Recognise the signs of stress in dogs

Do you recognise when your dog is experiencing stress? Like us, a little amount of stress is beneficial to our dogs, but chronic stress is extremely bad for them physically, mentally, emotionally.

Yvonne Myers
Yvonne Myers

Dogs’ physiology is not that far removed from our own, their brains are very similar with the two obvious exceptions, we have a much larger frontal lobe area of the brain than dogs which is where we process logical thought and they have a much larger olfactory bulb, 40 times bigger in fact where they process scent.

When our dogs get stressed like us their sympathetic nervous system kicks in and that activates what we call the four Fs, standing for fight, flight, fool around or faint.

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This is a stress reaction, not dissimilar to our own. We have all heard of the fight or flight response.

When a dog is on lead and they have lost the option for flight, this can mean a dog starts displaying what appears to be aggressive behaviour which is in fact all based on fear and stress.

They are trying to be big and scary to scare away whatever it is that is scaring them. When we continue to move our dog towards the scary thing, we can damage our dog’s confidence in us as being there for them. This fight response is really their only option as they have no way of escaping.

When a dog has a ‘reaction’ to an off-lead dog approaching them and making them feel scared the stress hormone Cortisol is released into their bloodstream along with Adrenaline and noradrenaline, so a huge cocktail of chemicals is released! It can take up to eight hours for the Cortisol to leave the dogs blood stream.

That means in one walk if a dog is made to feel unsafe by an off-lead dog three or four times that is a huge amount for the body to deal with and they will take a long time to recover, the whole day in fact.

That can mean that taking the dog out again on the same day will only result in more stress and distress for your dog which is not beneficial to their mental or emotional state.

This is very difficult as an owner as you only want to take your dog out and let them have some time out enjoying the environment.

If you have a happy go lucky dog that is allowed off lead, that is fantastic for you but, allowing your off-lead dog to approach an on-lead dog that is frightened is not only irresponsible as a dog owner, but it is rude.

I have been with clients with dogs on lead in a park and had off lead dogs approaching and, in some cases, harassing the on-lead dog. T

heir owner has no control over that dog, and they either have made no effort to call them back even when asked to or they have advised me that the dog has no recall.

You do not have exclusive rights to spaces to walk your dog. All dogs have the right to have a peaceful and relaxing walk without being approached with unwanted attention.

As an owner of a dog that is fearful, they are doing their best to give their dog the best life possible, they are minding their own business with their dog on lead.

As a dog owner you have a responsibility under the Dangerous Dog Act to be always in control of your dog in a public space, that is the law. This means if you are unable to recall your dog or stop your dog from approaching on lead dogs then you should not allow them off lead until you have trained a solid recall.

With so many dogs that were bought during lock down we have more and more dogs that are concerned and have higher levels of stress through no fault of their own.

They were brought into a world where their socialisation was massively limited, and this has caused them to be more fearful.

These dogs need our support, help and understanding.

If you are the guardian of a dog that is finding the world stressful, be your dogs voice! If your dog has had a stressful interaction do not continue your walk, instead take them home and use their brain through training and using their nose, this will help to calm them and lower their blood pressure and reduce their heart rate.

Continuing the walk may be counterproductive for your dog and your emotional state.

Do not suffer alone, seek help from a professional if needed.

There are many highly qualified dog trainers who can offer you support and fantastic advice to make your life and your dogs as stress free as possible, but ensure you check their credentials as the dog training world is not regulated and anyone can call themselves a trainer.

As the client it is your right to ask about their qualifications, never be shy to check, you are doing it for your dog as well as for you.