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Everything to know about dog stress-related behaviour: the complete pet parent guide!

Golden retriever looking stressed advice
© Shutterstock

Communicating with your dog can be difficult sometimes. If you want to build a better relationship with your pet, learn about important dog behaviour changes.

By G. John Cole

Dog owners should know that a dog's behaviour tells you plenty about his mood. Even though it is impossible to know for sure what is going through a dog’s mind, you can learn to interpret a dog stress-related behaviour. There is a root to every dog behaviour. Once you know how to pick up these cues, you'll be able to help your pooch.

Which are the common dog stress-related behaviours?

Biting

You’ve probably witnessed how a puppy can nip at you as he learns how to communicate with you. This usually takes place while playing, as young dogs learn bite inhibition through play. If taught correctly, most dogs will learn that it is not OK to nip and bite humans, even during play. However, some dogs might bite: this may be due to a number of different reasons and it is often a sign of discomfort. Generally, dogs bite out of anxiety, fear, or pain. In some cases, dog bite because they learned to play inappropriately. You need to identify which is the cause before dealing with the problem.

White dog biting
Biting could be a sign that your dog is stressed©Shutterstock

Circling

Circling or spinning is normal puppy behaviour, linked to moments of great agitation as well as a way to wear off some excess energy. However, if a dog spins or walks in circles quite frequently, it may be a sign that something is wrong. Dogs who can't stop walking in circles may be affected by a health issue. As a pup grows up, bouts of tail-chasing should stop. If your pup can't shake this urge, there's an underlying problem. Usually, ear infections or neurological problems may cause circling. Some dogs spin or circle when they are in a situation of stress or internal conflict (the same way we scratch our head when we don’t know which way to go at a road fork). Older dogs may suffer from the idiopathic vestibular syndrome which makes them keep their head tilted and sometimes walk in circles.

Digging

Digging is normal canine behaviour. It is particularly strong in terrier breeds. Centuries ago, packs of dogs used to dig to hide food or to find small prey. Dogs can also dig to make a den in the cool earth which serves as shelter from the heat. However, some dogs can’t stop the urge to dig. This may be a sign of anxiety or boredom. Despite this, some dogs might just have the need to dig, so it is important to provide them with the opportunity to dig somewhere appropriate, such as a dog sand pit.

Eating poop

Dogs eat faeces for many reasons. Sometimes puppies try to imitate their mother when she cleans them. A young dog may just be curious. Fear and anxiety also causes dogs to eat faeces. Some vets suggest that eating poop can also be an instinctive solution to a nutritional deficiency or that this may be a sign of an intestinal parasites infestation.

Scooting

You may have seen your dog drag his bottom across the floor. At first, it may seem funny, but this means there's something irritating in your dog's bottom. Most times it means that your pup's anal sacs are full and need to be released (these are small glands located just around your dog’s anus). However, there may be other causes. For example, allergies can cause an itchy rear. Other times you can blame worms.

Jumping up

Though it may seem like playful behaviour, jumping up may be quite inconvenient if you are carrying something or wearing nice clothes, and it could even be dangerous in the case of a large dog jumping on a small child or an elderly person, who might get injured. You need to train your dog to avoid doing this, for example by praising him when he is calm and has his paws on the ground around people.
 

Separation anxiety

Dogs like to stay with their humans. That’s not a surprise! That is why one of the most concerning dog stress-related behaviours is separation anxiety. As a pet parent, you need to know that it's natural for your dog to feel anxious when he is separated from his pack (meaning you or his family). This can be solved by habituating your dog to being left alone. Leave for small periods of time at first, and lengthen the time you stay out as you move forward with the training. Ignore your dog before you leave and after you return, so he doesn’t think you leaving is such a terrible thing. You can close the shutters if your dog is stressed by the outside world, and leave the radio or TV on while you’re out. Exercising your dog before you leave is also a way to make sure he’s feeling calm and restful when you’re out. 

Chihuahua stressed
Little Chihuahua dog looking anxious©Shutterstock

Panting

Dogs sweat a little bit through the pads on their feet but most of their body heat is expelled through their mouth when they pant. In other words, it's their primary means of regulating body temperature. So it is normal for dogs to be panting on a warm day or after a run - and it is important to always let them do so, e.g. by providing them a basket-case type of muzzle when you need to use one. However, panting may also be a sign that your dog is stressed or anxious about what is going on around him.

Yawning

You might think your dog only yawns when he’s tired. But dogs are not like humans! A dog yawn doesn't usually mean he's tired, unless you are looking at a young dog, perhaps just about to fall asleep. Yawning is often a sign of fear or stress. If your dog yawns for example when he meets a new person or while meeting another dog, you need to be careful, because your dog is uncomfortable with that situation.

Once you understand these dog stress-related behaviours, you will be in a better place to communicate with your dog. Remember that these signs are indications that something is not right! It is your job to understand and help your dog solve the problem, e.g. consulting with a veterinary behaviourist.