Trying To Ease Your Dog’s Stress

You may think Fido's got it easy, but a dog's life is far more stressful than you might think. How – and why – you should help your dog relax.


[Updated November 8, 2017]

Stress. Everyone knows what it feels like. Tight shoulders. Headache. Insomnia. Upset stomach. Everyone knows what can trigger it. Rush hour traffic. Deadlines. An insensitive boss. A toddler having a day of tantrums, unexpected bills, or taxes.

We also know that too much stress can actually make us ill. Ulcers and high blood pressure are prime examples. A recent study noted that 19 percent of employees who call in sick on any particular day do so because they simply felt they needed a day off.

Compared to our stress-filled lives, our dogs have it really easy, right? Well, sometimes. The fact is, our dogs can be and often are stressed by numerous factors in their lives, too. The stressors may seem insignificant to us, as we grapple with the difficult processes of making money, paying the bills, and handling the relationships in our lives. But, examined from their perspective, a dog’s life can be very difficult indeed. And once you are familiar with the body-language indicators of stress, you can easily observe that many dogs are tense much of the time.

stressed out chihuahua

Studying Signs of Stress in Dogs

Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer who has conducted much study of dogs’ “calming signals” (discussed in the August 1999 issue of Whole Dog Journal), has identified a number of behaviors that she believes are indicators of excessive or unhealthy stress:

• Vomiting
• Panting
• Excessive barking, whining
• Aggression
• Pacing
• Excessive licking
• Digging
• Chewing
• Biting the leash
• Shedding
• Dandruff
• Sweaty paws
• Red eyes
• Foam drool
• Tense muscles
• Bloat
• Dilated pupils
• Excessive tail wagging
• Shivering (when it’s not cold)

Stressful situations, Rugaas believes, can and do contribute to a number of health problems in dogs. The more we understand the external contributing factors that lead to stress, and the better comprehension we have of the physiology of stress, the better equipped we will be to help our dogs relax into a long, healthy life.

It doesn’t take an expert to determine the more obvious canine stressors; this can be gleaned from our own observations of our dogs’ behavior. Many dogs dread going to the veterinarian’s office. Panting, sweaty paws, and diarrhea may accompany these necessary visits, and the vet’s examining table will be covered in shed hairs. Riding in the car, while a delight for some dogs, is a form of torture for others. Tense muscles, vomiting, foam drool or excessive barking may accompany these automobile trips. Being left home alone is highly stressful for some canines, who are highly social pack animals by nature. These individuals may develop bloat, dig, pace, chew, or bark excessively. Dogs who are concerned about their obedience lessons or being in the presence of other dogs while on lead often bite the leash or run away when the leash comes out. And fearful dogs, when feeling pushed into a corner, may act out with unwanted aggression.

But Rugaas also regards many other activities – some of which are thought by most dog owners to be pure fun for their dogs – to be overly stressful for some dogs. For instance, she feels that active play for 30 minutes or more can stress our dogs out for several days at a time. She recommends that dog owners refrain from engaging their dogs in highly active play more than twice a week. That includes intense games of Frisbee or fetch. And she suggests that we do not play ball immediately after we come home, since our dogs’ adrenaline will already be quite high in anticipation of our arrival from work. According to Rugaas, playing too much may be just as harmful as working too much.

Doggie daycare, while used by many to alleviate the stress of the home-alone dog, can itself be a stress-maker. Joining with a group of canine friends usually provides lots of excitement, which needs to be balanced by adequate down time. Make sure your facility offers and enforces quiet time.

A Balanced Life for Dogs

Too much competition can also cause undue stress. Three-day agility courses are fun, but they get that adrenaline running overtime. Being on the show circuit is hard on a dog’s body and mind. The body’s stress-chemical production is cumulative and can take weeks to months to return to normal. While intense play may not seem like a problem in itself, combine that with a host of other identified stressors such as boredom, poor diet, excessive noise, moving to a new home, or addition of new animals into the family and you have a recipe for trouble.

The Physiology of Canine Stress

Medical encyclopedias define stress as any emotional, physical, social, or any other factor that elicits any response in a subject. The stresses we are concerned with, however, are factors that trigger the release of what is commonly called the “fight or flight” chemical: adrenaline.

stressed out lab

In simple terms, the brain “tells” the rest of the body what to do, by sending messages through the nerves that branch from the brain down the spine and out to the periphery of the body. Half of this communication system is comprised of the voluntary nervous system – the part of the system under our conscious control. We decide to move a muscle and the body responds. Thus we can choose to brush our hair, pet our dogs, or take a walk on the beach. And our dogs may give us a paw, heel at our side or scratch behind an ear.

The other half of the nervous system, called the involuntary or autonomic nervous system, projects to organs besides skeletal muscle and controls the less conscious bodily functions such blushing, sweating and getting gooseflesh, or for dogs, raising hackles and shedding.

Action/Reaction in the Nervous System

The involuntary or autonomic nervous system is further divided into two halves: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by our response to stress, kicking into action when our action is called for.

Whenever life gets exciting or alarming, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline into the bloodstream. Excitement can happen visiting the dog park, playing ball or a game of tug-of-war, or at the approach of a stranger.

The 4 F’s of instinctive behavior – flight, fight, faint and fooling around – are all accompanied by production of adrenaline. Constant activation of this stress-response can deplete the body, create fatigue and eventually lead to muscle atrophy.

Adrenaline is secreted by the sympathetic nerve endings in the adrenal glands. Noradrenaline, a related substance, is secreted by all of the other sympathetic nerve endings throughout the body. These are the chemical messengers that kick various organs into gear, within a fraction of a second, causing the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to increase in order to transport nutrients and oxygen at greater rates of speed. Digestion is inhibited, as is growth, in order to conserve energy. This is why a continually stressed puppy may not reach its full growth potential. In the frequent presence of adrenaline, the immune system is also inhibited, which can make an animal more susceptible to disease.

Over long periods of time, the presence of high amounts of adrenaline can cause serious damage to the body. When the dog’s blood pressure is continually high, damage begins to occur at branch points in arteries throughout the body, and fatty deposits begin to form a thickening of the blood vessel linings. It may take time for the negative results of chronic stress to become apparent, but because they are invisible doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The second half of the involuntary or autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, complements the sympathetic nervous system. Whereas the sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress, the parasympathetic nervous system is suppressed by stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system helps the subject engage in vegetative, relaxing activities. Digestion and rest are mediated by this part of our nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system secretes chemical substances which encourage the exact opposite functions as the sympathetic nervous system. Where the sympathetic system elevates the heart beat, the parasympathetic slows it down after the crisis has passed.

Stress Reduction for Dogs

Some situations – like shipping a dog on an airplane across the country or a dog staying in an animal shelter – are well-known stressors that can alter a dog’s physiology for days or even weeks. Rugaas recommends that shelters give all dogs at least six days to adapt to the stressful environment before making decisions to euthanize based on behavior. Providing a den to hide out in will help new arrivals cope. When adopting a dog, be flexible and forgiving for the first couple of weeks. Let your new family member take it easy and have time to adjust. Some apparent problems may vanish as stress hormone levels decrease.

Remember that the key to a happy, healthy dog is balance. Too much or too little exercise can be harmful. The same is true for socialization. Remember that major life changes – new pets in the family, a divorce, a move to a new home – are almost always stressful. Inconsistency can frustrate your dog, be it an irregular feeding program or lack of follow-through in training. Boredom may be your dog’s bug-a-boo, or it may be harsh training methods. And make sure that your dog has a thorough veterinary examination annually. Pain and injury is often at the seat of unwanted aggressive behavior. Besides acting out as a way of protecting herself, your dog may be experiencing chronic stress from unrecognized pain. Older dogs may have arthritis and many dogs have had past injuries – whacked tails, a bad fall, or an old bite – that, even when healed, still cause them to exhibit a protective attitude. Be careful about pushing any dog into situations where she may be uncomfortable.

TTouch Helps Relaxation

Is there anything we can do besides being mindful about keeping stressors to a minimum in our dogs’ lives? As a TTouch practitioner, I can testify about the effectiveness of this form of body work to affect the nervous system and bring relaxation. This, in turn, can help strengthen the immune response. The easy-to-learn circular touches and gentle lifts may actually help to change the hormonal balance in the body. These TTouches can also help a dog gain awareness of his own bodily tension – a stress response – and help with its release.

ttouch ear slides

One needn’t understand anything about the science behind TTouch (discussed thoroughly in “A Touch Should Do It,” WDJ July 1998 and “A Calming TTouch,” WDJ May 1999) to be effective. Simply making a connection with the pads of the fingers and moving the skin over the muscle in a clockwise circular motion, doing just a circle and a quarter, can help your dogs recover from stress while helping to reduce your own. Doing brief sessions of TTouch all over your dog’s body during quiet times can help fully activate the parasympathetic system and bring awareness of the relaxed state.

Then, when you take your dog to the vet, or enter into some other stressful situation, a few TTouches can act as a bodily reminder to stay calm. Or, when loud noises get your dog’s adrenaline pumping, a few circular TTouches and gentle stroking of the ears can bring a quick return to a more relaxed state.

Be aware of your own rhythmic breathing, taking periodic deep breaths, and this, too, will help your dog remain calm, focused and relaxed. And remember, whatever you do to help your canine best friend remain stress-free should carry over into your own life, leading to greater health, relaxation and more enjoyment for you both.

Suggested Reading

Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has written a very witty and informative book on stress called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, in which he thoroughly describes the physiology and chemistry of stress in animals (including humans).

Neuroscientist Candace Pert’s book, Molecules of Emotion, will also further your understanding of the physiology of stress.

Author Jodi Frediani has spent a lifetime working with animals of all kinds. She is a Certified TTOUCH Companion Animal Instructor and TTEAM Horse Practitioner. She attended her first dog obedience classes at age 12, has been involved with TTEAM/TTOUCH since 1985 and currently teaches clinics in the United States and Africa.