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What mechanisms does your dog use when stressed?

By Marcy Eckhardt

Special to the Herald

We all have strategies to help us through tough situations. Some are even highly recommended, such as meditation and exercise. Others are more self-prescribed, such as wearing headphones in the grocery store or repeating a song in your head when you want to tune out a conversation. Coping mechanisms are highly personal, and some are even subconscious, but we all have them, dogs included.

I’m talking here about doing something – an activity or behavior – to minimize or tolerate stress, which for dogs can come in many forms. Many dogs are stressed by other dogs, by the weather, by certain people, smells or noises. Some dogs are stressed by multiple things at the same time or something that happened a day before.

The coping mechanism displayed depends on the dog and the situation. Some dogs use avoidance. They choose to go around something rather than deal with it. This is often seen in multi-dog households. Often, a timid or older dog will walk away if a younger dog dives in for some petting. Or a dog purposely ignores a person seeking attention.

Another favorite is body language, which is used between dogs and to us if we’re paying attention. Coping strategies through body language include stiffening or freezing in place. They may drop their heads or repeatedly lick their lips. Some will turn to the side; others may try to lick another dog’s mouth.

What are your dog’s coping mechanisms? Do they yawn to work off stress or shake off their bodies? If you raise your voice, do they walk into the other room or begin licking their feet? Take note of your dog’s coping mechanisms. Each dog will be different and each situation will often lead to a different strategy for your pup. But these strategies are a great way to tune into your best friend and be aware when they’re stressed.

Need to help your dog relax? Try exercise and play. Dogs need a chance to run around, explore, smell, engage with the environment ... be dogs. Your job is to ensure they get this. Also consider just sitting and playing with your pup. Often, a cuddle/play session in a public place is a great way to soften a tense dog or allow a dog to get out of their own way.

I’ve also found that having a fun training session can be a terrific coping mechanism for stressed dogs. It allows them to build their confidence, get a little brain work (think tired dog) and provides them with some one-on-one time with you. Start easy and increase the difficulty at your pup’s pace. And don’t forget to laugh – a terrific coping strategy for both of you!

Marcy Eckhardt is director of pranaDOGS Behavior and Rehab Center and trainer for La Plata County Humane Society. Reach her at info@pranadogs.com.