Why is it important?
Although dogs and humans have evolved together over thousands of years (and possibly much longer), they, like us, still find the modern world very stressful. In this factsheet, we'll look at the common causes of stress, how to tell whether your dog is stressed; and what you can do about it.
What makes dogs stressed?
There are a number of situations in which most dogs will display signs of stress (although how severely will of course depend on the individual dog). Activities such as going to the groomer or (worse!) the vet are common stressors, because nasty things have happened there, or it smells funny, or there are other scared dogs there. Going away from home into a foreign territory is also worrying, as is finding strange, new people (or dogs) in their territory (i.e. at home). Loud and unexpected noises (like fireworks) are also commonly scary - dogs' hearing is much more acute than ours, so they hear things much more clearly! Perhaps the most stressful situation of all, however, is being left alone - dogs are social animals and find being "abandoned" (even if only for a brief period) is very unpleasant.
Why do I need to recognise stress?
However, some dogs cope better with stressful situations than others - it depends on their experience and their personality type. While one dog might be going frantic that they've been left alone, another might be a little anxious but OK, and a third might just shrug philosophically and curl up to sleep until you come home. As a result, it's important that you know how to recognise the signs of stress - ideally before it gets out of hand!
Symptom 1 - Display
These are things your dog does to let you know that they aren't happy! Typical signs include drooling (in the absence of food), panting, and shaking, shivering or trembling.
Symptom 2 - Escape
Many dogs will show signs of trying to escape (physically or as a displacement reaction) the cause of the stress. This would include hiding (many dogs will run behind the sofa or under the table if they think something nasty is about to occur…) or even full-blown escape attempts (dog injured jumping through window is a remarkably common occurrence around firework season, for example).
Symptom 3 - Aggression
With any threat, if the dog cannot escape it, they will try to frighten it off or, as a last resort, attack it. So, very stressed dogs may start making threat displays (hackles up, barking, growling) and, if it all gets too much, they will bite - and if they're in a panic, they may not be as discriminating in who they bite as we might like. There may also be displacement reactions, where dogs attack inanimate objects - this is a possible cause of destructive behaviour in separation anxiety, in particular.
Solution 1 - Avoid
If your dog is stressed by something, the simplest solution is to try and avoid it! However, this can actually make the fear worse, and usually puts a massive crimp on your social life, so there are other, often better, approaches.
Solution 2 - Pheromones
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is a synthetic version of the scent that a bitch makes to reassure her puppies that they are safe. It is sold as Adaptil, and is remarkably effective at helping to manage all kinds of stress. In the house, it is available as a diffuser; for out and about, there are collars. Interestingly, every dog rehomed by the Dogs Trust is sent out with an Adaptil collar to help them settle into their new home!
Solution 3 - Calming Agents
There are a wide range of "calming" products on the market nowadays; these often contain tryptophan (an amino acid that is widely assumed to have calming properties, although there isn't much good quality research into it) or assorted herbs (again, research is largely lacking). Note that absence of evidence does not mean they don't work - we just don't know if they do! The one that there is good scientific evidence for is a product called Zylkene, which contains the milk-protein casein. In the stomach, this protein is converted to a valium-like chemical, causing calmness and sleepiness, so this might be worth a shot.
Solution 4 (and best!) - Professional Behavioural Advice
If your dog is excessively stressed, is becoming aggressive, or is stressed all the time, it's time to seek help. Your vet can refer you to a fully qualified canine behaviourist who will work with you to help your pet. If it's a one-off or unusual event that your dog struggles with (such as fireworks, or moving house), vets can prescribe prescription calming medications (such as diazepam or midazolam), but these are only suitable for short term use. In most cases, a behavioural programme is more appropriate.
If your dog is stressed or unhappy, it's something you have to deal with. Minor stress can be managed with at home with advice from your vet, but more serious issues may need a canine behaviourist's input. If you are concerned about your dog, make an appointment to see your vet to chat about it.