Is My Dog Stressed?

If dogs could speak, they would probably be barking up a storm about their human pet peeves that make your dog stressed. Being pack animals; however, dogs have survived over the ages by evolving a different means of communicating with one another. It’s not like human language or facial expressions. In the wild, dogs developed body language and behaviors that have a calming effect so the animals can cooperatively hunt for prey, raise their young, and resolve conflicts without violence.

Dogs continued to communicate this way as they became domesticated and moved into homes, becoming one of people’s favorite pets. 

Unfortunately, often we misinterpret these signals by punishing our dogs when we should comfort them and by giving off body language of our own that would be considered offensive in the dog world, such as bending over or staring at them.

Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, says that canines tend to have about 30 “calming” behaviors or signals. Since this is the only way that dogs know how to communicate, they use these signals with humans all the time, but often we don’t pick up on what they’re saying.

That is the dog’s language. It can tell you how the dog is feeling, what its emotions are,” Rugaas says. “You can misread the language if you do not see the signs. Then you can do a lot of damage. The dog will get frustrated. It feels that nobody understands.”

Here’s how to read the signs that your dog is stressed:

What Are the Signs That My Dog is Stressed?

A dog may not be saying what you think it is saying with its behavior. Take yawning, for example. Yawning to humans means boredom or tiredness. In the dog world, however, yawning “means that a dog is a little stressed or, for some reason, a little bit excited or starting to get worried,” Rugaas says. Another signal of stress may be lip-licking, “like they just ate something yummy,” says Nan Kene Arthur, a trainer and behaviorist in El Cajon, Calif., and author of Chill Out Fido!: How to Calm Your Dog (Dogwise Training Manual).

Dog Stress Signals

While every dog will have slightly distinct ways of communicating stress, experts say that most canines tend to use some of the following techniques to calm themselves or others in certain situations:

  • Turning Away 

When a stranger approaches from the front, the dog will either turn away or turn its head. The same reaction is likely if the dog is taken by surprise by a person or other dog. The turning has a calming effect on the dog and the approaching dog, Rugaas says.

  • Bowing 

A dog that lowers its front paws is often extending an invitation to play. This action is a calming technique designed to diffuse situations, Rugaas says. The dog also may use this signal when it is afraid of other dogs or people but wants to be included.

  • Walking Slowly 

When hunting prey, dogs tend to chase at high speed. Conversely, a dog that is feeling scared or timid will walk slowly, Rugaas says.

  • Sniffing the Ground 

If you are walking your dog on a leash and it hears a loud noise, the dog may try to relax by engaging its sense of smell. “All of a sudden, the nose hits the ground,” Arthur says. “The dog is trying to calm itself down after hearing the noise.”

How Dogs Interpret Human Behavior

Many things that humans do can send the wrong signals to their dogs, making their dog stressed. You can create anxiety when you mean to be friendly. If your dog walks slowly in response to your call, think about whether your tone of voice is angry. If you bark out a command, your dog may lick its lips or yawn. Don’t respond with a scolding, as if a child just disrespected you, but try to understand that your actions may have created stress. 

To help our pets calm themselves, Rugaas says we need to understand better the effect that our actions have on our canine friends. Here are some human actions that might stress your dog:

  • Staring 

Staring into a dog’s eyes can be interpreted as threatening behavior, Rugaas says. Look away when approaching.

  • Bending Over Them 

Even if you mean to stroke your dog’s coat, this may be considered menacing. Approach from the side, Rugaas says.

  • Approaching Head-On

Your dog may see a frontal approach as aggressive. Dogs tend to walk in curves when approaching one another. It would help if you tried this, too.

  • Rapid Movements 

Approaching fast can cause your dog alarm, even if you were going to hug it. Try moving more slowly and calmly.

A dog must ultimately calm itself down, but an owner can mimic the dog world’s calming signals and stop the offensive behavior. “You can give off calming signals to show that you are friendly,” Rugaas says. “But you also have to take away the reason for the dog to react to you. That’s the most important thing. The dog is telling you that you are impolite. You are not nice. You need to stop what you are doing and do it differently.”

How Can I Relieve My Dog’s Stress?

While doggie yoga classes and acupuncture sessions are all the rage, dog experts caution that those activities may ultimately backfire. Instead of relaxing your dog, classes and office visits may create stress. At the same time, while some exercise is healthy for your pup, too much non-stop exercise (such as jogging with your dog) may relax you and stress out your dog.  For de-stressing that can work for dogs and owners alike, Rugaas recommends taking short walks with your dog during which it can act naturally and stop and sniff around. Dogs enjoy using their senses to search and explore.

Being with other dogs to get acquainted, or to take a walk, can also be relaxing for your dog.

Arthur suggests that, instead of over-scheduling your dog with outside activities, you can provide it with some mental stimulation. A variety of chew toys, bones, and “food puzzles” (toys that they have to move around to make food come out) can be entertaining and relaxing for your dog.

“We’re too busy trying to fit our dogs into our lifestyle with all this strange and unnatural stuff,” Rugaas says. It’s better to stick with what comes naturally to calm your dog down.

Article written by Author: Elizabeth Wasserman

How Do I Know If My Dog Is Stressed

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