Stress in Dogs
A cause of unsocial or disruptive behaviour in dogs
Like humans, dogs suffer from stress and its related problems.
The consequences they suffer are very similar to the way these issues affect humans.
Unfortunately, in dogs, the symptoms may not be noticed by their
owners and the resulting behavioural issues induced by stress are
generally attributed to another cause. Misinterpreted stress related
behaviour can lead to an unnecesary 'cure' which often makes things worse for the dog
without any apparent benefit, as far as the owner can see!
Some dog owners (and some dog 'experts') refuse to accept that a dog can suffer stress and will consequently ignore this possibility when seeking to understand behavioural issues.
Stress has not been considered as a cause for a dogs hyperactivity,
fear reactions and aggression.
This compounds the problem further, making the lives of their dogs miserable.
Before going any further, we need to be familiar with some of the signs that may indicate stress in dogs
Hyperactive behaviour like
- continual pacing, restlessness, trembling, compulsive digging, hyperventilating.
Excessive vocalisation like - Barking, whining, growling for no apparent reason.
Repetitive compulsive behaviour like - Tail/Shadow chasing, rolling, toy obsession, excessive grooming/chewing.
Physical changes like - loss of appetite, vomiting, itchy skin, diarrhea, weight loss, loss of condition, enlarged pupils.
Character changes like - unusual aggression, loss of concentration, lapses in obedience / housetraining.
Both male and female dogs may become territorial, defensive and start scent marking.
They may become withdrawn, unresponsive, eyes glazed over, staring into space or into a corner, adverting their gaze.
What can cause a dog to become stressed?
Some of the things that cause stress in us can also cause stress in a dog.
One good common example, which is particular relevant to the Border Collie as a breed, is noise.
Loud or continuous or unpleasant (or simply unwanted) noise is a recognised cause of stress in humans and can equally cause stress in a dog. As dogs have far more sensitive hearing than humans, noise can be a particular problem to them, even if it does not reach a level that impinges on our hearing or affects our lifestyles.
Dogs will hear things we cannot.
To a dog, sound can be frightening.
We have the ability to reason and can usually make rational sense of unfamiliar sounds but if we are unable to assure ourselves that a sound we can hear does not pose a threat we can feel worried.
Dogs cannot rationalise new sounds and rely on other means of reassurance which may be denied them by their circumstances. Consequently they can quickly become stressed or even very frightened.
One way that animals would normally deal with a frightening situation would be to run away from it.
They may hide or seek reassurance from their parents or from more experienced
members of their group who have been exposed to the sound before and are used to it.
Our domesticated pet dog does not often have these choices as it is frequently confined or restrained so is unable to run away and is often kept alone, away from others of its species that it may seek reassurance from.
Hiding may remain an option, but such behaviour is likely go
against training of conflict with their habitual routines, which in itself can be a stress inducing situation
compounding the original problem.
To make matters worse, some dog owners fail to reassure their dogs when they note they are frightened and respond with sympathy tones that re-enforce the dogs feelings that something is wrong.
Anything we do that prevents our dogs from expressing natural behavioural patterns will cause them stress.
It's a matter of degree.
We can all cope with small amounts of stress - it's part of life.
It becomes a problem if it is persistent, accumulative, extreme or unrecognised.
We often ask dogs to spend long periods of time alone and may make them reliant on us for companionship, yet only be there and available part time. We may deprive them of the companionship of other dogs and stop them when they sniff around another dogs rear, poke their noses in our crotch or pay particular attention to something that smells foul (to us).
We tell them off when they chase things or dig up the garden or bark at each other.
We restrict their movements by confining them indoors. Keep them in heated properties until they lose their insulating undercoats and then subject them to the shock of cold by walking straight out of a warm house into freezing air in the winter.
How would you feel being taken out in the snow wearing only a thin jumper? Not that pleasing.
Also consider the contradictions that arise in a domestic environment.
Some things are allowed and others banned.
It may seem reasonable and logical to us, but a dog will take
time to understand our logic.
Our reactions to perfectly natural dog behaviour can cause fear and confusion. A sudden reprimand or outburst of anger may not be understood.
Dogs will also pick up on our stress - we humans do tend to share it around.
Something to bear in mind.
Stress can occur in simple ways.
A dogs owner may want their dog to bark to alert them against intruders, but not when genuine visitors come or deliveries are made. Reprimanding a dog that gets it wrong causes conflicts. The dog cannot be expected to automatically know these rules and it won't be easy to train it to understand the
We cannot remove all the stress from our dog's lives, anymore than we can from our own or our families, but what we can do is learn more about how to recognise the symptoms in our canine friends and the different factors that cause it.
These can be many and breed species can vary, some breeds that are quite sensitive and highly strung, like the German Shepherd or Border Collie, can be seen to suffer more acutely.
To be in better tune with our dogs we need to realise why stress occurs and if possible can we do anything to help them?
There can be many causes.
Domestic upheaval - changes in the pack hierarchy - being hungry or thirsty
- physical discomfort or pain - lack of physical or mental stimulation
- aggression from owners or other dogs - not being able to toilet when
it needs to - confinement - separation - loud noises and far to many restrictions and negative commands can all be factors.
Dogs can experience stress in much the same way that humans do.
They don’t worry about meeting deadlines, paying bills, or fighting traffic but the canine world has its own stressors.
Pets can suffer from depression, separation anxiety, loneliness, boredom, frustration, noise intolerance, fear of other animals or humans, fear of owner’s anger, and uncertainties in new life situations such as new home, new family, or new family member.
Strays often have the stress of hunger, illness or injury, cold or heat, feeling lost, and fear of danger and unkind humans.
Even after the stressors have been removed, the effects of this stress can stay for a long time.
Consequences of Stress to Dogs
Stress causes the release of adrenaline and other chemicals within the dog’s body which elevates blood sugar levels and blood pressure and increases the workload of the heart and lungs.
As the body quickly funnels all energy toward the “fight or flight” response, blood vessels constrict and other systems, such as digestive and immune are inhibited.
Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, climb and may remain elevated for a long time, even after the stressors are removed.
You will have noted these reactions in your own body when you have been subjected to a stressful experience.
It is not very pleasant and is really only appropriate in situations where there is some sort of threat of injury or death.
We know that exposure to long term stress can cause strokes, heart failure and other physical conditions in humans.
It has been suggested that stress also contributes towards conditions like diabetes, epilepsy and cancers.
Dogs can also suffer these consequences.
Neither the human or canine body is equipped to handle the ‘fight or flight’ response long term.
Unresolved stress can lead to behavioural problems and health problems in any dog.
If you’ve recently moved, had a new addition to the family, adopted
a rescued dog or anything else that could cause stress in your dog’s
life, there are ways to help it overcome its unpleasant feelings.
Keep surroundings calm until it feels better.
Offer extra attention – studies show that gentle human touch lowers blood pressure and heart rate in dogs.
Provide soothing music – recent studies indicate that certain music such as harp notes calm dogs and other animals.
Provide hard educational chew toys (like a Kong) – these
are great for stress relief, much like eating, smoking and nail biting provide stress relief for some humans.
No squeaky toys - they can add to stress.
Provide a den or ‘safe place’ where the dog can retreat
– this should be a place where nothing bad ever happens, a place where
the dog feels secure.
Provide daily exercise and mental stimulation - a nice walk or game of fetch can be one of the best stress busters and with Border Collies, anything that exercises its mind
at the same time will help it cope with stressful situations better.
Give your dog a daily massage – work out muscle stiffness and induce relaxation.
Offer extra understanding, kindness, patience and
reassurance - remember the dog can't help its feelings.
If you note what appears to be symptoms of stress, first take your
dog to the veterinarian for a physical check-up.
In any situations where a dogs behaviour changes or becomes and
issue, first have a vet check the dog to make sure the cause is not
Don't be too quick to resort to prescribed tranquillisers or other
medications. Try every other avenue first.
If nothing works and medication looks like the only remaining
option, start with something herbal and mild rather than something
the dog may become dependent on.
There are plenty of good herbalists and herbal remedies around. Some
vets now suggests herbal treatment initially.
If you are interested in adopting a Border Collie from us,
please phone 0845 604 4941 during office hours.
(2 pm to 5 pm Mondays to Thursdays)
Please do not write to us or email us about adoption - we want to speak to you before we start the process.