Stress and how to recognise it.

When your new dog arrives there are so many changes for them to cope with. Not only have they come on a long and probably scary journey, but now they are in a human home surrounded by unknown people and many new things (stairs, TVs, hoovers, dishwashers, fires etc).

Like any good house guest, your dog will try to fit in and understand what is wanted of them. On the surface they may seem to be doing so well, all smiles and waggy tail, but how are they really? These dogs don’t get to go home, kick their shoes off and relax, instead we ask them to make this new strange world their new home. Even if you can’t see it, every dog will be stressed by the changes and they all really need time to decompress and truly relax. 

How can you recognise stress in dogs? There are immediate body signs you might notice which could include…

  • Cowering with tail tucked between their legs
  • Yawning
  • Panting
  • Pacing back and forth, not settling
  • Trembling or shivering
  • Drooling
  • Licking their lips
  • Ears pinned back or standing up straight
  • Weight taken more on the rear legs
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Whites of their eyes showing (whale eye)

But there are also behaviours and issues which are less obviously stress and can include…

Hypervigilance or restlessly active Some dogs will not relax initially, the adrenaline is keeping them on alert, and they may be pacing, just unable to settle initially. Sometimes they may have dilated pupils, pinned back ears and stiff posture, watching for danger, sometimes even falling asleep while sitting up. This can be really hard work as a new adopter, but patience and giving the dog space and choice of a safe area away from any obvious triggers is a good start.

Frozen, hiding or very shut down Sometimes they appear disassociated from the surroundings, these dogs need to be given their own safe space and always given the option to come to you rather than you approaching them. Do not lean over them or stand tall near them, try sitting on the ground and looking away, being as non-threatening, passive and relaxed as possible.

Loss of appetite Some dogs may be reluctant to eat initially but patience and lots of small meals can be a good way forward.

Diarrhoea or increased bowel movements Adrenaline affects the digestive system in many ways, dogs may completely lose control of their bladder or bowls and it can also lead to diarrhoea. We sometimes see this when dogs are shut in alone, maybe left overnight. Accidents in this case are not always about house training, but quite often a signal of stress. Sometimes these accidents can be prevented by keeping the dog in your bedroom with you overnight, maybe a dog bed on the floor near you. This has the dual advantage that the dog is probably much less scared sleeping near you so “stress pooing” is less likely, and also if they are restless and need to go out you have a chance of waking and taking them out.

Loss of weight even if they eat loads Some dogs will lose weight initially even if eating loads. This can be quite worrying, but can also be due to having so much adrenaline running in the body, the food is not being adequately digested. Often as stress reduces and dogs relax over the coming weeks then weight can be maintained and even gained if needed.

Compulsive Behaviours Dogs engage in a number of behaviours to help calm themselves, but these can become compulsive when they are really stressed. Common compulsions include licking themselves excessively, licking floors or walls, barking excessively, or chewing objects compulsively. Licking can be tough to stop directly, distraction (a good marrow bone or chew) can be useful if you are around and it may be worth considering ways of reducing overall stress for the dog, do have a reread of our spoons article.

Shedding Dogs who are stressed often shed more, and sometimes a full coat with feathers may thin out initially before the dog settles and gains a good coat again.   

Seizures In very extreme cases stress can lead to seizures in dogs. It is very scary and upsetting if a dog has a seizure, it is however quite rare and it should always be followed up with a chat to your vet who may want to check to make sure there is no other underlying issue.

So what can you do to help your dog?

  • Give your dog time to decompress. Avoiding new situations and removing your dog from any stressful situations will help, whether that’s outside or in your home. You could create a separate space away from the noise and bustle of family life, somewhere they can choose to go and relax and they won’t be disturbed.
  • Let them sleep, initially some of the dogs will sleep half the day and that is fine, stress hormones are exhausting. The dogs are resting and recuperating and collecting spoons.
  • Stay nice and calm. Many dogs are very sensitive to your emotions, if your dog is stressed, keep calm.
  • Rather than sitting beside them all day, just quietly and calmly go about your normal activities at home.
  • Don’t tell the dog off, but encourage the behaviours you want by limiting their choices and rewarding.
  • Snuffling is something we do suggest particularly initially because it distracts and calms a dog. At its simplest it is scattering dry dog food into the grass or over the carpet for the dog to sniff out and eat. It can be expanded into searching for food in a pile of unwanted cardboard boxes, or a treasure hunt around the garden. Licki-mats similarly can be valuable to help calm a dog.
  • Do have another read through our blogs on
  • Some dogs may remain anxious long term, supplements such as Yucalm and diffusers like Adaptil can be useful.
  • Sometimes a good behaviourist can really help with particular nervous behaviours, please do choose your behaviourist with care… choosing a behaviourist

So how do I know when my dog is not stressed?

Sleeping upside down is a lovely way to see your dog relax… a furry tummy on display.

When dogs initiate play it is always a good sign, particularly picking up and playing with a ball or toy. However many of the SeBPRA dogs will never have had a toy and so this may take months or years to happen.

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