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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features February 2017 Issue

Ten Signs Your Dog Feels Stressed

Follow our tips for calming your pet when he is anxious.

dog yawning

A dog who is yawning is more likely to be stressed than tired.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell when your dog feels stressed — during loud fireworks displays, perhaps, or when he doesn’t want to get out of the car in the parking lot of the veterinarian’s office. But there are signs of stress in our canine loved ones that can come across more subtly. What are they, and what can you do to calm your dog during those times that anxiety has gotten the better of him?

Stress Signals in Dogs

1. Licking his lips

Lip licking is a cross-species signal of stress. People do it, too. In a dog, it could be a sign of supplication, perhaps arising from puppyhood behavior. A young pup will lick his mother’s lips to get her to regurgitate food; he will sometimes feed off her regurgitations.

2. Licking your lips 

If a dog feels anxious about someone’s state of mind, he might lick the person’s lips to help them stay calm and thereby keep his own world stable. Why would the dog think that action would do the trick? Because he’s learned that it tends to get positive feedback. As a puppy, he may have licked your lips, and you responded by laughing with delight. The dog picked up the lesson: “Ah, when I do that, it puts my owner in a good mood, and he treats me well.” Anxiety averted.

3. Urinating when you come into the room or otherwise peeing in the house.

If this is not a medical problem that doesn’t allow the dog to “hold it in,” it’s a behavioral issue resulting from stress. When a puppy urinates in front of you, he’s not being bad; he’s being submissive. Don’t yell at him! It would be like yelling at a dog for averting his eyes. Rather, speak in very soothing, gentle tones — or not at all. Sometimes overly submissive, anxious puppies need to be ignored; they’re so afraid that they need distance from you to gain a little confidence.

When an adult dog urinates in the house and it’s not a medical problem, he may be marking territory as a result of stress about not being clear on who’s running the show. That is, his ego may be a little confused. Don’t be mean to your dog for urinating in the house, but do exercise leadership and let him know that you are running the show by making him sit for his food, for petting, and for other valuable resources. In severe cases, a mood stabilizer like fluoxetine (Prozac) may be necessary.

4. Panting 

Sure, dogs pant when they’re overheated. Unlike people, they don’t have sweat glands on most of their skin, so they can’t cool their bodies by losing heat through the evaporation of sweat. But they can regulate body temperature by panting. The faster a dog pants, the more water-saturated air he is breathing out (evaporating) from his lungs to produce a cooling effect.

What does this have to do with stress? Nothing, but dogs pant not only to rid their bodies of heat. They also do it sometimes when they’re anxious. You might see it during, say, a display of thunderstorm phobia (in addition to pacing — see number 10). Stay calm and speak soothingly when your dog pants in response to stress rather than taking a harsh “what has gotten into him” position.

5. Chasing his own tail

This is not normal dog behavior, not even for bull terriers and German shepherds — the two breeds most likely to engage in it. Behaviorists believe that tail chasing arises in dogs with a high predatory drive and no natural outlets for that instinct. The bored dog one day catches his own tail out of the corner of his eye and tries to pounce on it. The result is that circular tail-chasing motion — a perfect antidote since the tail moves away precisely as quickly as the dog moves to catch it. Unfortunately, for some dogs, the behavior becomes so intense that they do manage to catch their tails and bite them, causing bleeding. Others spin themselves dizzy for hours on end, barely taking time to eat and sleep. In other words, the stress resulting from the inability to stake out real prey leads to a compulsive behavior.

The solution is a significant lifestyle change that includes letting the dog chase after prey (perhaps in controlled lure courses) and, in some cases, an anti-obsessional drug.

6. Yawning 

Yes, a dog may yawn if he’s tired, but more often, yawning indicates stress. The yawning is a way of trying to displace the stress, or inner conflict, with a safe, neutral behavior. Humans do it, too — not yawn, necessarily, but something that helps them cope during a stressful interval.

Let’s say you step onto an elevator and see someone you recognize but don’t like. You want to be upstairs on a higher floor, but you’re stuck in a space not much bigger than a telephone booth with someone you didn’t want to run into and interact with. What do you do? You open your compact and check your makeup, rummage through your bag, pull out your phone to look for messages even though you just did so a minute earlier…. None of these actions has anything to do with what’s on your mind — getting out of that elevator and away from that person — but they help you cope with that uncomfortable inner feeling, that being stuck in a state of conflict between what you want and what you’re forced to endure. That’s often what a dog is feeling when he yawns: I want to go wag my tail in front of that other dog across the street, but I have to stay here, tethered to the leash.

7. Opening his eye wide or averting your gaze

People do this one, too, and it’s very easy to see the worry in the dog’s face. If he opens his eyes very wide and you can see the whites, he is feeling quite stressed. Dogs who avert your gaze are often feeling stressed, too. Owners frequently take gaze aversion as a sign that their dog is being disrespectful and doesn’t want to listen or obey. Quite the opposite. A dog is saying with averted eyes: “I don’t want any trouble. I don’t mean any harm.” Speaking loudly or forcefully to a dog at such a time is only going to make him more anxious — which in turn will make him less able to think straight in order to comply with your wishes.

8. Goose bumps

They’re not really goose bumps the way we think of them, with little prickles of skin sticking up. What happens instead is that your dog’s hair stands up straight on his back. If only we had a dollar for every time we’ve seen an owner say to his pet in an annoyed voice, “Why are you doing that? Put your fur down!”

He can’t, just like we can’t command our goose bumps to go away. They go away when the stress or fear does. That spiking of the spinal fur indicates a time your dog needs reassurance, not an exasperated command.

9. Tucking his tail 

Tail tucking is usually a sure sign that a dog is feeling very afraid, or at least extremely uncomfortable. If it’s your dog, you know how to relax him and make him feel better, but if it’s someone else’s, be careful. Scared dogs don’t always simply cower. If you go over to comfort a dog with his tail between his legs, he could lash out at you to keep you away. The last thing some dogs want when they’re already afraid is a stranger coming right up to their face.

10. Pacing 

A dog who is not able to settle down isn’t always looking for action. Sometimes he is highly aroused due to anxiety about a situation. Even a dog who is sick might pace because his feeling poorly has him extremely stressed. Don’t yell at a dog who can’t calm down. It’s a clear sign that something has him very worried.

Tricks to De-Stress Your Dog

So many times when a dog becomes stressed, people become annoyed, not recognizing the signs and thereby mistakenly believing that their pet is being a pain in the neck. Of course, their annoyance only makes the stress worse; we are the dog's parents — they depend on us to make them feel better. With that in mind, here are some things you can do to help your dog feel more secure when you see any of the signs of stress mentioned in this article.

1. Get him away from whatever is fueling his anxiety. A lot of people think they can de-sensitize a dog to things that make him uncomfortable by keeping him in the middle of them. Such a tactic will only serve to sensitize a dog further; it's called flooding. Instead, remove him from what scares or otherwise upsets him. That could mean going back to the car, or at least to a quiet spot, and soothing his frayed nerves there.

2. Try some products — a Thundershirt that will "swaddle" him, soft music, sprays with pleasant scents. Even if the things themselves don't help, your dog's seeing you tend to him and trying to make him feel better will. He needs your attention more than ever when he's wigged out.

During stressful situations and not, make sure your dog lives a very active lifestyle with plenty of exercise and fun games. That will de-emphasize whatever he finds emotionally upsetting. A dog with a well-rounded life is less likely to get caught up in the anxiety of a stress-inducing situation here and there.

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