Situations that cause stress in dogs are at times unavoidable. Stress can be good or bad depending on the situation. Imagine living in a world where you don’t speak the language, where you are met with unexpected outbursts and reprimands and you aren’t sure why. Perhaps everything you’ve ever known changed in an instant and now you’re someplace new with unfamiliar people and confusing inconsistent rules. What if you’re not used to having shelter, or enough to eat, or have been hurt by someone in your past? Your body and brain still remember all the coping strategies you had to use to stay alive and avoid pain. While there is no way to entirely eliminate stress in dogs, understanding why it happens can help you make better decisions.
When your dog ‘misbehaves’ there is always a reason why:
- They may not feel safe
- They may simply not know any better
- They may have learned that a particular behavior works to accomplish some goal of theirs.
A dog who feels anxious or unsafe will…
- have a hard time listening
- have diminished appetite (not food motivated) or alternatively may take treats with a hard bite.
- have hard time learning and retaining new information.
- May act silly or foolish (often mistaken for extreme friendliness or exuberance)
- May lash out vocally or physically.
Fear is a result of the influence of stress mediated hormones circulating in the blood stream such as adrenaline or norepinephrine. Your dog is preparing for fight or flight. Stress levels rise when your dog feels they have no control over the outcome. In order to reduce stress your pet must trust that you, their guardian, are looking out for their best interest.
IDENTIFYING STRESS IN DOGS
The following are common stress responses exhibited by many dogs and some are occasionally misinterpreted as friendliness or exuberance. What are some of the ways that your dog indicates that their stress level in increasing?
Fails to obey cues known in other circumstances
Picky eater or refuses food outside normal routine
Seems slow to comply, pick up new cues, or transfer cues from one environment to the next.
Acts overly exuberant, silly, wiggly, or tugs on the leash
Air snaps, snarls, growls, or bites
Jumps up persistently
Presses hind quarters into your legs or sits on your feet.
REDUCING STRESS IN DOGS
Dogs are greatly impacted by changes in routine. Excursions into unfamiliar territory are bound to induce stress even if your dog is normally relaxed at home. Confidence develops from the ability to consistently predict the outcomes in any situation. If your dog is unsure about what to expect or do their stress level will increase.
Before we can make progress on a training plan, we must first ensure that our dogs are set up to succeed through good environmental management and strategies for keeping calm. We’ll explore environmental management strategies for reducing stress in the next lesson.
KEY WORDS YOUR TRAINER MAY USE
ENRICHMENT – Providing mental stimulation or ‘brain games’ for your dog that build confidence and burn energy.
TRIGGER – A sound, movement, or smell, familiar or unfamiliar, that causes the subject’s central nervous system to initiate the physiological fear response resulting in fight or flight.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT – A physiological response to stress that often results in fleeing, or when unable to flee, aggressive or violent displays
MANAGING YOUR OWN STRESS
When your dog is disobedient you may feel frustrated, embarrassed, or uncertain about what to do. Like your dog, your heart rate, respiration, and perspiration increase and you subconsciously respond to those physiological changes and then communicate that tension to your dog. Thus a vicious ‘Catch-22’ is created. You must address your own stress before you can effectively manage your dog’s stress.
Focus on what you can control:
- Avoid the situations that you know stress you and your dog.
- Slow your breathing by taking deep breaths.
- Relax your arms so that your leash is loose.
- Move to a safe, less distracting environment where you and your dog are more likely to find success.
- Use long, low pitch, slow verbalizations to calm your dog.
AVOIDING STRESSORS IS AN OPTION!
Avoid environments where your dog displays unwanted behavior in order to keep that behavior from getting practice. It’s okay to not walk your dog or take them to the dog park! Consider a mobile vet or groomer if car rides or vet clinics stress your dog out. Avoiding the situations that you can anticipate causing you stress will leave you with more patience to help your dog overcome their own issues. Your dog will have greater trust in you if you avoid placing them in situations that are beyond their abilities. Later, in the Enrichment lesson you will learn ideas for energy consuming activities that you and your dog can enjoy together in the safety of your own home.
You may be consciously or subconsciously responding to your dog’s known triggers even before they do. Think back to a time when your dog reacted in a stressed manner. Describe how you reacted. What did you do physically? What were you thinking about in that moment?
DECOMPRESSION AFTER STRESSFUL EVENTS
After any routine change or traumatic experience is a period called Decompression. This is the time during which the body’s functions return to baseline and the neurotransmitters that facilitate fight or flight responses no longer circulate in the blood stream. For that period of time, the duration of which is greatly impacted by the intensity of trauma, the body is primed for future defensive action.
Without the opportunity to decompress, multiple stressors can accumulate through a process called Stress Stacking. Stressors that may seem trivial on other days can become the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ which may eventually result in violent outbursts from your dog. That means that after you bring a new dog home, after an altercation, or any other stressor it important to give your dog some time to recoup.
BRINGING A NEW DOG OR PUPPY HOME
When your puppy is uprooted and sent home with you they are losing the connections with others they trust. It takes time to build trust with new people. ‘Dog-Proofing’ your home prior to your new pet’s arrival will ensure a peaceful, frustration-free integration without opportunity for your dog to learn inappropriate behavior. Have a family meeting prior to brining home your dog to ensure that everyone understands their role in this process.
Provide for your dog a cozy confined space with easy to clean flooring out of the main traffic of the home. Give your dog a place where he can have uninterrupted rest. Teach children to respect your dog’s time to sleep and and eat without being bothered. Time away from social pressure is a must as big transitions such as rehoming are inherently stressful for your dog.
The first 2-3 weeks is what is commonly termed the ‘Honey Moon” period. Minor behavior problems may be excused due to the novelty of the relationship or may not appear until your pet begins to feel comfortable in their space. Many dogs lose their homes shortly after this phase simply because of poor management strategies induced unnecessary stress and allowed bad habits to develop.
AFTER AN ALTERCATION OR STRESSFUL EVENT
The time after a stressful experience is crucial. Dogs are more prone to engage in fear related behavior in the days following the initial fight. Full decompression could take weeks so it is vital to avoid exposing your dog to further stress triggers. Some dogs develop PTSD after a fight, as may their owners, particularly if there has been a fight that led to severe injury or death of another pet. It’s best to keep all your pets physically separated for a minimum of 48 hours and often longer in order to avoid more harm or trauma to any member or guest of the household.
Many households manage dog and human aggressive pets safely throughout the lifetime of the animal. Management in multi-dog households is frequently termed ‘Crate and Rotate.’ In such a system, each animal is provided safe and consistent access to their basic necessities without overlapping in the same space. Self closing gates, fence gates with locks, and ‘airlocks’ between dogs and other inhabitants make this system livable and as low stress as possible.
How and when will you allow your puppy or dog to decompress after or between stressful events?
REDUCING STRESS IN DOGS THROUGH ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
Jumping the fence, accidents in the house, chewed furniture, and even bites are all anticipatable and preventable behaviors! Avoiding triggers with good environmental management will keep your dog from strengthening undesirable behaviors. Anticipating the common pitfalls of dog behavior could prevent your dog from learning the wrong thing in the first place.
You won’t be able to eliminate a problematic behavior if you allow your dog to practice the behavior you want to go away. Environmental Management reduces stress and sets your dog up for success by creating a predictable, safe environment.
BENEFITS OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
Environmental management builds trust reduces stress in dogs by eliminating sources of contention. This increases your dog’s chances of making good choices and improves his odds of getting good things from you. Your dog won’t have to guess about what they are or are not allowed to do which will increase his confidence and make him feel safe.
Environmental management stream lines the learning process by removing the ‘wrong’ choice from your dog’s behavioral opportunities. Your dog will trust that engaging with you will result in positive and low stress outcomes.
COMMON MANAGEMENT SCENARIOS
Here are some common scenarios that cause many dog owners avoidable stress and struggle. Consider implementing strategies such as these to better manage your dog and reduces the incidence of misbehavior in your home so that you can relax!
- House Training – Limit your dog to easy to clean surfaces and block access to unsupervised areas. Keep your dog on leash when out of the kennel or confine when not supervised. Set a Timer to remind you to take your dog outside regularly
- Fence Jumping/ Running Away – Use a leash for potty breaks or a steel cable tie out or trolley when out in the yard. An enclosed outdoor run is another option
- Biting/Jumping/Barking at Guests – Confine your dog during guest entries/exits. Keep your dog on leash when not confined. Use a visual barrier to break the line of sight.
- Dog plays Keep Away – keep items out of reach of dog, limit dog to a ‘dog proof’ space using baby gates, exercise pen, or tether. Let your dog drag a leash to more easily get a hold of them.
TOOLS OF EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT
Here are many of the recommended tools of environmental management and examples of situations in which they prove beneficial.
- Leash – typically for training you’ll use either a 6′ or 15′ non-retractable leash. A 6′ leash is best in tight confines like veterinary lobbies or when walking on busy traffic ways to keep your dog from jumping, scratching, or biting. A 15′ leash on walks can give your dog the freedom to explore and move around comfortably in their environment which can effectively mitigate a lot of social pressure
- Tether – often a steel cable coated in plastic, a tether is great for fence jumpers or yards that have no fence. It limits a dog’s access to the fence line and can make them easier to reel in if your dog avoids coming inside. Tethers can also be used indoors and attached to sturdy fixtures.
- Drag Leash – A light weight 4-6′ leash or cord is great particularly for keeping puppies out of trouble getting a hold of shy or avoidant dogs without having to touch them. Attach the leash to their collar and the puppy or dog can simply drag the leash behind them. A short leash worn in the house can keep your dog from playing keep away or jumping on counters or people. It will make them easier to hurry outside for potty training.
- Crate – Confining your dog to a small kennel or manageable space is a solution for many dog training issues such as soiling the house, destructive chewing, or inappropriate greetings.
- Exercise Pen – This portable means of confinement can create a dog proofed enclosure when secured to itself in a ring or can be stretched out to block of parts of the home that won’t accommodate a gate.
- Visual Block – these may include sheets covering a kennel or exercise pen or contact paper over doors and windows. These break your dog’s line of sight with triggers.
- Calming Supplements – dogs who are chronically stressed may benefit from supplements such as Composure or CBD treats. Other modalities may include Thundershirts or Adaptil.
Pick a behavior that you wish your dog would do less frequently. How will you prevent your dog’s ability to engage in the behavior in question going forward?
CANINE COMMUNICATION SIGNALS
Because dogs don’t speak English it’s important that you learn how to speak dog. While vocalizations such as whining or growling are more obvious indications of stress, your dog is likely offering many other, albeit subtle, hints that will clue you into their mental state. If your dog tongue flicks, yawns, turns his head away from you or a trigger, these behaviors may indicate a rising stress level. When you dog shakes off this is a good sign and can indicate that your dog was experiencing increased stress levels. Refer to the Doggie Language diagram in the previous chapter for examples of subtle communication signals dogs frequently display.
The following videos and pictures capture interactions between dogs and others in their environment.
See if you can identify the following communication signals of the dogs featured in the following videos.
- standing over toys
- raised hackles,
- lowered head,
- stiff posture,
- tongue flicking,
- whale eye,
- shake off
APPEASEMENT AND STRESS SIGNALS
- Avoidant of handler
- Gives Space
- Wide eyes
- Closed mouth
- Displacement sniffing
- tucked tail
- Hard stare
- Lip curl
- Tongue Flicking
- Low tail wag
- Pinned ears
- Pinned Tail
- Displacement Sniffing