Stress Signals

Dog in Shadows

Dogs are very good communicators. The problem is that they do not communicate in the same way that we do. Dogs use their body language to communicate. If you observe dogs interacting you’ll see this. Every part of a dog’s body is used: his eyes, mouth, ears, tail, head, etc. You certainly know what a dog is trying to say to you if he growls at you. He’s warning you to back off and you best listen or there’s a good chance you’ll get bit. If you want to be successful at training dogs or just want to be a better dog owner, then learn about canine body language. This is especially important when working with a dog that’s stressed.

There are many reasons why it’s important to learn about stress indicators.

  • Stress can have a negative impact on your dog’s health.
  • Stress can cause aggression. Dogs do what comes naturally to protect themselves.
  • Stress greatly reduces your dog from being able to learn.
  • Stress may make your dog completely shut down.

There are many stress signals that dogs use. Many signals can have more than one meaning. It’s important to look at all the signals your dog is using to get a better idea what he’s trying to say. Here are some stress signals.

  • Refusing to take treats or food (when the dog otherwise would) can be a stress signal. Stress causes the appetite to shut down.
  • Drooling may be an indication of stress or a response to food if present.
  • A low body posture can indicate stress or a lower ranking dog submitting to a dog of higher status.
  • Stress may cause a dog to avert his eyes and turn his head away. He does this in hopes that the stressor will disappear.
  • Many dogs become stressed when riding in vehicles. This may cause your dog to vomit or poop in the vehicle.
  • A shake off is very often misread by humans. Dogs do this when they’re wet, but more often it’s because a stressor is present. Quite often I see this when I’m working with a dog that is used to getting his own way and is stressed because I’ve asked him to do something he doesn’t want to do.
  • Vocalizations such as whining can also indicate stress. This can also be a way of demanding attention that has worked.
  • Scratching or licking quite often indicate stress. This is very common when training dogs.
  • Dogs who flick their tongues as if they’re licking their lips are quite often indicating that a stressor is present.
  • A stressed dog may seek contact with a human as reassurance. The dog may cling or lean into you.
  • A dog may use his mouth inappropriately when stressed. This can be a gentle nibbling or a painful snap or even bite. This may seem to come out of the blue and quite often surprises the owner.

As you can tell, there are many ways that dogs communicate to humans and other dogs when they are stressed. More often than not, these signals go unnoticed or are misunderstood by humans.

So how can we help a dog that is stressed? The first step is to identify the stressor(s). Examples of stressors could be: a person or child, noise or excitement, an approaching dog, a barking dog, the mail man, men with facial hair, a person wearing a hat, a new environment, a crying baby, the car, a shock collar or invisible fence, etc. Once the stressor is identified, you want to decrease the intensity of that stimulus until your dog no longer shows signs of stress. This is most often accomplished by simply increasing the distance from the stressor until your dog can relax. This distance is where you need to work to implement a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization to change your dog’s association with the stressor from a negative to a positive one.

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