How to Tell the Signs of Stress in Dogs

on January 11, 2022

signs of stress in dogs

Just like humans, dogs get stressed. Your pup may be a great comfort to you, particularly in times of stress. So when Fido gets stressed, he needs your help too. 

Here are some of the signs of stress in dogs, and what to do about it.

If Dogs Could Talk

If dogs could talk, they might be able to say, “I’m in pain,” or “I’m scared.” Instead, we have to read their queues and body language.

Sometimes pain is obvious: a limp or a whimper in an otherwise happy pup. Sometimes, though, even physical pain is hard to identify, not to mention emotional distress, anxiety or other stressed-out feelings our beloved furbaby may be experiencing.

Since they can’t talk with words, we gathered some expert data on what our dogs are trying to tell us.

Identifying Pain

A sudden change in behavior may indicate pain. Sometimes a stressed dog is a dog with a physical ailment flaring up. Here are some of the signs of physical distress in dogs:

  • Ears down/flattened, tail not wagging, low posture
  • Whimpering
  • Other vocalizing, such as howling (sounds may depend on the breed)
  • Hiding
  • Favoring an injured area, such as a limp
  • Licking compulsively, especially an injured area
  • Trembling
  • Restlessness
  • Heavy or increased breathing
  • Gagging or heaving (especially with stomach distress)
  • Reluctance to play or move
  • Refusing to eat

What to do about it: Sudden onset of any of these behaviors means you should call your veterinarian. They can help you identify and treat pain.

Signs of Stress or Anxiety in Dogs

If you’ve eliminated physical pain as a possibility, your stressed dog may be experiencing fear or anxiety.

A scared dog will generally be reacting to an environmental trigger, such as:

  • Loud noise
  • Change in routine or environment
  • A fearful activity, such as a car ride
  • A person your dog does not like
  • Another perceived threat, such as another animal

Many of the symptoms your dog may experience when fearful look similar to pain, such as trembling, hiding or whimpering. A stressed dog may also lash out and want to bite, so it’s very important to be careful with your dog when he is stressed. Even a normally sweet fur baby may unintentionally harm a family member in a time of pain or distress.

A Chronically Stressed Dog

Some dogs experience chronic anxiety, or many different things stress them out. Such dogs will generally exhibit lots of signs of stress on a regular basis, such as getting distressed (even car sick) about every car ride, experiencing separation anxiety, etc.

In fact, there are 7 main forms of anxiety in dogs, including:

  1. Compulsive behavior
  2. Confinement anxiety
  3. Travel anxiety
  4. Noise sensitivity
  5. Separation anxiety
  6. Impulsivity or lack of attention
  7. Aggression

A chronically stressed dog may experience one or more of the forms of anxiety on this list. These types of anxiety often require a proactive, combined approach.

How to Calm a Stressed Dog

If your dog experiences any of the forms of stress or anxiety from this list, even if temporarily, you should address it. There are three steps: identify, handle and prevent.

Identify the Source of Stress

If at all possible, you want to identify what is stressing out your dog. If you are uncertain, or if it is more than one stressor, you can make a list of likely items, then try to handle one at a time. In such a case, it might take a little trial-and-error. 

But if you can identify what is stressing your dog, you can rapidly handle the situation.

Handle the Stressors

If you have a suspected source of stress, you want to eliminate it. For example, if your dog gets stressed around a certain person, meet that person somewhere safe (like a park) instead  of at home, where your dog’s protective instincts are strongest.

Sometimes you just have to cover up the stressor. For example, a dog stressed by loud noises might need soothing classical music on the 4th of July.

Prevent

Once you find what works to calm your dog, take steps to prevent the stress triggers in the future. You can also use a counterconditioning, desentization therapy to help your dog handle stress in the future. This technique works particularly well for unavoidable triggers, such as car rides or separation.

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