It's easy to think of your dog as being human. After all, they seem to exhibit all the emotions you think of as human, from happiness and joy to sadness and depression. And, like a human, your dog can become stressed out. Learning their "stress signals" will help you—and your family—calm them when they're anxious.
Stress signals can range from mild to severe. If you notice and act on the mild ones, you may never see a severe stress signal. Mild signs of stress can be as subtle as your dog closing their mouth. For example: Your dog is sitting next to you, mouth open, and thoroughly relaxed. Suddenly, someone your dog has never met approaches you. As the person nears, your dog closes their mouth. If you noticed that signal, you'll now know that your dog isn't totally comfortable. Other mild stress signals your dog may exhibit include looking away, lowering their tail, and lowering their ears and pulling them back slightly.
A dog that is stressed by a situation (for example, being at the veterinarian's office) may pant even though it isn't hot. They may also shed excessively and sweat from their paw pads.
Most dogs will never exhibit anything more than these low level, "normal" signs of mild stress. Fearful dogs, or dogs that are temporarily overwhelmed by something, may squeal, urinate, or try to hide. If your dog shows these signs, please speak to your veterinarian. There's a lot you can do to help your dog overcome feelings of stress, but in serious cases it may not be a do-it-yourself project.
There are a few ways you can help your stressed dog feel more comfortable. In the above example—where someone new approaches—you might decide to pull a treat out of your pocket and have the new person feed this to your dog as an introduction. Or you could get up and greet your friend warmly, thereby signalling to your dog that all is well. Thirdly, you can ask your friend to allow your dog to come to them, rather than your friend reaching down to your dog.
What happens if you missed the early stress signals and the person keeps approaching? Your dog may pull their ears all the way back, lower their tail more, and attempt to move away. Or they might freeze in place and lower their head. You might notice wrinkling on their brow and muzzle. This is from tension.
At this stage it might be a good idea to put some distance between your dog and the approaching person. Simply stepping a few feet away may be enough to relax your dog. Then you can use treats and a relaxed attitude to encourage your dog to calm down. Another option is to get your dog to focus on you and practice a few upbeat "sits" and "comes," with food rewards to help them get past their concerns.
Every dog gets nervous from time to time. Noticing their stress signals and reacting in a helpful way allows a young dog to grow into the most confident and stable dog possible.
As dogs get older, their ability to cope with stress may decrease. A loss of vision or hearing can make an older dog more anxious because their ageing body cannot react as quickly or easily to the changes going on around them. You can help your senior dog by maintaining a consistent routine and eliminating as many stress factors in their life as possible. Make sure they're comfortable at all times by keeping them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Ensure that they get enough bathroom breaks and fun walks during the day. And always make sure they get plenty of affection.