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Destress Your Dog: Preventing & Overcoming Pet Anxiety

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Written by James Woller, dog enthusiast and co-owner of Jet Pet Resort and Release the Hounds.

Stress, anxiety, frustration: these emotions are all-too-familiar in humans, but it may surprise you to know that dogs can feel frustrated and stressed just as much as humans can.  What differentiates between humans and dogs is the factors that cause this feeling of stress, but the feelings themselves are very much the same.

Dogs Get Stressed Too – But For Different Reasons

While it may be a traffic jam, annoying neighbor, or demanding client that’s causing your stress levels to soar, for your dog it could be being left alone at home, shut up in the laundry while visitors are over, or a too loud vacuum cleaner going near their valuable toys.  While the circumstances are very different, the underlying feeling is the same: that something isn’t going the way you want.

How We Process Stress Is Important

No human – or dog – can expect things to go their way all the time.  Rather than trying to control the world, it’s far more productive to learn how to handle stress and frustration in a healthy way.  And just as humans can be taught to channel their frustrations in a better direction – for example, getting lost in loud music rather than resorting to road rage in a traffic jam – dogs too can be taught how to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t involve nuisance barking or chewing up everything in sight.

Read on to find out how to recognize when your dog is feeling stressed, the common causes of stress in dogs, and how to prevent and overcome dog stress once and for all.

Recognizing When Your Dog is Feeling Stressed

Learning the signs that your dog is feeling stressed comes down to a study of your dog’s body language.  After all, dogs don’t have any way of verbally expressing their feelings to us, so they rely on body language and common dog behaviors like barking and nipping.

6 Signs That Your Dog Might Be Frustrated:

  • Obsessive scratching for no other reason.  Anyone who’s seen the new The Secret Life of Pets movie will recognize this behavior in the main character, Max, when he developed an anxiety condition.
  • Pacing back and forth.
  • Nuisance barking or whining.
  • Chewing on the leash.
  • Demanding behaviors like pawing and nudging.
  • Aggressive behaviors including growling and nipping.
  • Defecting or urinating inside their home or crate.

It’s important to remember that no two dogs are exactly the same. Stress and frustration manifest differently in different dogs.  Once you start to recognize the situations that cause your dog to feel stressed, you will be better able to recognize the behaviors that your dog engages in when they’re feeling stressed.

Common Causes of Stress in Dogs

There are plenty of individual circumstances that can cause your dog to feel frustrated, and these will necessarily vary from dog to dog depending on their circumstances.  For example, while one dog may feel frustrated at being ignored while you’re on the phone, another dog may show signs of stress if they’re not being taken for a walk at the usual time.

Different Dogs Are Stressed More By Some Things Than Others

Rather than list a variety of situations that could cause your dog to feel stressed, it’s helpful to attempt to generalize and work out some categories of situations that can cause stress in dogs.

What Causes Stress In Dogs?

Taken in its most general form, it can be argued that all stress originates from a feeling that something isn’t going the way you want.  For humans, time plays a large role in our day-to-day frustrations, whether we’re worried about being late, missing something important, or wasting time somewhere we don’t want to be. 

Dogs Perceive the World Differently Than Humans

For dogs, who don’t have an understanding of time in the same way that humans do, this can translate into a sense of urgency. If a dog wants to go for a walk, they want to do it now – not in 10 minutes once you finish writing that email.  If the dog wants to eat, they want to eat now – not in five minutes after you finish preparing their food.

What Is Canine Separation Anxiety?

Another general category of stress in dogs comes down to their biological role as pack animals, which translates to an innate desire in dogs to be close to their human companions at all times. 

Often referred to as canine separation anxiety by pet behavioral experts, this instinctual source of stress is quite common among many different dog breeds and may cause your dog to exhibit signs of stress when you leave for work, put them outside alone, or otherwise separate yourselves from them.

Change Can Be Stressful For Anyone

Dogs are by and large creatures of habit. Seemingly minor changes to their world can be extremely stressful. Moving, shifts in schedule, new additions to the household (including partners, children, and roommates), and introducing a new dog to your home can all be extremely stressful for pets to process.

Most Dogs Are Comforted By Routines

If you ask most veterinarians or pet behaviorists what the most important thing a caretaker can do when introducing a new dog to their home, most will tell you it is to establish a consistent routine for the pet as quickly as possible.

Routines help dogs determine what are allowed / safe behaviors and what are preferred / rewarded behaviors. In other words, they allow dogs to be confident in their place in the world. Disrupting that confidence is sure to be stressful.

Simple Tips to Prevent and Overcome Dog Stress

Rather than thinking of this exercise as preventing your dog from feeling stressed, it is perhaps more helpful to think of it as helping your dog learn how to handle stress.  After all, no one – dog or human – can have everything go their way all the time. Frustrations will always pop up, and it’s more important that your dog learn resilience in the face of frustrations rather than attempting to keep your dog happy all the time.

These lessons must begin as early as possible, ideally from puppyhood.  If your dog joins your family later in life, begin teaching them how to handle stress as soon as possible.

Are Your Dogs Basic Needs Being Met?

The first and most important step is to make sure that your dog’s immediate needs are completely met.  You need to ensure that your dog really is acting out of frustration and not, for example, because they’re hungry, need to go outside, lack proper shelter, or otherwise feel unsafe in their current living conditions.

Remember That The Past Informs The Present

Your pet might be spoiled rotten today, but it may have had a rougher start to life. If you rescued a dog from a shelter, purchased them from a pet store, or met them through a private seller, there is no telling what their past life was like. Even if you came by your dog from an awesome breeder, your dog may be stressed out by the sudden change in scenery and absence of their litter.

Trust and confidence can take time to build. Regardless of your dog’s situation, it’s important to remember to be consistent and patient as they adapt to their new surroundings.

Impulse Training Can Help Dogs Cope With Anxiety

Once your dog is properly fed, watered, toileted, and exercised (find out how to safely exercise your dog or puppy) you can move on to impulse control training.

Examples of impulse training include:

  • Training your dog to sit calmly and wait for their food bowl to be placed on the floor before they move to it.
  • Teaching your dog to wait a few steps behind the door to allow someone to enter without being sniffed or jumped on immediately.
  • Showing your dog that calm behaviors will be rewarded while demanding behaviors will be ignored.

Put simply, the idea is to teach your dog how to control their impulses and not demand immediate satisfaction every time a new desire crops up.  Once your dog has mastered remaining calm in the face of frustration, they will be far better equipped to handle additional frustrations as they come up in daily life.

Coping With Stress Is A Learned Skill

Dogs – just like humans – do not come with an automatic impulse control system, and both need to learn how to handle and channel their frustrations in an appropriate way.  For dogs, this comes down to effective impulse control training from puppies, or as soon as your dog comes into your life.

Learning to control stress and frustration will always be a work in progress for anyone – humans and canines alike.  But by cultivating trust and the aid of proper training, dogs can learn the valuable skill of how to deal with their frustrations without taking it out on their family and their surroundings.

James Woller is a long-time dog enthusiast, and co-owner of Jet Pet Resort and Release the Hounds, professional dog service companies based in Vancouver, Canada. James is also the executive director of Thrive For Good (previously Organics for Orphans), a non-profit movement to secure organic food and natural medicine in impoverished countries.

James Woller is a guest contributor and his advice and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Puptrait Studio. Please note this post has been edited for clarity and to meet out studio’s editorial web standards. If you are a pet or veterinary professional and would be interested in contributing to the Puptrait Studio blog please contact us.

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