Pet dogs are impressively adaptive. Coping with new environments and situations is a product of domestication, and most dogs do extremely well adapting to the pressures of domestic life. There are some dogs, however, that find it hard to adjust, and consequently live in a constant state of stress, making life difficult for them and for their owners. Negative behaviour is often punished, even though punishment only serves to increase a dog’s insecurity and ability to succeed in a domestic situation.
Some dogs, like people, are more sensitive to the mental and physical manifestations of stress than others. What might cause sickness in one dog will have no affect on another even when both dogs are exposed to the same stressors. While mild stress can actually be healthy and provide beneficial physical and mental stimulation, research has shown that there is a definite link between high stress and illnesses such as heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
Whether or not these diseases are caused by stress is still up for debate, but they are definitely exacerbated by a stressful lifestyle, making understanding and management of these disorders crucial for a longer, healthier life.
How Does Stress Affect My Dog?
Understanding how stress affects our canine companions is made easier by the fact that dogs and humans have very similar physiological responses to stress. During a stressful episode, both the human and canine body will go through adaptive changes. In order to survive, energy must immediately be diverted to muscles in preparation for fight or flight. Glucose, fats and proteins pour out of fat cells, the liver and muscles and are diverted to other muscles that need the most energy. Heart rate and blood pressure is elevated in order to distribute the energy as quickly as possible and breathing becomes more rapid. Digestion is suppressed, growth and muscle repair is halted, immunity inhibited and senses are sharpened. This happens within a matter of seconds and allows the body to operate at its optimum level to ensure survival. Good health, however, relies on the body’s ability to return to its ‘normal’ state after the stressful event has passed, but if stress is sustained or continually repeated, the body finds it difficult to achieve this.
Humans tend to have a harder time returning to ‘normal’ because of their ability to dwell on, anticipate or expect a future problem, but dogs that are sensitive to triggers that predict certain outcomes can also find it hard to ‘de-stress.’
Dogs that suffer with separation anxiety, for example, become adept at reading their person’s departure cues sometimes hours before their person leaves. Dogs can also suffer sustained stress if they are frequently exposed to something or somebody they fear.
If the body continues to work at its optimum level and is unable to return to normal, it is only a matter of time before the immune system is impaired, giving way to adaptive illnesses such as digestive upset, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer.
Signs of Stress in Dogs
Stressed dogs are often highly reactive and unable to settle, jumping at the slightest sound or movement. Visible signs of stress include dilated pupils, sweaty paws, shaking, vocalizing excessively, or salivating. These signals can occur by themselves or together. Other manifestations of stress come in the form of self calming techniques such as yawning, sneezing, lip licking or intense displacement behaviour such as sniffing, licking, excessive grooming, spinning or self mutilation. The dog may urinate or defecate more frequently and often experiences digestive upset such as diarrhoea.
Some dogs may display symptoms that look very like human depression, including the inability to sleep, low energy, lack of appetite and a limited desire for human or dog interaction. Learned helplessness, where the dog shuts down and ceases to learn, (often misread as a dog becoming calm) is yet another symptom of stress and can occur if a dog is severely punished or suffers abuse.
Aggressive behaviour such as growling, snapping or biting is another common symptom of stress that is often misunderstood and mistreated.
What Can You Do to Minimize Stress for Your Dog?
It may help you to make a list of everything your dog finds stressful, and then work through that list tackling each issue slowly and sensitively.
Desensitization, counter conditioning techniques and managing a dog’s exposure to stressors, along with humane teaching methods and confidence building exercises, can really help to minimize stress.
Minimizing potential stressors at home and watching how you manage your own stress is important, as dogs are very good at picking up on a person’s emotional state. Controlled exercise is also a great way to alleviate stress for both dogs and people as exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, encourage confidence, stabilize mood and reduce reactivity as well as improving the relationship between dog and owner.
Problem solving games and toys can help activate the thinking brain in stressful situations, which in turn deactivates the emotional brain and allows the dog to concentrate on something more positive than the negative emotion
There are many complementary therapies that can be used along with behavioural modification.
Undetectable by humans, appeasing pheromone is a synthetically produced substance that mimics the pheromones of a lactating female and is said to produce a feeling of well-being and reassurance for dogs, thereby reducing anxiety. It is available in spray form, or is contained within a collar that is worn around a dog’s neck. It is also available as a plug-in that allows the substance to diffuse around the home.
Flower essences can also help lessen anxiety along with massage, t-touch or other complimentary therapies such as Reiki or acupuncture.
Dogs that suffer from anxiety will sometimes feel calmer while wearing a tightly wrapped coat, just as a baby immediately calms when it is swaddled.
It is best to try more natural remedies like these to relieve your dog’s stress unless the anxiety is so pronounced that he is unable to focus or learn anything. In the case of an extremely anxious dog, turn to a veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist to prescribe medication that will help your dog get to a place where he can calm enough for learning to occur.
Specially designed bioacoustics music has a significant impact on relieving stress in dogs.