GSD Health: Stress


German Shepherd Dogs can suffer from stress


Strongheart, the “wonder dog”, was a German Shepherd whose story was published in 1926. Like his predecessor, Rin Tin Tin, he was a movie star in the 1920s and ’30s. In their films, these brave dogs caught clever criminals, delivered messages across war-ravaged battlefields, and fought wild animals without faltering. Nothing stressed them. These dogs did not tremble in animal shelters, nor whimper and pace when introduced into unfamiliar homes. They did not run and hide when thunderstorms rolled over the rooftops, or fire crackers popped on the Fourth of July like artillery. They were known as “police dogs” and their offspring populated books and TV programs for many years. Thus, it is not surprising that many people formed the impression that German Shepherds do not suffer from stress. When they discover that the noble Shepherd may suffer from anxiety just as people do, they are nonplussed, as I was when I first saw a severely stressed dog, my German Shepherd, Schatzi. Pictured here is a photo of Schatzi after she’s had a bath!


         I was thrilled to bring her home, believing that she would be happy in a loving home, after having been found wandering along a highway. Instead, in those first few days, her entire being projected despair. She whimpered her way disconsolately through every room in the house, head down, ears back. She didn’t eat. She would approach me as I was sitting down and place her head between my knees, as if to hide. I would pet her, speak soothing words to her, then she’d wander away.

I have since learned that restlessness is a symptom of stress in a dog. In those first days after Schatzi’s adoption she exhibited many of the symptoms of stress: loss of appetite, whimpering, pacing, lack of bowel control. In the animal shelter, on the day of her adoption, she had stood calmly as the adoption papers were filled out. Then, suddenly, she had a bowel movement. I now know that was a sign of her stress, for she was fully house-broken and never again had an “accident”.

Looking Away, Ears Back

While we often welcome change, as with a trip to a foreign country, dogs are often unsettled by it, whether it be a kennel stay, the arrival of a new family member, or a divorce. Many dogs do fine with change, but others do not, depending on their backgrounds (which, with adopted dogs, is rarely known) or genetic predisposition. My German Shepherd, Shadow, adopted from German Shepherd Rescue, was the victim of a divorce. Whenever he heard raised voices, he was uncomfortable and got up and left the room. He was also the dog who approached our male guests from behind and nipped at their pants. He was uneasy with men, except my husband, so to relieve his stress (and, no doubt, the stress of my guests) I followed the advice of dog behaviorists: “Remove dog to a different area.”                                           

Lip Licking is a Sure Sign of Stress

Recognizing stress in a dog is not difficult, for the symptoms are remarkably similar to those in humans: whining, hiding, drooling, lip licking, dilated pupils, repetitive behaviors, lack of bowel or bladder control, and aggression, such as biting or growling. Understanding the causes is also not difficult: traumas through accident or mistreatment, physical restraint, confinement, improper diet, change of routine, noise, rough handling, unwanted interactions, such as with aggressive people or other dogs, and separation, to name the most obvious. Boredom is also a stressor, often overlooked because it is so common.

What to do with a stressed dog is the challenge. There are dogs pre-disposed to anxiety because of genetics, dogs who have been traumatized over time, and dogs distressed by a specific situation that, once relieved, quickly regain their equanimity, such as Schatzi. In most cases, time and love can work wonders. With storm phobia or separation anxiety, medication may prove helpful, but, overall, kindness and patience are the preferred medicines.

The recommendations for stress reduction are (surprise!) beneficial for every dog. Be the leader of the pack, even if it’s a pack of two. Set boundaries. Socialize your dog to new experiences, take long walks together, play ball, provide a variety of toys to engage the dog’s attention, and take dog obedience classes. These activities will promote confidence in your dog so that one day your anxious dog may feel like Strongheart, ready for whatever lies ahead.


Carol Nickisher
GSRNE  Contributor                           

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