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Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwyer, DVM on March 26, 2018
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A few weeks ago, I noticed that my usually cuddly and goofy Leroy had been acting a little differently. He had spent several days in a row hanging out in a corner by himself, instead of forcing his way onto my lap or annoying Janice into playing with him. It also seemed like he wasn’t eating very much – until he decided that he needed to down his whole bowl in two bites.
This pattern of strange behavior continued for a few days. I checked him over for injuries and signs of illness and didn’t see much. Dogs are a lot like people in that sometimes, the strangest things make them uncomfortable. Maybe a big storm is coming this way, I reasoned, though the chickens and Janice were acting just fine. By day three, I called Steve, our friendly neighborhood vet, and he didn’t even have to see Leroy. After listening to me explain the situation, he said: “Ash, that dog is stressed out about something.”
Of course, Steve knows best. Leroy was showing classic symptoms of being stressed out. It never hurts to check with the vet, but now it was up to me to figure out what was wrong so I could fix it. Why hasn’t science invented a dog-to-human translator yet? So it was time to give Leroy his food in a slow feeder to slow down that stress gulping and do some research. I gathered up a variety of things that can indicate that a dog is stressed – and tips on what to do about it.
7 Signs Your Dog is Stressed
Let’s start with the signs that your dog may be stressed out. These often manifest as physical symptoms that can be easy to mistake for other things. But once you’ve eliminated all the other possibilities, the only thing that may make sense at all is stress.
1. Your dog is either constipated or has diarrhea
If you have noticed that your dog has a lot of diarrhea or constipation for longer than a day, they could be having some kind of gastrointestinal issue. It could be that they’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with them, or it could be stress. Just like humans, when dogs are anxious for extended periods of time, it affects their entire bodies.
If your dog has been having stomach issues, consider talking to your vet about probiotics for dogs, which can help them get on a more regular schedule. You can use chewable supplements, or even feed them plain, unsweetened yogurt. Physical symptoms like digestive issues should always be seen by a vet if they persist because it could be related to a physical ailment rather than stress.
2. Your dog has been sleeping a lot more than usual, with no increase in activity
If your dog has started taking a lot more naps than usual, it is not a good sign. Dogs are creatures of routine, and unless your dog has recently had a lot of excess activity, they shouldn’t be sleeping any less or more than usual. A few extra naps here and there is okay, but if your dog goes from being lively all day to sleeping all except one hour a day, there could be several things wrong. Excessive sleeping could be related to being sick, injured, or dehydrated. But if those things aren’t the problem, it’s likely that your dog is experiencing some kind of stress or even trauma.
If your dog has started sleeping a lot more than usual, especially if you also notice that they aren’t eating and drinking as often, consider heading to the vet. A check-up to ensure that they aren’t suffering from some other issue may be in order. Otherwise, jump to the end of this article for tips on reducing stress, and you may find that your dog will be more excited about being awake.
3. Your formerly sweetheart of a dog is suddenly aggressive towards animals and people
If there is no real reason for your dog to be aggressive (such as an injury, or feeling protective over treats), and you know that this is out of their normal behavior, the chances are high that your dog is stressed. Aggression is often a sign of fear in animals, and some dogs need treatment to help them manage the fear reaction in certain situations. In the meantime, you may want to invest in a quality muzzle. Check out our recent article on muzzle use and how these tools can be used humanely.
If your dog is showing signs of needing to be calmed so that they aren’t dangerous for others, consider using synthetic hormones that are designed to help dogs feel less anxious. These hormones mimic the pheromones that mother dogs give off to calm their babies. You can pick them up at Amazon, where they go by the brand name Adaptil, and they are safe to use without a vet’s approval – though it’s still a good idea to talk to your vet before adding anything to your dog’s diet
4. Your dog has started to destroy things like furniture or shoes
If your dog hasn’t been destructive since the puppy phase, but you suddenly start seeing a lot of chewed up belongings or scratching on the door, then they may be stressed out. High-energy dogs often redirect their stress into destruction, and may even begin to harm themselves, such as chewing on their paws or grooming so excessively that they develop raw spots.
If this is the behavior you are seeing, one of the best things you can do is to give your dog more exercise. They need a way to rid themselves of all that anxious energy. Get a disc or a ball and have an intense game of fetch – or simply take a longer walk than usual. Try playing or walking until your dog acts as though they’ve had enough. It may take a while to wear them out, but if you can get them to the point where they choose to lay down and rest, you’ll save your furniture and other belongings. Try a fetch toy that throws for you to give your dog longer runs.
5. Your dog has suddenly started to shed way more than usual
One of the most commons signs that a dog is stressed out is that they have started to shed a lot more than usual. This can be an almost instant stress response – look around a busy vet’s waiting room and you’ll see a ton of dog hair floating around from the dogs that are stressed out about being at the vet. If your dog has been experiencing prolonged stress, they may even have bald spots from the shedding response. This can be triggered by almost any stressful life change, like moving houses, adopting a new dog, adding a baby to the family, a child moving away for college, or anything else.
If this is the problem, one thing you can do to help save your own sanity while your dog calms down is to brush them more often. This will help contain the pet hair so that it’s not all over your home.
6. Your dog’s body language is telling you that they aren’t happy
If you pay close attention to your dog’s body language, you’ll notice that they communicate to you how they are feeling all the time. A happy dog is relaxed, loose, limber, and often wriggly. But a stressed dog will often shiver or shake for no apparent reason. Their muscles will often be tense, and they will frequently be poised with their ears laid back and their bodies alert, rather than relaxed or limber. Stressed dogs often lick their noses more often than seems necessary, or scratch a lot. All of these are signs of stress.
One thing that you can do right away for a dog exhibiting any of these signs is to give them their space. Especially in small and toy breeds, that excessive shaking and shivering helps them burn off anxious energy, and if you approach them during those actions, they may snap at you. Otherwise, jump down to the end of this article for some stress-relief tips to help them relax.
7. Your usually-affectionate dog has started to avoid contact
The last sign that your dog is stressed out is any kind of avoidance behavior. Maybe your dog doesn’t seem to want to snuggle as much, or they start to avoid eye contact with you when you speak to them. They could tuck their tail when you get near, or they just start spending a lot more time alone, away from your other dogs or your kids. All of these avoidance behaviors are signs that a dog is anxious.
In this case, just as with the dog that is shivering a lot, it is best to respect your dog’s space and let them come to you. These things are a message from your dog that they need some room. Once the stress has been dealt with, they will warm back up and come around to you again. Try speaking calmly and kindly to them, and offering them treats and gentle petting when they feel comfortable in the meantime.
Now that you know the top seven signs that your dog is stressed, here are a few quick tips to help them feel a little better:
Keep them on a regular routine. Dogs are very similar to toddlers in that they thrive on routine. Keep their meal times, potty breaks, and walk schedule as similar as you can day to day, and it will help them feel more grounded and secure.
Give your dog more exercise (no, more). No matter how much exercise your dog is getting, there’s a good chance that they need or want more. Dogs that are anxious have a build-up of energy that they need to expel, and exercise is the best way to do that. Go for longer walks, or take two walks a day instead of one. Play a longer game of fetch, or schedule a puppy play date with a friend to give your dog a chance to romp around.
Try to avoid crowded situations or any situation in which your dog is around a lot of new stimuli. For example, if your dog has been showing signs of stress recently, it’s not the best time to take them to a street fair or to a brand new, crowded dog park.
Give your dog a safe place in your house where only they are allowed to sleep and relax. A kennel with a comfy blanket or dog bed inside, or even a corner of a quiet room with their favorite blanket and toy, is a good place for a dog to retreat when they are feeling stressed. Make sure that they know that this is their place, and let them go to it as often as they want. If you leave your dog home alone during the day, make sure they can get to this safe place.
Simply spend more time with your dog. If you have a busy schedule, or you’ve been traveling a lot lately, take some time to be in the same room with your dog. Even if you aren’t cuddling, just talk to them while you cook or fold laundry, or let them sit with you while you read. Your presence can help them feel more secure.
Finally, invest in a better quality dog food. Sometimes dogs show signs of stress because their bodies are not getting the nutrients they truly need. If you’ve been using a lower-quality dog food that is made with a lot of fillers and byproducts, it could help to switch to something with meat as the first ingredient, that doesn’t include artificial ingredients.
A stressed dog is no fun for anyone, but they don’t have to stay that way. Watch for these signs and go to your vet if any of them last for an extended period of time. Use the tips to help your dog feel safer and less anxious so that you can both enjoy your days together a little more.