It's easy to think of your dog as being human. After all, he seems to exhibit all the emotions you think of as human, from happiness and joy to sadness and depression. And, like a human, your dog can become stressed out. Learning his "stress signals" will help you—and your family—calm him when he's anxious.
Stress signals can range from mild to severe. If you notice and act on the mild ones, you may never see a severe stress signal. Mild signs of stress can be as subtle as your dog closing his mouth. For example: Your dog sitting next to you, mouth open, and thoroughly relaxed. Suddenly, someone your dog has never met approaches you. As the person nears, your dog closes his mouth. If you noticed that signal, you'll now know that your dog isn't totally comfortable. Other mild stress signals your dog may exhibit include looking away, lowering his tail, and lowering his ears and pulling them back slightly.
A dog that is stressed by a situation (for example, being at the veterinarian's office) may pant even though it isn't hot. He may also shed excessively and sweat from his paw pads.
Most dogs will never exhibit anything more than these low level, "normal" signs of mild stress. Fearful dogs, or dogs that are temporarily overwhelmed by something, may squeal, urinate, or try to hide. If your dog shows these signs, please speak to your veterinarian. There's a lot you can do to help your dog overcome feelings of stress, but in serious cases it may not be a do-it-yourself project.
What to do about mild stress
There are a few ways you can help your stressed dog feel more comfortable. In the above example—where someone new approaches—you might decide to pull a treat out of your pocket and have the new person feed it to your dog as an introduction. Or you could get up and greet your friend warmly, thereby signaling to your dog that all is well. Thirdly, you can ask your friend to allow your dog to come to him, rather than your friend reaching down to your dog.
What happens if you missed the early stress signals and the person keeps approaching? Your dog may pull his ears all the way back, lower his tail more, and attempt to move away. Or he might freeze in place and lower his head. You might notice wrinkling on his brow and muzzle. This is from tension.
At this stage it might be a good idea to put some distance between your dog and the approaching person. Simply stepping a few feet away may be enough to relax your dog. Then you can use treats and a relaxed attitude to encourage your dog to calm down. Another option is to get your dog to focus on you and practice a few upbeat "sits" and "comes," with food rewards to help him get past his concerns.
Every dog gets nervous from time to time. Noticing his stress signals and reacting in a helpful way allows a young dog to grow into the most confident and stable dog possible.
Stress and senior dogs
As dogs get older, their ability to cope with stress decreases. A loss of vision or hearing can make an older dog more anxious because his aging body cannot react as quickly or easily to the changes going on around him. You can help your senior dog by maintaining a consistent routine and eliminating as many stress factors in his life as possible. Make sure he's comfortable at all times by keeping him cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Ensure that he gets enough bathroom breaks and fun walks during the day. And always make sure he gets plenty of affection.