These Signs Might Mean Your Dog Is Stressed Out

Here's how to help her relax 💕

Do you suspect that your dog is stressed out?

Believe it or not, dogs can totally experience this common human emotion. And just like with us, some dogs may even become debilitated when under stress.

To understand what stress in dogs actually looks like, The Dodo reached out to Dr. Walter Burghardt, Jr., a veterinarian at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital, to learn about the signs (and how to treat it).

Signs of distress in dogs

“A brief preface — I prefer using the term ‘distress’ to describe problem situations that may require intervention, since a stress response is normal in animals and humans and consists of behavioral and physiological responses to situations,” Dr. Burghardt told The Dodo. “Distress (fear, anxiety) on the other hand refers to situations in which a stressor is intense, prolonged and/or cannot be reduced to a tolerable level.”

According to Dr. Burghardt, signs of distress in dogs are usually indicated by their behavior, and there are two general types of behaviors to look out for when trying to figure out if your dog’s in distress: physiological changes and behavioral reactions.

Common physiological changes

According to Dr. Burghardt, the most common changes in your dog’s body language in response to stress include:

  • Folding back of the ears
  • Tucking the tail
  • Crouching
  • Dilating pupils
  • Yawning
  • Panting (when not environmentally or exercise-related)
  • Whining

“In really distressing situations, crying/howling and urinating/defecating can also be seen,” Dr. Burghardt said.

Common behavioral responses

When it comes to behavioral responses to distress, your dog may do any of the following:

  • Attempt to escape or avoid the distressing event
  • Increase social distance behaviors (like growling, barking, lunging or biting)
  • Freeze (taking a rigid stance and not doing any typical behaviors)

Why is your dog in distress?

According to Dr Burghardt, there are three big reasons that your dog might be feeling more stressed out (or in distress) than usual.

Something scary happened

Your dog might be stressed because something really scared her in her past.

“Distress can be seen when dogs are exposed to intense novel events or repeatedly encounter previously distressing events to which they have become sensitized,” Dr. Burghardt explained. “Some dogs seem really resistant to or resilient when exposed to potentially scary novel events or those associated with uncomfortable outcomes, while other dogs are more sensitive to these situations.”

This basically means that if your dog has a history of being scared of fireworks, she’ll likely feel distressed every Fourth Of July.

Her environment has changed

Your dog might also be stressed if something recently changed in her routine or surroundings.

“In addition to these dispositional differences, radically changing a dog’s environment (as seen through their eyes) may predispose them to be more distressed and/or reactive to additional changes,” Dr. Burghardt said.

Intense environmental changes can include things like moving from one home to another and at the same time adding a new family member — which could be just too much change at once for one pup!

There’s something medically wrong

It’s also important to know that sometimes dogs can become fearful, anxious, withdrawn or reactive if something is medically wrong. “Pain, failing vision or hearing and general malaise can all contribute to distress,” Dr. Burghardt said.

How to prevent stress in dogs

In general, the best way to prevent your dog from becoming distressed is to proactively learn your dog’s limits for new environmental and social settings.

“Once these are better understood, rewarding calm and inquisitive behavior during gradual and graded exposure to challenging situations can often avoid future problems,” Dr. Burghardt said. “In addition, these kinds of exercises can instill confidence in a dog and make them a lot more fun to take on adventures as time goes on.”

Using the method of positive reinforcement when letting your dog explore other animals, people, places, sights and sounds can help build her confidence and make her less stressed down the road.

It’s best to get started building your dog’s confidence as a puppy rather than later, and be prepared to intervene if you notice signs of stress.

“If problem behavior is noted during adventures, early intervention guided by a reward-based trainer may prevent bigger problems later,” Dr. Burghardt said.

How to treat stress in dogs

If a dog is already showing signs of distress, it may be necessary to medically reduce their anxiety and physiological arousal to help them out.

Home remedies just don’t always work when your dog is really struggling.

“This is particularly important with intense fear responses or anxiety that is getting progressively worse over time,” Dr. Burghardt said. “The best place to start is with the pet’s attending veterinarian to identify and treat any medical contributions to distress, and to begin any anti-anxiety medications and other treatments that may help.”

Again, the watchful eye and help of a reward-based trainer may also be indicated.

“Board-certified veterinary behaviorists are available in most areas, and can help manage recovery plans through consultation and referral from attending veterinarians,” Dr. Burghardt said. “They provide advanced expertise in medical management, environmental enrichment and behavioral modification for these and other behavioral concerns.”

If you think your pup is showing intense signs of distress, your best bet is to talk to your veterinarian to get her the help she needs — and look forward to all the snuggles you’ll be getting once she feels like herself again.