Signs of stress in dogs to pay attention to during and after a divorce.

By Karis Nafte, The Pet Custody Mediator©

During a divorce, the custody decisions surrounding pets can often be difficult and emotional. My job is to look at the subject of pet custody from the dog’s point of view.

People want their dogs to be happy, but it can be challenging to know how to factor in the needs of the dog with the wants of the people.

If you are a divorce mediator, lawyer, or going through a divorce yourself, the article below is a helpful reference to determine if dogs are coping with a new living situation, shared custody or other changes to their circumstances.

Dogs are always honest; while they can’t tell people they are stressed they do show us with changes to their behavior. During a divorce, even when both people love the dog and have made every effort to make the dog’s life a happy one, it is important to pay attention to the behavior of the dog itself to see how it is handling shared custody or other changes in their environment.


Short-term stress signals

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In stressful situations that are temporary, for example going to the vet or witnessing people shouting at each other, these are the most common ways dogs show they are uncomfortable:

Tail tucking. Dogs will drop their tails low towards the ground or curled up into their belly. This shows the dog feels nervous and hiding his/her scent from everyone.

Yawning. Like people, dogs yawn to relieve tension. This can happen in anticipation of something very exciting (for example, your dog may yawn in the car on the way to the dog park), but if the dog is quiet or withdrawn yawning is a signal of unease.

Avoiding eye contact. If a dog is suddenly turning his head away from people, or, looking away from everyone when arriving at a new place, or when someone comes into the house, something is worrying the dog. Avoiding eye contact is how dogs try to prevent conflict. The dog may be anticipating tension between people or fear it coming toward them.

Licking their nose. You may have noticed dogs who stick their tongues out and seem to lick their nose when greeting dogs or people. This is both a friendly gesture (dogs will put their tongues out to show other dogs they are playful) and a sign of worry or fear. When dogs feel overwhelmed in a situation, the tongue flick action is a signal that tells everyone around them ‘I’m worried, I’m not a threat, please don’t hurt me’.

Shaking off. After getting wet, or a nap, dogs will naturally shake their whole body off to wake up or get dry. However, if your dog has been awake for a long time and is not fresh from a bath, shaking off like they are wet is a way to relive tension. Like yawning, shaking can happen if a dog is very happy and overstimulated, but if the dog does not appear to be joyful the shaking off means the dog is tense and worried.

Excessive panting. If a dog is not hot, but suddenly starts panting, it is a good indication he or she is stressed.

If there is a shared custody arrangement and the dog displays these sorts of behaviors during a hand-off between the two parties, the situation is probably not a pleasant one for the dog. If there is tension between the people and the hand-off may make them nervous, or possibly the dog is not coping being separated and reunited with his/her owners regularly. There may be some other factor that is worrying the dog, but it is worth exploring the situation deeper to find out what is causing stress behaviors
around transitions.

Long-term stress signals

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The behaviors below are more likely to be seen in dogs whose life has changed in some way that does not work for them. These sorts of signals tend to arrive gradually and can be subtle or more obvious, depending on the character of the dog. 

Mild to serious aggressive behavior toward people or dogs. Becoming irritable, snappy or reactive in situations where a dog used to be relaxed is one of the most common signs a dog is stressed. They may seem to have a ‘short fuse’ and will act out of character. This is because a stressed dog will be tense and have less patience with people or dogs coming close to them.

Excessive sleeping. The other side of the coin is a dog who withdraws and ends up sleeping more than normal as a way to cope with stress. With this sort of behavior you will see a contrast in a dog that was bouncy and playful previously and is now ‘sleeping all the time’. Normal factors like age will also change a dog’s sleeping pattern, but in healthy dogs their sleep patterns don’t change much unless they are getting significantly
more exercise

Destructive behavior. For energetic individuals, chewing or destroying parts of the house may happen if the dog is not getting enough exercise. Left alone at home these busy dogs may have nothing else to do but entertain themselves by ripping couches or rugs. If a dog demolishes things on a regular basis the first is to make sure he or she is getting sufficient daily activity. If, however, those needs are being met and a dog is still
obliterating furniture in might be the way the dog is relieving stress.

Avoiding social interaction. Avoiding and trying to stay away from people and dogs, when previously they did not, can also be a sign of stress. Needing time alone is normal and healthy for dogs at any age, but if it becomes the norm and is very out of character for that individual dog it is worth paying attention to.

Loss of appetite. This can be a very sad thing to see, but dogs often won’t eat if they are full of anxiety. As with all the behaviors on this list, occasionally not eating happens to most dogs, but if it is a regular occurrence or if the dog has unexplainably lost weight it
can be due to some emotional distress.

Skin problems, itchy skin, chewing on their feet and excessive shedding. 

If there is no medical reason for it, some dogs start chewing the pads of their feet or licking small raw spots on their fur as a way to deal with a difficult living situation. Chewing on their feet or skin becomes a soothing behavior they do to calm themselves down. Sudden hair loss can also happen to worried dogs.

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All of the above long-term stress signals can also be an indication that a dog is sick. If a dog does displays any of these symptoms first check with a veterinarian to rule out any physical problems. If the dog’s behavior is due to stress or anxiety, and not a physical illness, I do not recommend relying on anxiety reducing medication to suppress the stress in the dog. In the long term, it is much kinder to the dog to understand and fix the reason for the unease, not to give them medication to cope with a situation that is not
suitable for them.

When a dog’s life changes there is always an adjustment period. This time varies depending on the age and temperament of each dog. Allow for a period of up to a month for dogs to settle into new houses or routines. After a three-month period, it is a good idea to look objectively at the dog’s behavior to see if these symptoms of stress are present. If so, out of fairness to the dog, consider reevaluating the arrangement and
living situation.

Karis Nafte is The Pet Custody Mediator©.
She works in conjunction with divorce mediators and lawyers to consult with their clients who are dealing with questions around pet custody.
With more than 20 years experience as an animal behaviorist working with pets and their families, Karis brings a wealth of knowledge and insight into dog behavior and family dynamics. She works online with clients worldwide both during and after divorce to help find fair and appropriate solutions for pet custody issues.

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