Recognising stress in dogs – Rachel Malkani
9 February 2024
Rachel Malkani, veterinary engagement officer for the British Veterinary Behaviour Association and a Dog Friendly Clinic board member, discusses a new online welfare assessment tool for dogs – the Animal Welfare Assessment Grid (AWAG) – and how this tool can be used in clinical practice.
Dogs encounter daily stressors ranging from basic needs such as hunger and thirst to a threat in their environment. Physiological and psychological stress allows dogs to adapt, cope, and survive. Despite the common negative perception of stress, it is a nuanced term. Eustress, often referred to as ‘good stress’, signifies normal, adaptive efforts to respond to a situation, such as using problem-solving skills in a game. Whereas, distress is induced by a negative experience, can be prolonged and can have deleterious physiological impacts1,2 which can impact immune function and recovery time. In states of distress, suffering often occurs due to an inability to cope or ineffective coping mechanisms. However, it is important to remember that how a dog responds to a perceived or genuine stressor is highly subjective and varies based on the individual; dogs will experience varying emotions and coping mechanisms. Throughout this article, the word ‘stress’ refers to a negative emotional bias.
There are a number of stressors in the veterinary environment that can cause distress and poor welfare, such as handling and procedures. By limiting the dog’s ability to control their environment and potentially causing discomfort and pain, it is likely dogs will experience a range of negative emotions in the veterinary clinic. It is crucial to be able to recognise when dogs are struggling to cope, and in veterinary practice the most practical approach is by observing body language. Subtle indicators of increasing distress may include nose licking, turning their head away, and lowering body posture. This may lead to more pronounced signs, including tucking their tail between their legs, pinning their ears back, and actively moving away from the stressor. Conversely, some dogs may show displacement behaviours such as sniffing around or acting playful. Therefore, it’s important not to assume that a dog displaying these behaviours isn’t in a negative emotional state. The intensity of these signs can escalate to more overt indicators such as growling, snapping, or biting; however, other dogs may also be very still, frozen, and staring. The interplay of genetics, past experiences, and expectations will influence a dog’s ability to cope with various stressors. Thus, the response to a threat is highly individual and can very between contexts.
My PhD research has involved developing an online welfare assessment tool for dogs, the Animal Welfare Assessment Grid (AWAG), and it has been used in clinical practice to assess healthy dogs, dogs with chronic pain and dogs with behavioural disorders. Compared to healthy dogs, dogs with pain and behaviour problems displayed more behavioural signs indicative of stress and also a decreased capacity to handling events. Additionally, in their lives in general, they encounter stimuli that trigger fear and anxiety more often than healthy dogs, and they also take longer to recover from a stressor. My research also found that dogs that have better social interactions in their life recover from stressors quicker than dogs than have poorer social interactions when they have a behavioural disorder (Figure 1). This suggests that dogs, much like humans, benefit from secure emotional attachments and strong bonds, enabling them to cope more effectively with stress. There is strong evidence demonstrating the positive impact of secure attachments in fostering resilience in people3.
Figure 1. Correlation plot of scores of reaction to stressors (one = quickest time to normalise after experiencing a stressor, ten = longest time to normalise) against social interactions (one = best quality social interactions, ten = poorest qualify social interactions. Correlation coefficient = 0.71).
Another finding revealed that a significant correlation between the frequency in which a dog with a behaviour disorder encounters stimuli that causes fear and anxiety and behaviour during the AWAG assessment (ranging from calm and relaxed to an inability to cope). This suggests that when examining a dog with a behaviour disorder, if they are frequently fearful in their daily lives, this may be indicative of poorer coping mechanisms during a veterinary consultation.
So how can this all be applied in practice? We can ensure that dogs are not being pushed beyond the threshold of what they can cope with. If undertaking a procedure, we can provide for regular breaks to allow them to normalise. We can ensure that all staff are adept at reading dog body language to ensure subtle signs of emotional discomfort are detected. By recognising these cues early on, we can adapt our approach to make this a more positive experience for the dog. The training of staff can be facilitated through the Dog Friendly Clinic scheme (dogfriendlyclinic.org.uk) which provides resources on understanding canine communication and how to make the veterinary experience better for our canine patients.
1Mills DS (2010) The Encyclopaedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare. Oxford: CABI.
2Chmelíková E, Bolechová P, Chaloupková H, Svobodová I, Jovičić M and Sedmíková M (2020) Salivary cortisol as a marker of acute stress in dogs: a review. Domest Anim Endorcinol. 72: 106428. doi: 10.1016/j.domaniend.2019.106428.
3Karreman A and Vingerhoets AJJM (2012) Attachment and well-being: The mediating role of emotion regulation and resilience. Personality and Individual Differences. 53(7): 821-826. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.06.014