Stress can be defined as a state of emotional strain resulting from demanding circumstances (stressors) or a threat. Not all stress is harmful. Certain stressors allow dogs to learn how to cope with situations and are also linked to the increase in grey cells in the brain. But, when the effects of stress are excessive, it can often harm the dog leading to health and behavioural issues.
Dogs communicate with body posturing and vocalisations and it is vital that we learn this wonderful language to identify signs of stress in them. Very simple acts like licking of lips/paws, hyperactivity, yawning and panting may be signals of excessive stress. Every dog is different and it is important to read the whole body and not just a single body part to conclude that she is stressed. In extreme cases, dogs have also been observed to display obsessive compulsive behaviours like chasing tails excessively, fixating on toys, constant licking of their bodies or other surfaces and even self-mutilation.
If you suspect that your dog is under stress, try to find the underlying reason. Common causes of stress in dogs are confinement for long hours, sudden change in environment (moved to a new house, addition of a new pet, a new family member, noise due to festivals, etc.), harsh methods of training, too much training, not enough mental stimulation, over exercising, constantly competing with fellow animals in the house/shelter, lack of rest, etc. Also, like children, pets absorb the stress in the family or their environment, such as arguments in the house.
To manage stress, it is important to provide an environment that is stress-free. Firstly, rule out any possible medical issues especially if the dog has become suddenly irritable. Illness or pain can cause loss of appetite, pacing due to restlessness and even aggression.
Secondly, never coddle your pet who might already be under emotional strain. If your dog is scared and hides under the bed, growls to warn you to stay away from her, etc. give her some time and space to deal with the situation.
On a daily basis, chart out a routine and provide your dog moderate physical exercise and adequate mental stimulation using toys and games. Socialize your dog with other people. Give her clean healthy food, water and a comfortable place to rest where she feels safe. Dogs sleep more than humans and the lack of it is detrimental to their mental health. Above all, allow your dog to freely express herself, and accept natural behaviours. Remember that no matter how well-trained your dog is, we as responsible guardians must protect and nurture them in exchange for the privilege of their loyal company.
As published in The Hindu, Pet Pals on JANUARY 22, 2015