The Science Of Stress, Part Two: Spotting The Signs.
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
In part one of this blog, we looked into the science of stress in order to gain a better understanding of the physical and emotional impact on our dogs, and how it affects their well-being. We found that it is really important to be aware of any early, subtle signs of stress so that we can help avoid a decline into deeper stress and prevent any behavioural challenges from developing. If you missed part one, you can read it here:
In part two, we will explore how to observe our dogs, examining the range of body language signs and signals they use to communicate when they are feeling uncomfortable. If we fail to recognise that they are struggling, or we don’t respond and take action, they may escalate their behaviour when their needs are not met. Last but not least, we will look at how we can give our dogs the much-needed respite that is necessary in order to recover from any stressful episodes.
Observation is key!
Observing our dogs carefully is the key to learning how they might be feeling. The best starting point is to learn what our dog’s neutral, relaxed state looks like when there are no stressors present, bearing in mind that a nervous dog may well show signs of tension in his neutral state.
Body language always needs to be viewed in context, and from nose to tail, considering the whole body. Honing our body language-reading skills will enable us to recognise the early signs of stress in our dogs, allowing us to safeguard their well-being. These subtle signs include their use of “calming signals“, a term coined by Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer and behaviourist. Calming signals are employed to avoid conflict, demonstrate that the dog is open to play, and to communicate a vast array of messages to both dogs and humans. There are at least thirty, and include those such as the lip or nose lick, yawning, blinking, turning their head to one side, or even their whole body. We will explore these in more detail later, when we discuss fearful dog behaviour. If you would like to learn more about calming signals, Turid documented them in her book, which you can find here: On Talking Terms With Dogs - Calming Signals, 2nd Edition - Dogwise
When we see these signs, we need to consider the context in which they are happening. If we see our dog lick his lips, he might well be anticipating a tasty treat! However, if his tongue appears during an activity such as nail clipping or bath time and he seems reluctant to cooperate, the chances are he is feeling anxious and not thinking about his stomach in the least.
Some of these calming signals also fall into the category of displacement behaviours. These might occur if your dog is feeling a bit conflicted and unsure, or feels uncomfortable with the current situation and needs to change the subject, so to speak. He might seem restless, studiously sniff the ground, stop to scratch himself, or he might shake himself off to calm himself and disperse the tension he is feeling.
Confusingly, some of the calming signals are also known as appeasement gestures, because they are used to calm and pacify a perceived threat. However, no matter how you label and categorise them, they are all stress-relieving signs and behaviours which signify that the dog is feeling stressed and is trying to calm a situation down.
Fearful Body Language
Fear can manifest in different ways, depending on the dog. How they cope is an individual process; some may bark or climb to seek height, whilst others may freeze or try to escape. Some early warning signals that our dog is feeling stressed include:
· A wide and slow lick of the lips or nose.
· Sneezing or snuffling noises when feeling conflicted.
· A pinched look to the lips, with tension around the mouth and eyes.
· A closed mouth.
· Squinting or softening of the eyes.
· Whale eye (tension in the face causes the whites of the outer eyes to show).
· Furrowed brow.
· Turn away.
· Play bow.
· Sitting or lying down.
· Sniffing or scratching.
· Piloerection (raised hackles).
· Shaking off.
If nothing is done to relieve the pressure the dog is feeling, then he may escalate to more overt signs of stress and discomfort, which may include:
· Lowered head or head dip.
· Lowered tail.
· Body or tail may tuck under.
· Tense and rigid muscles.
· Paw lift (this is a fear or appeasement gesture).
· Ears may position out to the side or backwards, giving a pinned back “seal ears” look. The further back the ears are set, the more frightened they are.
· Looking away, turning the head or body away or ignoring.
· Narrowed eyes or blinking.
· Dilated pupils.
· More intense sniffing: a conflicted behaviour, avoiding the trigger and showing confusion or worry.
· Vocalisations. (Remember that nervous dogs may be silent, whereas others may naturally be more vocal).
· Restlessness, inability to relax.
· Sleeping a lot, often because of exhaustion.
· Jumpiness or agitation.
· Excessive self-grooming.
· Loss of appetite.
Are there any other signs to watch for?
These more obvious stress signs might include the dog looking for guidance and protection from his human, and he may:
· Try to climb up his human.
· Mouth clothing or the lead, showing what might be perceived as attention- seeking behaviours.
· Lick himself.
· Bite at and chew furniture, shoes, or anything else nearby.
· Resort to barking, growling, howling or whining.
· Fixate on reflections or objects.
More extreme signs may include:
· Diarrhoea or urinating.
· Vomiting or drooling.
· Cowering and tucking the tail under.
· Rolling on his back.
· Crouching over his stomach in a hunched position.
·The dog might go into emotional shutdown due to overwhelm, or at the other end of the spectrum, he may behave aggressively.
Now that we have a good understanding of the range of stress signals to watch for and how they may escalate if they go unheeded, let’s have a look at what we can do to help our dogs lower their stress levels.
Providing Respite for the Fearful Dog
When a dog is feeling stressed or fearful, there will be both obvious and subtle signs of emotion, and he will need to be removed from those situations that he isn’t comfortable with. Dogs in flight mode may back away, cower, or try to hide. They will usually hold their bodies low with their head down, ears flat to the head and their tail often between their legs. It is worth noting that this is not necessarily a sign that a dog has been abused. In shut down dogs, they may show very subtle signs: they might shake or shiver, appear small, try to hide, yawn, pant, lip lick, tongue flick or nose lick. Whale eye, sweaty paw prints and submissive urination may also present.
It may become apparent that certain objects or words already hold negative associations for a dog. Minimising any exposure to potential triggers will help safeguard against new negative associations forming. Monitor for any fearful reactions and then take action by removing any triggers. Make a note of these; there may well be others that need to be recorded.
When looking for triggers, we need to consider what the dog can see, hear, and smell. Scent is a very strong trigger and will be difficult to identify; you might see a change in behaviour, but there will be an absence of obvious signs. Consider what is in the immediate environment and what can be done to reduce the effect of the trigger. Action should be taken to minimise exposure and prevent the fight-or-flight response from being activated, if at all possible. If the dog is faced with multiple triggers, he is likely to remain in a constant heightened state for some time if he receives no respite, so the effects of trigger stacking need to be seriously considered.
As always, it is best to seek professional help in order to identify all triggers, work out management strategies to minimise stressors as much as possible, and tailor a behaviour modification plan. Before training begins, a thorough vet check is necessary to rule out pain or any underlying health conditions. Time should be given to allow any medications to take effect, and it is vital that the dog feels safe. You can read more about ways in which you can help your dog to feel safe here: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/safety-first-five-ways-to-help-your-dog-feel-safe
Through learning and understanding the signs and symptoms of fear, stress and anxiety in our dogs, we can make life more comfortable for them and ease their distress. We can adapt their environment and routine to suit their needs and ensure that we use only kind, force-free handling in all aspects of their care, including meeting the five freedoms. (They can be found here: The Five Freedoms for animals | Animal Humane Society)
It is vital to provide comfort when our dogs are scared and understand that any fearful behaviour shown is an emotional response and should not be dismissed as poor behaviour, nor punished. We need to be aware of how we interact with our dogs, being careful not to place them in compromising situations which they aren’t comfortable with, or don’t yet have the skills to cope with.
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