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Sensitive by nature, pets, particularly dogs, can absorb the stress and tension around them. Stress in dogs is mainly the product of a change in the environment. Since your dog lives with you, and since your life will certainly not be free of change, she undoubtedly will experience stress sometime in her life.

While occasional stress is not a serious condition, excessive or prolonged stress can produce the same negative effects in dogs as it does in humans. Stress triggers your dog's internal defense mechanisms, making her heart pound and raising her energy level to full throttle so that she uses all her reserve strength just to cope. When those reserves are gone, she'll weaken. Her resistance to illness and disease may lower, and she may get sick.

Canine Stress Reactions

What are the signs that your dog is experiencing stress? As in humans, personality is a major factor. More aggressive dogs may take out their stress on you and your home whereas more shy or nervous dogs may turn their stress inward and make themselves sick. Here are some symptoms of a "stressed out" dog:

  • Accidents. The number one sign of stress is house soiling.
  • Barking. Excessive howling or barking both inside and outside the house can signal anxiety.
  • Irritability. If your dog begins to display behaviors such as growling, snarling and even biting, she could be a stress sufferer.
  • Illness. Vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, allergies and skin reactions are some of the ways that dogs internalize their stress.
  • Destructive behaviors. Your dog may try and relieve her stress by biting, licking or chewing on herself or your furniture.

Coping With Stress

If your dog's stress is caused by loneliness, boredom and separation anxiety, the best way to relieve it is to spend more time with her and increase her exercise. Dogs are social creatures and can therefore suffer from loneliness.

Time spent with your beloved dog is a win-win situation, because you will benefit as well. Medical studies are proving that people with pets live happier, healthier and longer lives. When you do spend time with your dog, play ball or Frisbee with her, increase her exercise and take her to the dog-park so she can socialize with other dogs.

An Ounce of Prevention

Stop stress before it starts with clear consistent communication and training. Your dog will be happier, more secure and less prone to stress and behavioral problems. Start obedience training as early as possible. Puppies are more receptive to discipline, but older dogs can learn new tricks with consistent and prolonged training.

From the moment you walk through the door with your new dog, establish clear boundaries and set aside a safe environment for her. Here are some guidelines:

  • Give your puppy or dog a crate of her own in which to feel safe.
  • Set rules to let her learn what is appropriate behavior and what is not.
  • Establish clear differences between your space and hers.

The worst thing you can do is punish your dog. You will only succeed in making her fear or resent you, and she will become even more stressed. Chances are she will wait until you are not around to act out the bad behaviors that are helping her cope. Fortunately, a dog's easily trainable nature is in your favor. You'll need to provide the three "Cs": control, consistency and companionship - and you'll need to do that as a matter of routine.

Routine - More Than Just the Daily Grind

Routine is a key element in developing an obedient, stress-free dog. Your dog needs a structure and framework within which to feel secure and to behave appropriately. Simply knowing when she will be fed, walked and played with on a regular basis can go a long way to making her feel more relaxed and secure. Routine is rooted in regular companionship. Without it she will not adapt well to unavoidable life changes.

Here are some situations that could disrupt your dog's routine and cause her stress:

  • Transport or traveling
  • New home/new owner
  • Dog shows
  • Environmental changes
  • Boredom
  • Your absence
  • New family member or visitor
  • New pet, including new puppy

Here are some ways you can buffer her from stressful situations:

  • Crate Training. A crate can be a "safe house" for your dog when the world around her is shifting. Any time you travel, move, or leave your dog for short periods, put your dog in her crate with some comfortable bedding, a shirt or towel that has your scent on it, and her favorite toy. Accustom her to her crate slowly and carefully so it becomes a place she can always count on to feel safe in.
  • Confinement. If you are having a party or holiday gathering, or introducing new family members into the home, confine your dog to one room where she has her bed or crate, so she feels safe rather than feeling that her territory is threatened. Introduce her to new people slowly.
  • Keep up basic routines. If her stress is caused by moving, before, during, and after your move try and maintain your daily routine with your dog. Make sure she has regular mealtimes and frequent walks and play breaks. You might find that by doing this, instead of slowing down the unpacking, you will feel more refreshed and efficient!
  • Don't coddle her. If your dog seems nervous and fearful, don't speak to her consolingly - she may interpret this as positive reinforcement for exhibiting her stress.
  • New baby introduction. If there is a new baby in your home and your dog is at all fearful or aggressive, proceed with caution. Never leave your dog alone with a baby or small child, as neither fully knows how to react to the other. Put your dog on a leash when she first approaches the baby. If she gets excited, correct her, and praise her when she obeys. Be patient. By showing her plenty of love and attention, you will reduce the likelihood of sibling rivalry.
  • Get a check up. If your dog still appears stressed after you have worked with her for a day or two, take her to the vet. In some cases, the stress may have aggravated an illness or caused one or an illness may initiate a stress-type response. Your veterinarian can rule out any physical causes and should be able to offer suggestions on how to help your dog physically as well as behaviorally.
  • By maintaining the daily routine in your dog's life and keeping her healthy, active, mentally stimulated and well fed, you will go a long way toward preventing or treating any stress she may encounter. Don't you wish it were that simple for you?