Once you know what's pestering your pet, you can help them avoid stressful situations altogether.
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stressed french bulldog lying on a rug
Credit: Patryk Kosmider / Adobe Stock

Your dog can drop for a snooze whenever (and likely wherever) they want. They eat well but have yet to make a single grocery list or slave over a hot stove. And bills? Responsibilities? Gas prices? Never heard of 'em. Surely stress isn't compatible with such a carefree existence? Aren't dogs too blessed to be stressed?

Despite dogs' enviably laid-back lifestyle, even they aren't immune to stress. And because they aren't able to slam doors or complain about what's vexing them on social media, we need to learn how to decode the more subtle signs of stress in our dogs so we can help them both calm down and ideally avoid their stressors altogether.

What Is Stress?

Fear, stress, and anxiety are often used interchangeably. But while they can certainly influence one another and often lead to the same signs in dogs, they aren't the same thing. Kim Krug, DVM, veterinary behavior resident at Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore., helps break down the differences:

Fear

"Fear is a negative emotional reaction to a perceived threat," Krug explains. "In the case of fear, there is a discrete stimulus [such as a vacuum or barking, lunging dog], and how an individual responds to this discrete stimulus is reflective of their individual learning experiences (or lack of experiences, as the unknown can cause fear)." She adds that fear is an adaptive response that's essential for survival and can manifest as fight, flight, freeze, or fidget.

Anxiety

Anxiety, Krug says, is an emotion of apprehension or worry. "It's the anticipation of a threat and is generally considered to be excessive and unfocused," she continues. Unlike with fear, there isn't a discrete stimulus. For example, a dog who's afraid of vacuums may start showing signs of fear every time she goes to a place she's seen a vacuum in the past.

Stress

Krug says that stress is more difficult to define and has a variety of meanings. "Stress is any event or situation that leads to a physical, psychological, or emotional change," she notes. You'll notice from her definition that, like fear, stress typically has a specific stimulus. Interestingly, that stimulus could be fear or anxiety. Krug adds that stress isn't always bad. In fact, it can be a motivator that leads to adaptation, as anyone who's waited until the last minute to study for an exam knows. But chronic (i.e. ongoing, unresolved) stress can negatively affect your dog's health and quality of life.

What Causes Stress in Dogs?

What can cause stress in dogs? You name it. "As with humans, anything can cause stress in dogs," Krug explains. She emphasizes that to try to understand and empathize with our dogs, we must see things from their perspective instead of our own. "Just because we think something shouldn't be scary, that doesn't mean our dog feels the same way," Krug continues. "It may not make sense to us or may feel extreme or unfounded, but to help our dogs, we have to listen to what they're saying."

According to Krug, here are some of the most common triggers of fear and stress in dogs:

Common Signs of Stress in Dogs

"Being able to read and interpret dog body language is a vital skill for determining if your dog is uncomfortable (whether due to fear, anxiety, or stress)," Krug says. "Discomfort may manifest differently for individual dogs, so to decode your particular pup, you'll need to learn the signs and then spend time observing your dog."

Krug notes that comfortable dogs typically display the following:

  • Loose, relaxed body posture
  • Relaxed face
  • Relaxed or forward ears
  • Loose tail, either up or inline with body
  • Mouth either closed or open with soft lips
  • Soft eyes
  • Engaging in "normal" behavior such as sniffing, playing, and exploring

Dogs who are fearful, anxious, or stressed, says Krug, may display the following signs:

  • Tense, hunched body posture
  • Tense face (e.g. furrowed brow, lips that are pursed or retracted to show teeth; can include a wide mouth pant with the corners of the mouth pulled back, exposing teeth)
  • Lowered head
  • Whale eye (whites of the eyes exposed; may include side eye)
  • Piloerection (hair standing up on back or neck)
  • Heavy panting
  • Barking or whining
  • Yawning, licking, or drooling
  • Trembling
  • Submissive body language (e.g. rolling on back/exposing underside, expressing small amounts of urine)
  • Intermittently holding one leg up (Krug notes that paw lift is a commonly missed sign of stress)
  • Inability to settle (i.e. pacing)
  • Freezing in place or running away

Stress and anxiety can even interfere with dogs' immune function, leading to large bowel inflammation—a condition known as stress colitis. Dogs with stress colitis often experience diarrhea, gas, and gastrointestinal discomfort.

How To Help Calm a Stressed Dog

Because stress is a nuanced and highly individualized experience, there aren't any one-size-fits-all solutions. "There's a wide range of levels of fear, anxiety, and stress," Krug explains. "And the implications can vary significantly based on the individual."

But if you notice your dog displaying the signs of stress above, Krug says that in that moment, the best course of action is to get your pup out of the situation and back to baseline as quickly as possible. "This improves your dog's comfort and gives you time to think about what happened and how you can best support your dog moving forward," she adds. "You can then objectively think through the level of stress the dog was experiencing and how you can help them work through that."

In Krug's opinion, one of the best things we can do to help stressed dogs is to recognize and accept situations our dogs don't like and then avoid asking them to tolerate things they don't genuinely enjoy. "Tolerance doesn't equal comfort, and we often ask our dogs to tolerate more than they're comfortable with," she explains. "For example, if your dog is fine walking around the farmers' market but isn't enjoying the experience, should they be there? Or if you have two dogs and one loves the dog park but the other doesn't, consider leaving the stressed dog at home."

Unfortunately, Krug says that habituation (i.e. getting used to something through continued exposure, often at full intensity, which is called flooding) can work for some dogs in some contexts, but that isn't true for every dog in every situation. In fact, she notes that asking your dog to remain in a stressful situation can even worsen their fear or anxiety (a process known as sensitization). So in cases where a relatively simple solution isn't possible—such as a dog who lives in a crowded urban setting and is triggered by strangers and other dogs—Krug recommends getting professional help.

Krug is also adamant that punishment isn't a helpful tactic for dealing with fear, anxiety, or stress. "For instance, if your dog barks and lunges at other dogs out of fear and you give a firm jerk on their collar and say "No," you may stop the behavior (barking and lunging), but you haven't addressed the underlying emotions," she explains. "It's possible that your dog won't lunge and bark the next time they see another dog, but they probably won't feel good about seeing the other dog. Your dog is simply avoiding the punishment. This is called behavior suppression."

When Krug works with a dog, her goal is to not only change the behavior but to improve the patient's emotional state. "I want the dog to experience positive emotions, and I want to teach them to behave when they experience something scary," she says. "You can't reinforce emotions, but you can reinforce behaviors."

Krug admits that this is extremely tricky and complicated. For example, if your dog is afraid of loud noises and runs to you in the event of fireworks going off in the neighborhood, attempting to comfort your dog can actually reinforce the behaviors associated with the emotion. "I'm not saying we shouldn't comfort our dogs," she explains, "but if there's something that routinely causes fear in your dog, or if the fear is causing extreme panic, or if the fear is worsening with each exposure, seek professional help to come up with a plan to support your dog."

This plan should involve science-based, positive reinforcement training because Krug says anything that utilizes fear, coercion, or punishment is not only unkind to the dog, but also carries the risk of worsening these behavior patterns.