Is my dog stressed?
Q. My little FiFi yawns whenever I go to the dog park. I thought it was pretty cute, but my friend said my dog is stressed. Is that true?
A. Dogs have several ways to express stress and concerns. As our best friend’s guardian, it is up to us to recognize these signs. Your friend is correct that yawning is a sign of stress, but there are other behaviors too.
What may not be stressful to you, such as going to a fun place like a dog park, can be very stressful to FiFi if she is insecure. Yawning is one form of expressing stress, scratching without a known cause, trembling, clinging to you, shaking off as after a bath, hiding, ears pinned back, sniffing, panting, excessive salivation, licking nose and lips, and sighing are a few more. Other behaviors that you may think as being naughty can be an expression of stress. This can be inappropriate elimination, also known as submissive wetting, excessive barking, aggressiveness, running off, and destructiveness.
It is up to the guardian to know his dog well enough to recognize when FiFi’s behavior is a result of stress or not. Some of these behaviors may indicate an illness. If the behavior is excessive and in a low stress environment, like your home, see your veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical problem.
What do you do when your pup is showing stress behaviors? Sometimes it is obvious what FiFi is stressed over. Let’s take the dog park. If FiFi is a shy dog in general, a dog park can be overwhelming. Dog parks are not for everyone. Start off with non-stress areas. Whatever FiFi is concerned or afraid of, take her away from the stressful environment. If you didn’t do adequate socialization as a pup, then you need to do it now in a very controlled and safe place. Don’t go to Walmart with crowds of people or a dog event with tons of dogs if FiFi is insecure in these situations. Call a friend with a well behaved dog and quietly introduce them and give FiFi plenty of room to retreat. Do the same thing with people if she is scared of people. Some dogs are born timid. They may never like crowds of any kind. Know your dog. If she doesn’t like these crowds, don’t force them on her. Work with an animal behaviorist to work through these problems.
Some simple things to do to help FiFi cope are to exercise her often. Exercise can be a stress reliever if it is kept fun and relaxing. Repetitive behavior like “fetch” can become stressful if carried on too long.
Routines can reduce stress. Dogs love routine. They don’t stress over what will happen next. Sounds familiar? We are the same way!
Stay away from stressful situations. Again, know your dog. If she doesn’t like crowds, don’t go there.
Spend more time with your friend. If you are working somewhere, bring FiFi with you. She is happiest with you, and you can occupy her with a chew toy or frozen stuff Kong while you work.
Have rules and stick by them. Dogs love rules. They know what to expect and that reduces stress. Don’t change the rules; this only confuses her. From the first day you get your puppy, establish rules that you want to have when she is an adult.
Remember to recognize signs of stress. Then identify what is stressful. Remove her from the stress, and if it is something she needs to deal with, find a qualified animal behavioralist to help you.
Judith K. Herman DVM, CVH
Animal Wellness Center