How to help a stressed dog

Stress sucks. As adults, for the most part we can communicate with each other about how we’re feeling, but how do you help a stressed dog?

Like people, dogs experience stress and anxiety as a result of genetic predisposition, previous experiences, and their surroundings. Fireworks, thunderstorms and unexpected vet visits are some major culprits behind canine stress, but just about anything can trigger frustration, boredom, anxiety, or fear in a dog.

Understanding the signs a dog is stressed and how to help a stressed dog means you can more effectively and efficiently provide the care they need to feel calm again.

Signs a dog is stressed

When a dog is stressed, the logical part of the brain (the cortical system) is overtaken by the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system). This makes it virtually impossible for your dog to think clearly and may spur on behaviours that seem out of the ordinary.

Hormones also play a big role in stress. When your dog’s stress starts to spike, in comes cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)… just to name a few. Unfortunately, your dog can’t control this hormonal rush, but as their parent, learning your dog’s body language can often help to deescalate stressors before they send your pup into a frenzy.

Keep an eye out for signs like:

  • Dilated pupils or wide eyes
  • Tense muscles (especially tight lips) and on high alert
  • Raised hackles (the fur along your dog’s back)
  • Panting, barking or whining
  • Flat ears or a low tail (may have a short wag)

EXPERT TIP: There’s a lot we can learn from our dog’s tail wagging tendencies. Tails serve many purposes, but the primary one is communication!

Stress will present differently depending on your dog’s personality. Because you know them best, you have the best read on what’s a departure from normal, everyday behaviour. Some dogs will hide, cower, or refuse to move at all, while others become hyperactive, unable to settle, or even behave aggressively (baring their teeth, lunging, and sometimes even biting).

There are also a set of non-specific signs to monitor. Being “non-specific” means the root cause isn’t necessarily stress. If any of these seem to consistently pop up, especially when your dog is in a calm or otherwise neutral state, book a consult with your veterinarian.

  • Drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • Spontaneous anal gland expression
  • Refusal to eat

Helping a stressed-out dog: What (not) to do

If there’s one thing to remember, it’s to never punish your dog for a stress-induced accident on the carpet or rug no matter how much it might upset you. Keep in mind your dog is in an an elevated emotional state; not only will they not grasp their mistake, your discipline or punishment will only exacerbate how they’re feeling.

So how can you help relieve some of these stressed-out signs?

  1. Know what stresses your dog out. Especially if your dog is predisposed to stress, it helps to keep a list of what might or will set them off. Discuss these with your veterinarian so you can make a plan and know when further intervention (like a muzzle or a veterinary behaviourist) is needed.
  2. Stay out of your dog’s reach. We’re all a little unpredictable when we’re emotional. Don’t put yourself at risk unless absolutely necessary.
  3. If possible, remove the source of stress. Sometimes this involves removing an object from your dog’s line of view, while other times you may need to relocate your dog to a different (and ideally more calming) environment.
  4. Make a slip lead if you’re shy on time. If your dog isn’t on a leash and you don’t think you’ll have time to fasten it properly, putting the snap of the leash through the handle will produce a slip lead that will keep your dog in place.

Because dogs can’t communicate in the same way we do, it makes sense dog parents have a lot of questions when it comes to how to help a stressed dog. Let’s cover some of the most common ones.

Can dogs throw up from stress?

EXPERT TIP: If your dog’s gut is giving them grief for longer than a day, it’s a good time to give your vet a call. In the meantime, swap out their regular dog food for an easily digestible diet of cooked lean hamburger and rice or boiled chicken and rice.

Unfortunately, if your dog is experiencing severe stress, vomiting may be an icky side effect. Short-term stress often leads to a decrease or lack of appetite, dog stress diarrhea, and nausea, too.

Why? Because stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response, which releases some of the hormones we mentioned earlier like cortisol and epinephrine. Among other things, these hormones divert blood away from the gastrointestinal tracts and can inhibit digestion, causing muscle tension in the abdomen that can bring on nausea and, at times, vomiting.

Do dogs shed when stressed?

EXPERT TIP: There are other reasons your floof’s fluff may fly. These include thick-furred breeds whose undercoats shed more than others, seasonal shedding, nutritional deficiencies (e.g., low fat content, reduced zinc absorption), and diseases like hypothyroidism or allergies.

You bet they do. Remember epinephrine? When a dog (or a human) is stressed, this hormone releases from the adrenal glands. This release can also cause some of your dog’s fur to detach, leading to tufts and fluffs on the vet office floor.

Although researchers have yet to exactly pinpoint why this happens, we know it’s often an indicator of stress.

If you’re noticing a steady shed, especially if their hair is not growing back, book an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out something with roots deeper than stress or anxiety.

Why is my dog stressed at night?

Often we hear from dog parents that the volume on their dog’s stress levels seems to turn up at night. There are a few reasons why this might be the case:

  • Pain and discomfort. Arthritis and other painful conditions may flare at nighttime when they are lying for longer periods of time, causing your dog to become restless and maybe more vocal than usual.
  • Loss of bodily function. Nobody likes feeling out of control. The sudden onset of stress may mean your dog needs to use the bathroom, but if they’re the type who knows not to wake you, you’re likely to be woken anyway by their anxious pacing around the house.
  • Anxiety. Speaking of anxious behaviours, the nighttime quiet may make the wind and other weather noises seem more menacing to your dog than during the day. It can also be tougher for dogs to see in the dark or dim lighting; this adds further fuel to the fire.
  • Cognitive dysfunction. Doggy dementia often presents as more sleep during the day (and, therefore, less at night), overnight vocalizations, aimless wandering, lack of interest or enthusiasm, inappropriate urination and defecation, forgetting commands, an inability to recognize familiar faces, and sundowning (restlessness and pacing around sunset).

The best thing you can do is try to isolate and eliminate the cause. If your dog is sore, they may have a hard time settling; on the other hand, a dog experiencing thunderstorm anxiety may wake in the middle of the night needing comfort and cuddles. From orthopedic beds to pheromone plug-ins and a relaxing bedtime routine, there’s plenty you can do to promote nighttime zen.

If all your efforts come up unsuccessful, don’t hesitate to contact your local vet clinic. Your veterinary team will work with you to figure out what’s going on and provide guidance and suggestions to turn things around.

My dog has bloodshot eyes. Is this from stress?

It could be. Sometimes when a dog is stressed they’ll open their eyes as wide as they can. Thanks to a hormone-induced surge of blood, your dog’s eyes may appear red… as can their face, ears, and face (all places where there are capillaries close to the skin’s surface). If you notice the redness disappears as the stress melts, the two are likely linked.

If, on the other hand, the redness sticks around, your dog may have an eye condition. Monitor for tearing or discharge, pawing or rubbing at the eye, squinting, or swollen eyelids; all of these warrant an emergency vet visit to prevent permanent optical damage.

How to help a stressed dog

We’ve covered some of these tips to calm a stressed dog already, but we think they warrant repeating. Try as many avenues as you can to bring your dog out of a stressed state; however, don’t beat yourself up if they don’t prove successful. It’s okay to need help.

EXPERT TIP: Not sure which enrichment toys will make the grade? Our vets can help! Subscribe to Waggle Mail and we’ll curate a dog subscription box that’s perfectly suited for your pup.

  1. Be mindful of your dog’s surroundings. If a stressor is in their midst, do what you can to remove it (or them) from the situation. If your dog is crate trained and their crate is readily accessible, this is always a good option. If not, find somewhere quiet where they won’t be disrupted.
  2. Stay calm. Dogs are like sponges: they soak up any emotional information you provide. Modelling calm and collected will help your dog feel more at ease.
  3. Provide enrichment. Distractions take your dog’s eye and mind off the stressor when it’s not possible to change locations. A vet-recommended chew or mental enrichment toy will do the trick!
  4. Get active. Exercise releases endorphins, helping your dog feel good and relaxed.
  5. Try pheromones. Products from brands like Adaptil prompt feelings of well-being while reducing anxiety.
  6. Keep change to a minimum. Dogs prefer routine (as do most of us humans). Because we can’t rationalize with dogs when change is imminent or inevitable, it’s best to try to stick to habits and schedules that your dog can come to rely on… especially if they’re the anxious type.
  7. Consider medication. There is absolutely no shame in prescription medication. If this is a route your veterinarian recommends, don’t feel ashamed—remember this is being done in an effort to help your dog feel better, not worse.

Can dogs reduce stress?

Yes! There are countless benefits to having a dog at home. From brief interactions to lengthy cuddle sessions, dogs have been shown to decrease our cortisol (stress hormone) levels and give us a boost of oxytocin (the hormone responsible for social bonding). At a physical level, you’ll likely experience reduced blood pressure and an overall sense of satisfaction and calm.

We’ve also seen this science put to word with animal-assisted therapy. Many nursing homes, hospitals, and even universities have therapy dog programs to help reduce stress in all its many forms.

Less stress, more snuggles, please!

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