A new baby in the house, a layoff, relocating to another state — your life is constantly changing, and your human family isn’t the only one affected by it. It’s probably no coincidence that your dog is suddenly chewing up your favorite shoes (or his own paws), trembling like a leaf or baring his teeth at the poor mailman.
Stress is bad for a dog’s health, just as it’s bad for yours. Here’s how to sniff out when your pup is on edge — and what to do to get her tail wagging again.
Signs of stress
Just like humans, dogs are hard-wired to react to potential danger in ways meant to protect them, says Patrick Hallisey, DVM, a veterinarian at Kindness Animal Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts. When your pooch perceives a threat, his adrenal glands release stress hormones, just as your brain does when you’re under the gun, that trigger a fight-or-flight response.
Also just like humans, some canines handle potential stressors better than others.
“A dog might show a lot of different responses to stress,” says Hallisey. Some dogs might be fine, while others may become nervous, fearful and aggressive. This can lead to destructive behavior around the house, self-destructive behavior (constantly biting and licking the body) and biting, he adds.
Depending on your dog’s capacity to recover, he may be temporarily out of sorts or show a lasting change in behavior, according to Terri Bright, PhD, director of behavior services at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animalsin Boston.
“Stress is normal,” adds Bright. “Everything causes stress. But there’s a difference between transitory stress and a dog who stops eating because of the train station nearby. The problem is stress with no ability to recover.”
The good news is that dogs are very expressive with their body language, and that’s what you need to observe, says Bright.
Hallisey and Bright advise looking out for these signs of canine stress:
- Excessive panting, drooling, licking or sniffing
- Shaking off, like after a bath
- Tucked tail
- Looking away or turning away
- Ears pinned back
- Cowering or hiding
- Shaking and trembling
- Wet paw prints (sweating through the paw pads)
- Tension around the mouth and eyes
- Stiffened body
- Baring teeth, growling or biting
- Refusal to eat
- Destructive behavior
- Potty accidents
What to do
If your dog isn’t acting like himself, either occasionally or all the time, Bright suggests keeping a record of the behavior issues. Use it to try to identify when these issues happen and what triggers them. Does your pooch object when the new neighbor’s kids try to hug and kiss him? Does she cower at the sight of your new dog or cat? Is she lonely or anxious since you started working longer hours or since another pet in the house died?
If the stressor is something that happens only occasionally, you can make those occurrences easier for your pooch by associating them with her favorite food treats.
If you can’t get to the root of a longer-term problem and your dog still seems stressed, take him to the vet to rule out a health issue, says Hallisey. Your dog might be in pain because of arthritis or have hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease, to name a few conditions that can affect behavior.
If nothing turns up, your vet should refer you to a dog behaviorist, says Bright. Ask the behaviorist to design a training and enrichment program for your dog that will help him learn to relax and cope with his environment.