, not understanding or ignoring dog communication and body language, can all increase a dog’s discomfort. For example, flooding is a technique considered amongst many to be cruel and unethical, as it involves exposing an animal to an anxiety producing stimulus at high levels until the animal no longer reacts (out of helplessness). Yikes!
Unfortunately, the list of potential stressors goes on. And, just like us, dogs have a threshold, or breaking point. Too many little things can add up (referred to as trigger stacking), causing stress and discomfort levels to hit critical limits.
Behaviors to Watch For
Watch for signs indicating pets may be feeling pushed past their limits. You might see one or more of the following:
Refusal to eat- Lack of interest in food, especially if that’s unusual for your pet, can be a common indicator of stress and anxiety.
Decreased learning- Learning is inhibited in stressful situations.
Increased fear-related or aggressive behaviors – Dogs are sentient beings and there are no guarantees in life. With multiple stress triggers (see above) stacking one on top of another, without adequate time between to recover, even the friendliest, calmest, most social dog could behave aggressively. (Again, all of us have a breaking point, and our canine companions are no different.)
Distancing behaviors – When pets are startled, their first response is often to choose between fight or flight. And if they can’t flee (due to being confined or on a leash), they might feel they have to fight in order to put distance between themselves and the scary threat approaching them – and sadly, that can lead to a bite.
Redirected activity- Redirection, also called displaced aggression, is taking pent up aggression out on something else (picture an angry person striking a wall when it’s not the wall that they’re upset with). In pets, we could see aggression directed against someone, something, or another animal, as a substitute for the actual cause of the animal’s fear, pain or anger.
Ideally, we can make adjustments and/or seek help from a certified professional force-free behavior consultant before our pets near their threshold and increase the risk of potential harmful outcomes – injury to your dog, self, or other animals and people.
Understanding Your Dog’s Triggers
Be aware of your dog’s surroundings and the possible effects they may have on behavior. If and when Fluffy shows any change from her baseline, relaxed appearance, try to determine and note what the trigger might be:
- Anything new? Different?
- Has she been showing signs of conflict or stress over ‘sharing’ resources?
- Can you tell if your dog is consenting to a greeting or feeling scared?
- Are they fearful? Did something happen that caused them to be afraid?
This is where paying close attention to dog body language, especially the more subtle signals, plays an important role.
Signs of Stress
The way a dog communicates, through body language and vocalization, can tell a person a lot about how he or she might be feeling. The more familiar you are with how Fido expresses himself, the better you’ll be able to help him alleviate fear and anxiety and remove him from situations that make him stressed or uncomfortable.
For dogs, signs of discomfort or conflict can include (but are not limited to) turning away, a lip curl, lip licking and even yawning. Pacing, stress panting, whining or whimpering, drooling (when not eating or hungry), refusing higher value food and not eating, trembling, brow furrowed, ears flat, and/or tail tucked can also be some indicators of stress and anxiety. Digging can be a stress signal too. One, a few, or all indicators might be present.
If you see any of these signs, it could mean that your furry friend is feeling uncomfortable about something and is not sure what to do. It’s our job here to respect the animal and do all we can to try to improve the situation for him so that he can feel safe and calm.
In Part Two of this article, we’ll talk about how dog guardians can use training and management to help avoid stress triggers from stacking up and pushing pets to their limits.
Until next time, thank you for being an inquisitive dog guardian and doing your part to ensure safe, pawsitive interactions between pets and people!
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!