Most animals occasionally experience stress in one form or another, and dogs are no exception. Stress can be the product of a major change in the environment or a chronic lack of certainty on a daily basis. Since your dog lives with you, and your life will certainly not be completely free of upheaval, it is highly likely he will experience stress sometime in his life.
While occasional stress is not usually serious, excessive or prolonged stress weakens a dog's immune system and has the potential to lead to serious health and behavior problems. By learning how to reduce stress and to treat it when it occurs, you can do yourself and your dog a big favor.
How can you reduce stress? Establish boundaries and a routine for your dog. He needs to know just where he fits into your family. From the day you bring him home, you should be establishing important boundaries in his life by teaching him appropriate behavior, letting him know firmly when he errs and being in charge of his behavior, rather than leaving choices up to him.
It's also important he knows he will get food, exercise and play as part of his regular schedule. Teaching your dog obedience and providing a stable routine produces a secure, confident dog that is more tolerant of stressful situations.
Despite the best training, some stress will be unavoidable. For instance, your new job means moving five states away or your mother comes to stay with you for the summer. Dogs are stressed by traveling, moving, being boarded in a kennel, competing in dog shows or meeting a new baby or pet that moves into the household. In short, anything that's not part of the regularly scheduled program can cause stress.
Your dog has a number of ways to tell you he is stressed. He may bark excessively, lick himself until he's raw or even vomit. If you see a consistent, noticeable change in his behavior or health, stress could be the cause.
So how can you help your pet cope? First, check your own stress level. According to Dr. William Fortney, Director of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, animals sense and react to stress in others. If you stay calm, your dog will calm down as well. Next, try to eliminate the cause of the stress. If that is impossible, introduce your dog to any change gradually and correct any inappropriate behavior.
For example, when he meets a new family member, let him approach the person at his own rate. Correct him if he becomes overly excited or aggressive, and praise him when he responds properly. It will give him confidence to know he's doing the right thing and pleasing you at the same time.
If your dog still appears stressed after you have worked with him for a few days, a visit to the veterinarian is recommended. In some cases, the stress may have aggravated an illness or caused one. Your veterinarian will examine your dog to rule out any physical problems. In most cases, you and your dog will weather a stressful situation successfully if you can combine gradual introduction of the environmental change with consistent positive reinforcement and rewards.