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Stressed dogs: is your pet too anxious to relax?

Have you ever looked at your pet and thought that they just don’t seem themselves? If your pooch is looking down, it might be because of a mental condition that affects all of us now and then: stress.

How do dogs really show that they’re stressed? A study carried out and published in 2017 showed canines that are stressed actually suffer a worse night’s sleep! Researchers monitoring this test discovered that negative actions caused the dogs to have a fitful sleep that they awoke quickly from, while the dogs who enjoyed a more positive experience managed around an hour of deep, consistent napping.

Since we all need a good night’s sleep to feel happy and ready for the day ahead, we ask: how can you make sure your dog is free of stress when they go to bed?

What did the 2017 study show?

How was it that the researchers brung to light that stressed dogs show their anxiety through their sleeping patterns? The scientists in Hungary explored this by holding a three-hour experiment that involved 16 dogs, including a Labrador Retriever, Shetland Sheepdog and Boxer. To test the effect of stress on sleep, some of the dogs received ‘positive’ experiences before sleeping, while the others endured ‘negative’ experiences prior to resting (all dogs were subjected to both types of experiences). After monitoring the sleeping brainwaves of the canines, researchers came to the conclusion that anxiety plays a part in the ability of a dog to relax and rest.

The results were surprising and suggested that our pets can pick up on stressful situations just like we do. Typically the dogs that received ‘bad’ experiences which included stuff like isolation and being approached rather menacingly caused them to have around 40-50 minutes of non-REM sleep. The ‘good’ experiences — filled with petting, attention and games — managed around an hour of deep, non-REM sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the more active, lighter resting stage consisting of increased heart rate and quicker breathing, while non-REM is a deeper sleeping stage that provides optimum rest and more regular breathing and heart rates. Although REM sleep takes up around 20%-25% of overall sleep time in adult humans, it’s important that we achieve the non-REM stage in order to get what we’d refer to as a ‘decent night’s sleep’, free of tossing and turning.

“We found dogs get less deep sleep after a negative experience. It suggests that, just like humans have a bad night’s sleep after a difficult day, dogs may have a similar problem,” commented research leader, Dr. Anna Kis. Another interesting part of the study was how fast to fall asleep the ‘stressed’ dogs did. According to the results, the ‘bad experience’ dogs tended to fall asleep a lot faster than the canines that had received a nicer pre-sleep time. Dr. Kis, explained: “In humans, stress causes difficulty falling asleep, whereas dogs fall asleep more quickly — we think as a protective measure to remove themselves from the stressful environment.”

Entering the crucial non-REM stage of sleep can determine how happy, well-rested and prepared we feel when we wake. Considering that the ‘stressed’ dogs spent less time enjoying non-REM sleep, this suggests that negative experiences can adversely affect a dog’s emotional state.


How can you tell if your dog is stressed?

So, what are the main symptoms of stress for a dog? Keep an eye on your pet and check for any of the following stress indicators:

Barking and damaging behaviour

Excessive barking as well as ripping furniture/clothes can be signs that dogs are feeling anxious.

Panting and licking their nose

Unless they’ve just eaten or taken a drink, licking their nose could indicate stressed feelings. Similarly, excessive panting for no reason with their ears back might also be a sign of anxiety.


As the above study would suggest, yawning shows that your dog is tired and could also be stressed due to lack of decent sleep.


Excessive moulting

Is your pooch shedding more fur than usual? If so, this might be due to stress.


Ways you can de-stress your pooch

If your dog is stressed and is having trouble sleeping properly, this could have a massive impact on their behaviour whilst awake. According to senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, Gudrun Ravetz: “We know that positive interactions with our pets are important for their overall health and welfare.” In agreement with this is Dr. Kis, who comments that consistently poor sleep could stop your dog ‘consolidating memories’ and ‘dealing with their emotions’, which might make them more aggressive.


So, the question is: How do we help our stressed dogs?


Food and exercise

What we eat and how much we get outside to exercise can affect how positive we feel. If your dog is feeling stressed playing a game of fetch or extending their walk time by 10-15 minutes can help. Taking them swimming is a great way to tire out your anxious pooch and an excellent stress booster — granted that your dog actually enjoys the water.


Next, check out their diet. What type of dog food is it they’re eating and do they receive lots of human treats? Check with your vet before making diet changes but with the go ahead this could help improve your dogs mood and health. Trying a grain-free dog food or cutting out the human treats you give them could be another great way to help.

Establishing a routine

If your dog has a routine, any changes could upset and stress them. For example, your dog will know roughly what time you go to work, what time they get fed, and what time you come home; so try not to disrupt what they’re used to if you want them to feel calm and settled — although this isn’t always possible!

Socialising your dog

Everytime you return home you’ll see just how sociable dogs are! Some however handle being alone better than others, some suffer from separation anxiety which causes stress and panic. If you can, book them into a doggy day care centre or ask if a family member or friend can dog-sit for an hour or two to break up their day.

Follow these quick tips to handle a stressed pooch and make them feel calm and collected again. Remember, pets pick up on bad vibes, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re happy and anxiety-free in your home, too!


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