It has been shown without a doubt* that, like humans, dogs experience emotions, all types of emotions: joy, sadness, affection, aggression, anxiety and stress. The latter two are very present in the lives of our dogs, as they are in our lives. Do you sometimes wonder why your dog seems anxious or stressed? Like in the story of the chicken and the egg, before thinking of your dog as anxious, we must learn how to recognize the dog’s anxiety in order to access the source of his turmoil. As well, it must be understood that stress and anxiety are two different things. Negative stress can lead to a state of anxiety.
But, how do we do this when dogs don’t talk!
It is true that they don’t talk as we do, however they communicate all the same. They express themselves through a panoply of signals which we call “calming signals”. Dogs emit these signals to communicate with their canine friends, as well as with us. These calming signals are in a dog’s body language. In their own way, dogs are capable of telling us if they are uncomfortable, that something is bothering them. Calming signals are the dog’s language. You want your dog to be happy? Then listen to him, or rather, look more closely at his expressions. Among these expressions, we find yawning, licking, turning of the head, sniffing the ground, etc. With each expression, the dog is attempting to tell us something: “I am uneasy; I am not well in this situation, in this circumstance, in this place, in the presence of a certain person or animal.” It is our job to identify the source of the stress or anxiety our dog is experiencing by observing the context he finds himself in.
In learning to read a dogs’ calming signals, we become their partners and it becomes possible to interact with them in a constructive manner, respecting their needs and their emotions. This small effort from us can greatly reduce their stress and anxiety. Becoming familiar with these calming signals gives us a portal to understanding the emotional state of our dog and to better interacting with him while understanding his body language.
To better communicate with your dog, stop what you are doing at the moment you notice these signals and try to find out what is bothering your pet. Be attentive, listen. For example, does putting your hand on his head make him yawn? Cause him to turn his head? Maybe he does not enjoy this touch. The sound of the vacuum cleaner may be too loud or aggressive for his ears which are much more sensitive than ours are, etc. Could the sounds of a thunderstorm outside be linked to a sudden change in his behavior?
Now, this begs the question: how do we calm our dog, what do we do to make him feel better during a moment of stress or anxiety?
There is not one, but many, positive ways we can respond, all depends on your animal (his character, his past experiences) and the intensity of the stress or anxiety he feels. He might try to escape, to hide; or on the contrary, he might look for your protection from the source of his anguish, sometimes to the point of invading your personal space? In any case, a dog will have fewer sources of stress if he is busy, if he is not focused on what is inconveniencing him. Providing him with exercise, a game or something to chew on greatly contributes to a dog’s equilibrium. Having your dog work for their food, occupying him for 15 to 20 minutes rather than the usual 30 seconds, is soothing. Stimulating your dog with a training session during which he works physically, mentally or both, where he is rewarded and encouraged, is soothing. Having him gnaw on a real bone is soothing. Making a dog understand, in a clear fashion, what we expect from him and rewarding him when he does it, this is what deepens a true communication with our dog, leading him to be more confident. Of course, all is always dependent upon the level of stress and even the source. A thunderstorm, for example, is an element over which we have no control; you cannot remove this source of stress from your dog’s environment. Sometimes you must try several things before finding the one that allows your dog to calm down as much as possible: to simply huddle up against you may be enough. Sometimes taking refuge in a crate, one positively experienced by the dog in his daily life as a shelter, a place of calm and personal relaxation, may be necessary.
On the other hand, there are out-of-the-ordinary situations, which arrive much less frequently, where your dog is evidently not well. For example, the sudden presence of children for a dog who does not ordinarily have contact with them may be a major source of stress. At these times, we may help him with natural and mild products, such as a Bach Flower Remedy. However, we must keep in mind that natural products do not have the same effect on every individual. As well and above all, these products can help to reduce the level of stress in order to allow us to work with the dog to gradually bring him to become more at ease with the source of the stress. We must always work to communicate the most effectively with our dog so as to lead him to overcome, to confront in a way, the stressor and learn that what is causing him to be anxious or stressed is not necessarily so threatening after all. But, a bit like with humans, each dog is unique and will not progress at the same rhythm as another. We must continue to be on the lookout for the signals, the messages our dog is giving us so that we can adjust our interventions so as not to rush him and further increase his stress, leading him to truly overcome it instead.
Finally, the wise words of a great man, Michel Chanton, the French ethologist: “ The fewer constraints we impose on a dog, the fewer problems we have”.
*Reference : Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals, New World Library, 2007 - read more