A recent study found that 70% of dogs display signs of anxiety, but what are these signs? Veterinary surgeon Emma Rogers-Smith MRCVS outlines the common signs and symptoms to look out for in spotting anxiety in dogs and what you can do to help.
Like people, dogs can get stressed out or suffer from anxiety. The signs of stress and anxiety are hugely varied, as are the triggers. Individual dogs also have different tolerance thresholds for stress. What is manageable for one dog will not be for another, even if they have been brought up in the same environment and exposed to the same experiences. That said, upbringing and puppyhood experiences will also contribute to your dog’s stress capacity.
What can cause stress for dogs?
Stress triggers can be hugely varied. Broadly, however, the types of stress can be sub-divided as follows:
Fear-associated stress or anxiety can result from many different triggers. The most obvious are things such as loud noise, like the noise associated with fireworks or thunderstorms, trips to the veterinarian, new environments, or unfamiliar people. Unsolicited interactions with other dogs can also trigger fear stress. If you know being approached by a strange dog in the park is upsetting for your dog, consider using a leash or harness that displays to other dog parents that they should keep their distance. Some dogs will develop “resource guarding” anxiety, where they are fearful you will take a high-reward item (such as their favourite toy or dinner) away from them.
Older dogs can suffer from a “degenerative” (or age-associated) reduction in brain function, termed “cognitive dysfunction”. As your dog ages, they can become less able to cope with changes to their routine or more easily confused, leading to anxiety.
Dogs can find it distressing being away from their pet parent. The degree of distress a dog will show will depend on the individual animal and the amount of training they have had to deal with being left alone. It is estimated that 14% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Anecdotally this appears to be more prevalent since COVID, with more of us working from home.
What are the signs my dog is stressed?
Excessive barking or whining can signify that your dog is stressed or anxious.
Pacing or restlessness
Some dogs will pace around the room when stressed, or constantly lie down then stand up rather than settling down to sleep.
Some dogs will hide away when stressed or anxious. If your dog does this then it can be helpful to provide them with a quiet, safe space to retreat to, such as a crate.
Drooling, lip-smacking, and yawning
These are more subtle signs of anxiety in our canine companions. If you notice your dog is smacking his lips or is more slobbery than usual, it is worth making an appointment with your veterinarian as these can also be signs that he is feeling sick.
While panting is a normal body function for dogs to cool down when they are too warm, it can also signify that they feel unhappy or uncomfortable in a situation. Panting can also be a sign of medical problems, so if you notice your pet is panting a lot it is worth a quick trip to your veterinary clinic for a check-up.
Changes in facial expression or body posture
A stressed or anxious dog will often pin their ears back or show the whites of their eyes (termed “whale eye”). They may hunch over in submissive postures or in extreme stress raise their hackles (the fur on the back of the neck). Stressed dogs may show avoidance behaviours such as looking away or deliberately ignoring their pet parent.
Inappropriate toileting in the house
Some dogs, especially those with separation anxiety, will get themselves so worked up that they will wee or poo in the house, even if they are toilet trained. In itself, this is stressful for a well-behaved dog and is unpleasant to deal with for us pet parents too!
Destructive or aggressive behaviours
Some dogs respond to stress with destructive behaviours such as chewing up furniture. These are commonly seen in dogs with separation anxiety when left home alone; it is often a pet parent’s possessions or areas around the entrance/exit to the property that will be affected.
Aggression can also be a manifestation of stress or fear behaviours and it is one of the most worrying signs. Often this is the last resort, and your dog will have been giving you many subtle warning signs before reaching this point. One essential time to look out for stress signs in your dog is around young children. Whilst it isn’t always the case, dog bites to children can result from missing the more subtle warning signs that your pet is unhappy being played with by the toddler. The stress then builds up until they can’t take it any longer.
However cute it looks, it is essential not to allow toddlers and young children to manhandle your dog or put their face close to your dog’s face. Even the most well-mannered dog can bite when they see no other way out of a stressful situation. Extreme resource guarding can also manifest with aggressive behaviours.
Self-mutilation and compulsive behaviours
Compulsive behaviours are repetitive behaviours that your pet feels driven to carry out. Examples include self-mutilation behaviours – licking the front legs until sore is one example – as well as spinning, rhythmic barking, or “fly catching”. This is a term used for when a dog appears to be snapping at imaginary flies. All of these can also be signs of medical problems so a thorough examination by your veterinarian is essential before assuming they result from stress.
How can I help my dog cope with stress?
Whilst the stress response is a normal body function it can become overwhelming for your pet. If you recognise that your dog is stressed, the first thing to do is remove your dog from the situation if you can. Understandably this isn’t always possible – New Year or any occasions with fireworks representing prime examples! On occasions where you know stress triggers are unavoidable, speak to your veterinarian well in advance so they can help you make a plan.
Meeting your dog’s physical and mental needs
As well as food and water, dogs must have their other needs met in order to stay happy and relaxed. These include social interaction, regular exercise, mental stimulation, and a set routine.
Much like with people, exercise leads to a release of hormones (endorphins) that make dogs feel happy and relaxed. Ensuring your dog has plenty of exercise can help to reduce their stress levels. Exercising their brain is an integral part of keeping your pet relaxed. Puzzle feeders or games designed to challenge your dog mentally are great for this.
When it is not possible to remove your dog from the stressful situation or the behaviour is becoming consistent and getting into good exercise and routine habits isn’t helping, it is an excellent idea to chat to your veterinarian. Behavioural changes, such as becoming more anxious or stressed, panting, or inappropriate toileting, can signify a medical problem. Therefore, it is crucial to have a clean bill of health before undertaking any behavioural training – any good behaviourist will have advised this in the first instance.
At this stage, your vet can recommend what is going to be the best next step for your dog, which may involve sessions with a behavioural specialist or trialling medication. There are many different behavioural strategies.
In some circumstances, your pet will need medication to help with their anxiety. Depending on the cause of their stress the medicine your veterinarian recommends may vary. Ingredients like Valerian root and Tryptophan (as found in Chill) can help some dogs. Some of these drugs need some time to work, so if you know your pet has a stressful event coming up it’s best to be prepared and talk to your veterinarian well in advance.
Seeing your pet stressed, or dealing with the negative behaviours that can result from stress and anxiety in dogs can be very upsetting as a pet parent. Even with rigorous socialisation as a young puppy, a dog may still develop stress or anxiety issues. Sadly, the pet behaviour industry is poorly regulated at present. While there are many excellent pet behaviourists out there, there are also many who do not have the appropriate experience and qualifications to help your dog – however convincing their marketing may be. Mishandling the problem can make things worse for both you and your dog!
Therefore, it is always a good idea to speak to your veterinarian as a first point of call. They can first rule out any medical issues. If they do not have a member of staff who specialises in behaviour, they will be able to guide you to someone with the appropriate training to help you and your dog. The American Kennel Club has further information on dog training, available here