Dogs and Stress
When we think of stress, we associate it with problems at work, disagreements with our spouses, friends or family members, money issues or health problems. Our dogs who live in the lap of luxury have no reason to be stressed. After all, they get everything they want handed to them! Well, that’s not always enough for our canine companions. The best food and treats, newest toys and softest beds sometimes cannot soothe what ails them. Stress for dogs (and humans too) can be a result of no control over their environment. Let’s face it, most dogs depend on us to feed them, to take them outside to eliminate, for play, and for health care. They are dependent on us for survival. Lack of control can be a stressor in and of itself. When we do not provide for their needs, dogs feel stress. The classic example of this is the dog who spends his days tethered alone outside. He has absolutely no control over anything. He is lonely and cannot leave to go find a friend. He may need food and water and cannot get to it. He also may need shelter.
Where does stress come from for dogs?
Health issues are one of the most serious stressors for dogs. Dogs are great at covering up their pain – it’s a survival instinct. But if a dog is in pain, you can bet he’s stressed. Some dogs will bite if they are in pain as a result of the stress. That’s why a physical checkup by your veterinarian is so important if your dog’s behavior changes.
Dogs love to be around their fellow canines. For the most part. But like humans, sometimes dogs don’t like each other. Being forced to cohabitate with a dog he doesn’t like is stressful. He may act out this stress by attacking the other dog. He’s labeled as a ‘bad dog’ when in reality, he’s trying to tell you something. He’s feeling stressed. The same issues occur when there are many dogs in a household and the humans are not good pack leaders. The more dogs in the home, the more structure and discipline is required to keep the pack happy and stable. The lack of leadership from humans will create insecurity and stress in some dogs.
Changes in Routine:
Dogs really are creatures of habit. They learn quickly and pick up on our patterns. But when the routine changes, some dogs cannot handle it. Separation anxiety and other anxiety-based issues occur. A new baby in the house, a divorce or a move are all examples of changes that cause stress for our dogs.
Emotional Issues in the Home:
Dogs are magnets for our emotions. My dog, Archie, is very sensitive to my emotions. He’ll rub his face on mine if he senses that I’m upset. Most dogs pick up on your emotions but may not show it quite like Archie, but may internalize the stress. If you have a family situation where there is a lot of yelling and tension, your dog will notice it and his behavior may change. Or he may develop health issues.
Many couples I work with have conflicting methods of training their dogs. One person may be a loving nurturer while the other person is more demanding and harsh. The dog will be conflicted and unsure of how to behave because of this inconsistency. A good example of this is a dog who likes to steal objects. One family member is consistent with not chasing and yelling at the dog while other family members think it’s a fun game to chase the dog. Consequently, the dog never learns to stop stealing. And eventually the dog chews something valuable and gets scolded. That’s simply not fair.
Boredom, Lack of Exercise:
Like the dog who is chained up outside all day, any dog who is not given enough to do or provided with an outlet for his energy will be stressed. There are two Border Collies living in my neighborhood. Anyone who knows anything about this type of dog understands that they need exercise – mental and physical. These poor dogs get neither. Their owners walk them to the corner of their small property to eliminate and they go right back into the house. You can see these sad dogs watching at the window all day, barking hysterically at anything that passes by. They are literally going nuts.
All of the above stressors will cause the very best behaved dog to act out. It’s a cry for help. Just because they can’t talk doesn’t mean that they can’t communicate. It’s up to us to know our dogs and learn what they are trying to tell us.