PART TWO: Is Your Dog Stressed Out? Top 10 Ways You Can Help
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Welcome back, Inquisitive Pet Parents! In the first part of this two-part series, we covered potential causes of anxiety or stress for dogs, and how we can understand our pups’ ways of communicating signs of discomfort. Since each dog is unique, the more inquisitive we are about our canines, the better we can be at reading their emotional states – and understanding the information they are sharing. This post will explore how we can use that information to help prevent canine stress triggers from stacking up and becoming overwhelming.
Here’s the good news. You can teach your dog to not only tolerate, but actually like new experiences, situations, gear, and many other cues. Dog guardians can use training and management to create pleasant associations and help dogs feel more relaxed around various stimuli. Here are our top ten tips:
1. Providing yummy treats can usually help:
For dogs who might be a bit bothered by a noise but still want to eat and engage in play, you can teach your dog to associate the ‘weird’ noise with something great.
We can use reward-based training methods to help create new pleasant associations with practical life skills. (When using positive reinforcement, the “side effect” is often the development of your dog’s automatic happy response to various stimuli, including people, other animals, sights, sounds, and situations.)
Feed morsels of Fido’s meal when drying him off after a swim or a bath.
Try to deliver part of your dog’s daily intake of regular food and treats in sight of dogs (but far enough away to take food and respond to your cues).
You can use things dogs enjoy (food, play, toys, etc.) as reinforcers to help condition positive associations with necessary tasks such as going to the vet or staying home alone for a little while.
2. Pets who are given the opportunity to make their own choices are often less stressed and more enthusiastic about participating in their training and care.
For instance, cooperative care, as it relates to dog training, is an approach that allows dogs to vote with their paws — they are allowed to say “Yes” or “No, thank you.” They are given the opportunity to participate in the activity, or, if feeling stressed or uncertain, they have the ability to walk away from the situation.
Here’s another example. Never force an interaction or introduction between kids and pets; respect the dog’s wishes. Learn to read your dog’s body language and allow them to greet someone in their own time. Allow your dog to set the pace as to how quickly he or she wants to carefully investigate. If Fido doesn’t show any interest, that’s okay. We aren’t trying to force a dog to like something/someone or feel a certain way.
3. Build a trusting bond. Develop the best possible relationship with your dog and be prepared to take on life’s challenges as a team. Proper skills training, using a gentle and ethical approach, helps build and maintain a loving, joyful, and mutually respectful relationship - plus improves your dog’s behavior!
4. Teach dogs life skills to help them adapt to our human way of life. You can get your dog mentally ready for the vet or groomer. Dress rehearsals of any dog training skill are important, so teach your dog to be comfortable having their teeth brushed and nails trimmed. Pretend you’re the vet and perform faux-Fido exams (nothing invasive, just palpating limbs/paws/spine, checking ears, looking in eyes while you hold their head, check teeth and gums). Repetition allows for building a solid foundation while having opportunities to troubleshoot and refine along the way.
Expecting parents and caregivers can also benefit from lots of dress rehearsals. Plan ahead to determine your best training and management strategies to help ready the family dog for life with children. ’Train it before you need it,’ and do so gradually, over a period of time, to help pup have a smoother transition when baby arrives.
5. Use humane training methods. All family members should use humane, force-free training methods to ensure a safe, strong, sustainable bond with the family dog that is based on love and trust. Dogs benefit greatly from the mental stimulation of new training, especially when its tons of fun!
Also, when it comes to training your dog, make sure your expectations are realistic. And, you want to make certain that what you envision matches your pup’s abilities. Pet parents can always change up their expectations and adapt them to their evolving dog. It also helps to focus in on what you want from your dog, instead of unwanted behaviors. Re-frame the “I don’t want my dog doing ____.” to “I want my dog to do _____.”
6. Choose humane gear. For the safety of both dogs and the public, we recommend choosing humane walking gear designed to keep pets secure and comfortable. This type of gear helps enhance the human-canine bond while avoiding the development of negative responses such as fear and anxiety. Use force-free training equipment such as a harness, as opposed to items designed choke or cause pain.
7. Consult a qualified trainer or behavior consultant. While it is up to inquisitive pet parents to lovingly teach skills dogs need to thrive in our human world, please remember that it’s important to ask for help at times. It’ll be best to work with a certified professional force-free trainer or behavior consultant, especially if:
- Your dog is scared for some reason; you’ll want to find out why and how to help.
- You would like to use counterconditioning and desensitization to desensitize dogs to loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks- or other stressors.
- Your dog has separation anxiety. Isolation distress needs to be addressed with knowledge, skills, patience, and empathy to help separation-phobic dogs and their guardians work through these issues.
- Your inquisitive canine is not fine with sharing, or you have any concerns about resource guarding. Together you can work on teaching dogs that it’s okay – perhaps even rewarding — to share. And the humans in the household can learn management strategies aimed at keeping everyone safe.
- You have a reactive or dog-aggressive dog.
8. Consult your veterinarian. For animals who are very sensitive to specific stimuli (such as certain sounds), if the anxiety is too much for your dog to handle, talk with your veterinarian about options for antianxiety medication, if indicated. Physical pain and illness are also important potential causes of canine stress, so have your vet rule out or address any underlying issues.
9. Plan ahead and manage your dog’s environment. Treat your dog as a unique individual, providing for their likes and understanding their dislikes. Anticipate change and/or potential stressors; preparation is central to setting everyone up for success.
10. Stimulate your dog’s mind. Provide your dog enrichment activities and interactive food toys to help build self-confidence and independence, and redirect their natural hunting and problem-solving energy to something productive.
One of my favorite dog-related activities is to take your dog on a walking tour! Whether it’s your own town, or a place you want to visit, this is a great bonding activity for dogs and humans. Some towns (like Santa Barbara) are very dog-friendly. You can stop by your own tourism center and get a map or check Google for local places to walk to and visit. This is a great way to find out more about the town, learn about the community, and get some exercise too!
If you have found these posts on stress in dogs helpful, please share these tips with dog lovers far and wide- because learning is a lifelong process for everyone — both humans and dogs.
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. As a specialty trained Family Paws Parent Educator (FPPE), Joan offers services both in-person and online for growing families. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!
Oct 16, 2022 11:27 AM
We had a nervous dog but he got socialized at Elite Pup Training and is great. Ricky, the owner, has a few dogs, large and small, that are training dogs that basically ignore the nervous dog until the nervous dog approaches them. Fascinating!