How to recognise stress in dogs

In my last post I spoke of what stress is. In this post I want to describe how a dog could react under stress. We have often heard of the “flight or fight” response to fear or stress. In dogs there are actually, at least 4 responses to fear – Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fiddle. In this blog I want to describe each of these.

Flight: This is the easiest response to recognise as fear. We see a dog running away, with it’s tail tucked between it’s legs and we know it’s fear. During Diwali, it’s not unheard of for a dog to run away from home. The dog is not expressing fear towards owners. The dog is just not sure what to do and is running away from the noise. We often find many lost dogs during this season. So, prepare for this. Firstly ensure that there is a nametag on your dog along with your phone number. Secondly, try to be very guarded with the door all through the day. Every time the door is going to open, try to put the dog in another room. If you have multiple doors into the house, secure all of them and have people walking in and out of just one door. But, in an attempt to keep your dog secure, tying your dog is not a good idea. This can freak out your dog. So try to put the dog in the kitchen or bedroom when handling the door and keep doors closed as much as possible.

Fight: This is a frequently mistaken reaction. Though we have often heard of “fight or flight”, when we see a dog fight back, we are quick to label it as aggression, instead of recognizing the underlying fear. During Diwali, a dog feels cornered. A dog does not get to escape this perceived threat. So some dogs may take to fighting back. No point in disciplining a dog at this point as it will only exacerbate the situation. All further stress needs to be reduced – avoid hugs, avoid children interacting with dogs, avoid people interaction in general.  The best approach towards a dog that is feeling cornered is to back off, give the dog space and don’t approach the dog, let him approach you, if he feels like it.

Freeze: This is another reaction that is often mistaken to be stubbornness or not even recognized as a reaction to fear. In order to recognise this, look at the muscles of the dog. A tense dog, that has frozen is reacting to fear. Once you recognize the reaction, please recognize the underlying fear. People often try to get a dog to “snap out of it”. Such attempts may have dire consequences. See if it’s possible to shut the window or door closed to the dog, to reduce the stressor. If there are people around the dog, just move everyone away, go give the dog space and time.

Fiddle: This is the least understood of all reactions. In humans terms like Transference and Displacement are used to describe this behavior. Basically the dog starts engaging in some strange behavior like scratching or biting himself obsessively or chasing his own tail. Some more subtle signs are yawning, walking away and sitting facing away from the noise etc. For people who are unable to see the underlying stress, it’s common to ignore these or laugh at these behaviours. While there is no harm in finding the behavior entertaining, loud laughter, a room full of people looking at the dog etc…can further stress the dog. It’s from this perspective that it’s useful for pet parents to recognize this behavior as stress response and react appropriately.

Tigger showing signs of stress – Yawning, Blinking and staying away from the crowd

So how would we know if our dog is actually relaxed? If a dog is fully relaxed, we would see a relaxed body language. Supple easy muscles. Relaxed eyes. Pupils are not dilated. They may react to the sound, but will not fixate on it. They may even walk towards the sound. It is quite likely that such dogs are nervous but have learned to cope with it. In any case, what’s important is not to see if a dog is afraid or not. What is important is to see if the dog has learned to cope with the strssor. Loud sounds, irrespective of the dog’s sentiment towards it, can still be annoying due to how sensitive his ears are. So it’s a good idea to generally try to muffle the sound in the space the dog is living in.

A final note on a dog expressing fear and stress – it is possible for a dog to move from one expression to another. So a dog that is freezing may decide to bolt suddenly. A dog that is fiddling may suddenly snap. So taking precautions is useful. Don’t forget the nametags. Don’t forget hyper vigilance towards the dog. And in general, give your dog lot’s of space and time. Don’t approach your dog. Let your dog approach you.

My next post will be on the do’s and don’ts on this matter. Meanwhile I would love to hear from all of you on how your dog expresses fear and stress. Every dog is different. What is your dog saying to you and how?

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About Sindhoor Pangal 14 Articles
Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist, an independent ethology researcher, an engineer by qualification and an educator in Bengaluru, India. She is a TEDx speaker, the author of the book, Dog Knows and an independent ethology researcher studying the free-living dogs in India. Sindhoor is the founder of BHARCS. BHARCS offers a UK-accredited level 4 diploma on canine behaviour and ethology and boasts of students from all parts of India and across the globe. Sindhoor is also the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and is currently pursuing her masters in Anthrozoology from Exeter University (UK).