5 min read


Can Dogs Feel Instability?



5 min read


Can Dogs Feel Instability?


Dogs like life to be predictable. They like it when their meals appear on time and when walks happen when they expect. This predictability gives them a sense of security. After all, for a dog that likes their food, a meal appearing when it should is an important marker of the day. 

Just imagine what would happen if you failed to feed your chow-hound! The chances are they'd let you know pretty sharply. But what if even their reminders failed to make the meal appear? How would the dog feel then: confused, frustrated, and if the absence of meals went on for long enough, as well as being very hungry they'd also feel insecure. 

Yes, indeed, dogs can feel a sense of instability. It's important to know and recognize this because certain life events make change inevitable. Anticipating those life events might create instability for your dog, but with forethought and planning, this allows you to minimize its impact. 


Signs a Dog is Aware of Instability

The exact pattern of behavior a dog shows when feeling insecure will vary depending on the individual dog. For example, one dog might become extra needy and follow their owner around, whilst another dog might withdraw into themselves and spend all day hiding or asleep. 

However, an insecure dog is often an anxious dog. And yet even an emotion such as anxiety can manifest itself in different ways. 

It's not unusual for an anxious dog to growl or snap when pressed to do something they don't want to. One example would be the dog whose life-long fur-friend passes away. The fact their long-term companion is no longer there gives the dog a feeling of instability. The dog may then take to their bed as it seems a safe place to be. Then, when the owner forces the dog to go for a walk, the dog may snap when the owner tries to put the leash on as the dog feels anxious and insecure and wants to stay somewhere familiar that smells comfortingly of their fur-friend. 

Another common behavioral sign of a dog feeling instability is a lack of appetite. A dog that previously wolfed down their dinner may refuse to eat. Likewise, the dog may refuse to play and ignore favorite toys. 

Of course, these behavioral signs overlap with general symptoms of ill health. If in doubt, always get your dog checked by a vet to make sure they aren't sick before assuming the dog is feeling insecure or anxious.

Body Language

We've talked about some of the behavioral signs of a dog feeling instability, now let's consider some of the body language cues that can clue you up to the dog's state of mind. Look for:

  • Cowering
  • Ears Drop
  • Pacing

Other Signs

Also, watch the dog carefully to see if you can spot any of the following 'tells' that a dog is stressed or insecure:

  • A Change Of Character (Eg: From Outgoing To Grumpy)
  • Poor Appetite
  • Lack Of Interest In Walks Or Toys
  • Excessive Yawning
  • Lip Licking

Scenarios of Dogs Feeling Unstable


It's important to react appropriately if your dog shows signs of anxiety. Continuing the example of the dog who lost their soul mate, here's how behavior can spiral out of control when an owner does the wrong thing. 

This grieving dog feels their world has been turned upside down and feels insecure. This causes the dog to lose their appetite. 

The worried owner put the food bowl down, the dog approaches, gives the food a sniff, but walks away. The owner's natural reaction is to be sympathetic to the dog, perhaps speaking softly to them and stroking them. Unfortunately, this sends out the message that not eating is rewarded, which does nothing to encourage the dog to eat in the long run. 

Out of desperation, the owner tries hand feeding the dog. The dog takes a few hesitant mouthfuls, which are rewarded with the owner's praise. See where we're going with this? The dog now believes the owner wants him to eat from their fingers rather than from the bowl. And so the dog becomes even less likely to eat normally. 

This story can continue to spiral with the owner offering ever more tasty morsels. Again, the lesson learned being that if the dog doesn't eat, they get rewarded with something even nicer to eat. 

In short, be wary of accidentally rewarding insecurity, as this is likely to make matters worse rather than better. 

The Science of Dogs Feeling Unstable


Dog emotions have a lot in common with a young child. Indeed, a dog's emotional development is sophisticated in some ways, with them feeling primary emotions such as love, happiness, joy, fear, and anxiety. However, this development stops at the equivalent of a two-and-a-half-year-old child's emotional range. Happily, this is shortly before the emergence of more divisive emotions such as pride, spite, or avarice. 

Those primary emotions felt by dogs serve to keep them safe and help them flourish in a large scary world. Thus, when daily life is predictable and meals appear regularly, the dog feels safe and secure. But when life is topsy-turvy and predicted events don't happen, this gives the dog a feeling of insecurity and instability. This is warning the dog that something is wrong and causes the release of hormones, such as cortisol, that are linked to stress. Thus, dogs can very much suffer from a sense of instability. 

Helping a Dog Feel More Stable


It can be a tricky path to tread, restoring the confidence of a dog that feels insecure. On the one hand, it's human nature to want to reassure the dog with fusses and affection, but on the other hand, this can be the wrong thing to do. The problem is that the extra attention rewards their insecurity and can send a confusing message that they are right to feel insecure. 

Conversely, it's best to recognize the dog feels insecure, but be mindful of your own body language and the message sent out. Let's say your other dog (and close companion) recently passed away. If the surviving dog is mopey and insecure, if you fuss the dog whilst they're withdrawn, they will take this as a signal that moping around is the right thing to do. 

This doesn't mean you should force the dog out of the bed. Rather, let them have some peace and quiet. However, when the dog does get up, speak to them in an encouraging and loving way so that you reward the behavior you want to encourage (getting out of bed.) 

Also, try to reverse the sense of insecurity by keeping the rest of the routine normal. This helps to reassure the dog that although their companion is no longer there, the rest of the world continues as before. When meals appear on time and they get groomed and taken for walks at the regular times, this provides a safe anchor. 

Likewise, it's natural to want to spend more time with the remaining dog, so do this in positive ways such as grooming them or having short (but fun) obedience training sessions. This one-to-one attention will be hugely appreciated, but you avoid the trap of rewarding their withdrawn behavior. 

In short, be sympathetic to the dog but try to keep the daily routine in a pattern. 

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By Pippa Elliott

Published: 07/27/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
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