Stress is a fact of life. We all experience stress every day and must learn to develop some resilience to the life stresses we deal with and manage daily. People without the ability to handle stress, can’t function in our world. This is the reason we coach our children how to maneuver life, but don’t do everything for them. We can’t shield them from everything as they grow up, if we want them to be successful adults who live a rich life. Our kids need to learn how to cope with stress and not break when then things go wrong, because they will. This is no different for dogs.
Stress also builds up as things pile on. Imagine the following scenario. You wake up in the morning with a headache—oh boy. You get out of bed and step on a dog toy—ouch. You go to the bathroom and realize you are out of toothpaste—grrr. You go downstairs and realize you are out of coffee (or tea or whatever you enjoy)—bigger grrr. You get in the car to go to work and get stuck in traffic—mega grrr.
Now that is a crappy start for a day. I feel sorry for the first person who has to talk to you at work, because you are probably already stressed beyond capacity. Any single one of these stress factors on its own, would not have been a big deal but because it kept piling on, it became too much fast. You reached and blew past your threshold of what you can comfortably handle. Impulse control is a finite resource. We can only deal with so much. What is the first thing that happens when we get tired? We become irritable and less tolerant. We may become snappy with people. We’ve all been there.
Nothing in the brain uses more energy than impulse control, this the reason impulse control is the first ability we lose, as we get tired. The result is, our reactivity towards things we may otherwise be able to handle, goes up. How much stress each of us can handle is a genetically determined trait. Our biological limit to handle stress is not something we can truly control. But what we can control, is how stressful things or events affect us. We can learn better stress coping mechanisms. Make better choices to reduce stress and learn better stress-reduction skills to help us keep our stress level below our personal threshold and avoid reactivity.
Guess what? All of this applies to ALL mammals. What we have learned from Affective Neuroscience in the past decade has shifted how we look at emotional systems and everything that goes with it. All mammals have the same emotional brain layout. How emotions show itself on the outside will obviously vary by species, but what goes on internally does not—for mammals. A mouse, a horse, a monkey, a human, a cat or a dog etc. all handle emotions internally pretty much the same. What stresses a dog and makes him feel anxious and more reactive, will be different from a person most of the time, but the biology behind the reactivity is no different.
Just like we need to learn to not stress too much about unavoidable things, we must take a similar approach with our dog. It is our responsibility to build psychological resilience in our dogs, as we raise them or after they join the family through adoption. The process to do so can be different with an adult dog vs a puppy, and there may be limits of what can be accomplished in a particular case, but it is always possible to make any dog more resilient to stress with the right approach and patience.
Dogs have a base level of stress simply by living with us. We don’t read all their communication clues correctly. We miss a lot. Dogs are confused and stressed by that, but most dogs handle these life confusions just fine. Other stress elements that pile on top of that are more problematic and push any dog closer and past their personal threshold at some point. Every biological being has a psychological breaking point.
Health issues cause stress. I am less pleasant when I have a headache, are you? What if your dog has a headache? How would you know? Or a toothache, or an upset digestive system, or allergies (before symptoms are visible), etc. Keeping your dog healthy and monitoring vitals is critical in reducing stress from health issues.
Is your dog fulfilled? If not, he may be more stressed. Are you a passionate runner and can’t run any longer? How would you feel if the most joyful activity was removed from your life? We do this to dogs all the time. Things dogs naturally enjoy are all part of the predatory hunting sequence: searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebration and consumption. Does your dog get to do these things? No? That has consequences. Obviously, walking your dog daily for an hour or more is a great start, but it is often not enough. Identifying which of the hunting elements are most fun for your dog and then playing games emphasizing those elements, makes a huge difference in reducing your dog’s stress level. It also significantly improves your relationship.
Are you being clear and consistent with your dog? Are all family members?Clarity is probably the most underestimated and most important factor in reducing stress; especially with fearful dogs. It makes a huge difference. Clarity reaches into many areas. Do you use commands like “off” and “down” consistently to always mean the same thing? Is the sofa okay for your dog to be on, or not? Is the daily routine predictable and more or less the same? Is the crate or bed a safe space or do the kids pester your dog sometimes in his space? Does your dog have a safe space to go to, when something is too much for him? Does your dog know you got his back when something unfamiliar appears in the environment? If your dog is clear about the environment and your home, stress is reduced.
Leashes and collars are often frustrating restraint devices to dogs, to them, they just prevent them from going where they want to be. Frustration creates stress. Frustration also originates from the emotional rage system of the brain. Frustration is the beginning and the lowest form of rage. This is where leash reactivity has its beginnings. By spending enough time explaining the leash and collar as a communication tool to our dogs, we can make these much less frustrating and less stressful.
Clarity and leash and collar frustration are obviously issues that can be addressed through training.
Last, but not least there are triggers. Triggers are things that upset us. This can include pet peeves, frustrating events, unmet expectations, certain people or situations, and so on. We all have those and so does your dog. It could be other dogs, or just brown dogs with cropped ears (it can be very specific). It could be unfamiliar people or just men with hats and beards. It could be man holes in streets, drains under sidewalks, that scary Halloween blow-up cat in the neighbor’s front yard, skateboards, bikes, cars, etc. You get the idea. Pretty much anything can be a trigger to a particular dog. If your dog’s stress level is already high and he is near or even past his threshold already, get ready for a strong reaction when a trigger appears. If the stress level is low enough, a trigger, while still not comfortable, can be tolerated and your dog won’t react much or not at all. You may not like the screaming child but can tolerate it. However, that probably changes if you have a headache.
The key is to reduce stress, so your dog can handle its triggers better without blowing up. If we are just trying to prevent the reaction by addressing the trigger itself, we often fail in accomplishing the goal of making our dog happier, calmer and more balanced.
Here are a few more examples that can create stress in your dog that may not be as obvious: a recent vet visit or medical procedure, new neighbors moved next door (with or without kids or dogs), some construction down the street, going to a different dog park, changing the daily walking path, getting a vaccination (consider titers instead of annual boosters) or flea and tick preventative (consider natural alternatives), high-carb foods or poor protein foods (some very expensive brands sold at vet offices are horrible in that regard).
It pays off, to always look at the whole picture of why a dog may be reacting to something and not just the reaction itself.
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine certifications, author of the dog behavioral book: "If Your Dog Could Talk" and owner of the dog training company Happy Dog Training. Ralf works with clients in Southern California and can be contacted through his website at HappyDogTraining.info.