Every dog is an individual, and as such will display signs of stress differently. Just as with people, some dogs will become quiet and withdrawn while stressed, while others become more active. These broad categories are known as stressing up or stressing down.
Dogs who stress down can sometimes be mistaken for well-behaved or relaxed dogs by owners who miss the warning signals of stress. These dogs will become quieter and more still as their stress level increases. Some may hide or tremble, but many simply stop moving. These dogs oftentimes show signs of their discomfort in their ear and tail set. They may push their ears down or back, and their tails may be low or tucked. They will oftentimes also show other signs of discomfort such as avoiding eye contact, sniffing the ground, turning away, licking their lips, or yawning.
Alternatively, some dogs will stress up, becoming more frenetic as a coping mechanism. These dogs are often mistaken for happy dogs as they are frequently quite bouncy, with high, quickly wagging tails. They may get the zoomies and run around at top speed, or may bounce off people or furniture. Some dogs will redirect their excess energy on “killing” their toys, pestering other dogs, or barking. Some may pace. While these dogs may appear happy at first glance, there is a frantic element to their movement that joyful dogs simply do not show. They oftentimes have dilated pupils and may shed excessively. They may also show other signs of stress such as scratching, shake offs, or lip licks.
Some dogs may stress both up and down, depending on the situation. These dogs may switch back and forth between these two states quickly, going from bouncing around to lying under a chair quite quickly.
Whether a dog stresses up or down, if he reaches a certain level of stress he may be likely to shut down. A shut down dog is a dog in a state of emergency. Dogs shut down when they can no longer cope, becoming quiet and still, with glazed eyes. They may seem disconnected and may not be able to respond to well-known commands. They will oftentimes refuse to eat even their favorite treats or play with favorite toys. When a dog shuts down he is no longer mentally present, but has rather withdrawn into himself. This is a very sad state to witness.
As your dog’s trainer and advocate, it’s important to learn how your dog expresses mild discomfort so that you can prevent him from reaching a more severe state of stress. Observational skills are critical here, as your dog’s body language will tell you how he’s feeling.
In future posts, we’ll discuss how to help your dog cope with stress and how to lower a chronically stressed dog’s anxiety levels. Does your dog stress up or down? What are some common signals that your dog gives you which allow you to evaluate his overall stress level? Please share your experiences in the comments below!