The physical effects of stress on our dogs


We know that stress affects us physically. When we are under acute stress, our faces look tired and tense, and we hold a lot of tension in our bodies. When we are under chronic stress, our health suffers. Our digestive and immune systems are compromised and our mental health suffers too.

Is it any different with our dogs? We know that some dogs who do not like travelling in the car will vomit or have loose stools when they are given the chance to go to the toilet. Dogs also can instantly start to cast hair during times of stress. This is the effect stress can have on our dogs.

The three account I am about to give are purely anecdotal but they give some examples of my own observations.

Marcy is a one year old Dobermann. I went to see her as she was having difficulty settling down in the house and mouthing and jumping to get attention. Her owners had engaged a “dog whisperer” who suggested removing all the good things from Marcy’s life, including petting and exclude her from the social circle of the family when she did unwanted behaviour. When I went to see Marcy and her family, her body was tense, her coat was full of dander and she panted and paced all the time. Marcy’s owners had been concentrating on what they wanted her not to do, rather than what they wanted her to do and as a result Marcy had no clue what was expected of her. I suggested structured play and petting times on which were started and finished, where both Marcy and the owners could initiate and say “not now”, and stuffed Kongs to keep her occupied when she was to settle. Every time she settled in the living room, her owners would either tell her she was a good girl, pet her or give her a treat. We also implemented some positive reinforcement training sessions as to engage her brain. One of the coolest things about clicker training is the change in body biochemistry which results. Every time the dog hear the click during training, dopamine is released which helps the dog feel better. Over time, the body chemistry is rebalanced and the dog is less stressed.

When I returned to see Marcy two weeks later, she was a physically different dog which the owners had also noted. Her coat was in great condition, she wasn’t casting hair or dander and her body was visibly more relaxed. Teaching her what was expected of her and using positive reinforcement training to do it worked wonders on this dog’s stress levels in a few short weeks.

The second dog I noticed this in recently was a 5 year old Poodle called Riley.  Riley is an extremely nervous wee dog who doesn’t like other dogs sniffing at his rear end. As a result, he holds a huge amount of tension in his hind quarters, like he’s constantly pulling his backside away to protect it. This then makes Riley’s posture constantly bent. He looks as if he is in a lot of physical pain. June, his owner, had already taken him to the vet who had given him the all clear physically. June was hugely motivated to help Riley and has done a truly excellent job learning everything she can about nervous dogs and learning theory to help him. We changed Riley from a flexi lead to a longer lead, which allowed both June and Riley more movement around other dogs, and taught Riley he had the choice to move towards other dogs or away from them at his own pace. We also did a few clicker training session a day with him for the same reasons stated above. A month later, Riley’s body had started to straighten out. His gait is better and again he looks physically more comfortable. We still have a way to go but he is getting better each week.

Lastly there is Brody the Staffy. I first met Brody and his folks in the park. His issues were that he didn’t like either dogs or people too close to him and would sometimes lunge and muzzle punch. He generally did a really good job controlling his own space by moving away. We did some reasonable work with him in the park but I suggested we do a session in the house with him. A week later, when I visited their house, I couldn’t believe the difference between Brody inside and out. I hadn’t thought he was that bad outside but inside he was a real clown, a super relaxed, friendly, bouncy Staffy and looked truly happy. More clicker training to help with his biochemistry as well as a few other things we put in place.

The above cases are just a few I’ve been aware of. Read up on the physical effects of stress on dogs. Look out for them in your own dog. These can very often be resolved by teaching your dog what is expected of him or her and using modern, non-aversive methods to do so.

Happy training.