What if your dog is picking up on your stress?
You may be fully aware of your own anxieties, and you may even have your own calming strategies in place. But, let’s talk about your dog’s anxiety level for a second.
Does your pup stress-bark on repeat every time they think they hear something that sounds kind of like a knock at the door? Do they tremble at the mention of a certain three-letter word (vet)? Are they terrified of cats, people, other dogs, shadows, or pretty much everything that isn’t you or their favorite stuffie?
You may think that your dog is just anxious by nature–maybe it’s their breed, or how they were treated in the past. But what if your dog is picking up on your stress? What if it’s not just an “anxious dog” problem, but an “anxious pet parent and dog” problem?
We’re not saying this is the whole issue. It may just be that you and your dog are so close that they feel whatever you’re feeling, too. But that can include any stress that’s affecting you, even though you may not realize it.
Let’s see what the experts have to say about whether or not you could be adding to your dog’s stress and how you and your pup can destress together.
Stressed Dog Body Language
Before we start worrying about our dog’s stress, we should probably make sure that’s actually what it is. Dogs have some unusual ways of showing stress, but others are more obvious.
Here are some telltale signs of doggy stress:
- Shaking (more like trembling, not like a seizure)
- Seeming to be very stiff
- Yawning (strange but true!)
- Acting depressed
- Acting hypervigilant and nudging you
- Having accidents
- Whining and barking a lot
- Licking themselves intensely
- Caught in the headlights look (eyes wide open with whites of the eyes showing)
Now that we’ve confirmed that your dog is indeed stressed out, you can start worrying whether you’re (partly) to blame.
Can Your Dog Feel Your Stress?
You may think you have things under control because your vibe is pretty chill. Your dog may feel differently. (They do know you best.)
It turns out, dogs are pretty in tune with human emotions in general. Years of domestication and living with humans has made dogs experts at reading our behaviors and body language.
Even more interesting is that studies have shown that dogs can share a primitive form of empathy with their owners called emotional contagion. Basically, if we feel stressed out, they can tell and even feel it with us.
A recent study discovered that the longer a dog and a person lived together, forming a bond and releasing oxytocin together, the more effective the emotional contagion response. When a dog gazes at you, it causes you to release oxytocin, the “feel-good” chemical in our bodies. And when you talk to your dog and pet them, it causes your dog to be flooded with oxytocin. This powerful drug has been shown to make people feel more empathy.
So, over time, we build such strong bonds with our dogs that they can feel when we are happy or sad or stressed. If you’re stressed, it can definitely make your dog feel anxious, too.
Can Dogs Smell Stress?
Not only can dogs feel our stress, but they can smell it, too. It makes sense, because they can smell just about anything from cancer to drugs with their powerful noses. In a recent study, dogs easily identified when people were under stress just by smelling it.
The humans were asked to do really hard math problems to instigate a stress response. We release chemical signals through our breath and sweat when we get anxious, so the researchers took samples before the test and then after people got super stressed from the math problems. Then they had the dogs come in, and they correctly sniffed out the “stress” samples 94% of the time.
How to Calm a Stressed Dog
So it seems like we can’t hide our stress from our dog–they can smell it; they can see it in our body language; they can hear it in our voice–and they can even get stressed out themselves.
There are lots of other things that can cause anxiety in dogs, but we can definitely be partly to blame. Don’t worry, though–there are a lot of things you can do to help your dog de-stress. Here are some that seem to work pretty well:
- Dog calming pheromones: These mimic the chemical messengers that mother dogs give off to calm their puppies. Try a plug-in diffuser, spray, or calming collar infused with these pheromones.
- A doggy safe space: Make sure your dog has their own private nook where they can regroup when things get tense. A memory foam bed with a super-soft blanket, plus some of their favorite stuffie and chew toys would be a great start. Make sure no one is allowed to invade your dog’s special spot.
- Calming supplements: There are all kinds of calming treats and tablets–you’ll just have to try them out to see which works best for your dog. Some popular ingredients include herbal extracts, amino acids, CBD, and certain vitamins.
- A vest that hugs your pup: This is kind of like a snuggie for dogs, except it’s a vest that fits snugly to make them feel safe and secure. Some pet parents swear by these.
- Spending time together: Just hanging out, whether you’re napping or playing, can do a lot for your pup’s mental health.
- Puzzle toys: Keeping your dog’s mind busy figuring out puzzles can take their focus away from whatever is causing them stress. If your pup is food-motivated, hidden treat puzzles and snuffle mats might work great.
Ways to De-Stress With Your Dog
To really get to the root of the problem, you may want to try to rid yourself of your own stress. And what better way to do that than including your dog in some fun activities?
Here are some simple ideas to de-stress with your best friend:
Take a walk on the wild side: Think of a park or outdoor place you’ve been wanting to visit where they allow dogs–somewhere neither of you have been before. You’ll both be releasing good vibes and feeding off each other’s vibes. Your dog will have all sorts of interesting new sights, sounds, and smells to investigate, and you can discover a new part of your city.
Get a new toy for you both to play with: Look for a toy that you can use to play with your dog, instead of one that they play alone with. Tug of war toys and fetch toys are great for this. Add playtime with your dog into your schedule for at least two 30-minute sessions a day.
Pamper yourself and your pup with a massage: First, schedule a massage for yourself. Then read up on some simple dog massage techniques and set up a spa area for your dog. You can dim the lights, put on dog calming music, and plug in a dog pheromone diffuser. Have your dog lie in your lap (when they’re ready) and start massaging.