Thursday, September 23, 2010

What to Do After a Stressful Event

Maisy rests in her daddy's lap after a stressful day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the effects of stress this week. I guess this is to be expected, because last Thursday, Maisy and I had another run-in with a loose dog. Long time readers will remember that this is not the first time this has happened to us, but I learned from that experience, and now carry citronella spray on all our walks. I’m glad I do, too, because this was not a friendly dog. (As a side note, it is not actually comforting to have an owner yell, “She doesn’t bite!” as their dog is rushing at yours full speed, growling and snarling.)

Although the incident was very scary, it had the best possible outcome. I was able to get the citronella spray out quickly, which was effective in driving the other dog off; it never got closer than five feet from Maisy. I was pleased with Maisy’s response, too- instead of rushing forward toward the dog, as she has in the past, she hid behind me. Perhaps I’m being anthropomorphic, but I like to think she did that because she trusts that I’ll protect her.

Even so, there’s no denying that stressful events like this really affect her. A certain amount of this is to be expected, and I’ve even written before about the effects of stress hormones on the body. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we should do for our dogs after a stressful experience.

My initial response seems to make a big difference in Maisy’s response. My goal is to help her through the immediate crisis by acting calmly and taking control of the situation as much as possible. Maisy is incredibly sensitive to my moods, so even though I felt incredibly panicky and like crying hysterically afterwards, I had to keep it together for her sake. I made a deliberate effort to breathe normally, to walk loosely, and to talk to her in as normal of a voice as possible.

Part of this is possible because I prepare for the worst. In this case, I had practiced using the citronella spray, which allowed me to remain calm and act quickly. I had also done some desensitization and counter-conditioning with the it (thanks to Sara for the idea) so that it didn’t add to Maisy’s stress. I also carry treats with me every time I take Maisy somewhere. As we were walking away, I fed Maisy a continuous stream of treats. This allowed me to both assess her mental state (not too bad, actually) as well as do “damage control.” I’m quite sure there are no amounts of treats that can overcome the emotions that come from an experience like that, but it offers a certain amount of normalcy.

Because subsequent stress can retrigger a new wave of stress hormones in the body, I’ve found that it’s incredibly important to keep the first 24 to 48 hours low-key. I’ve seen a number of references that suggest that the most important factor in recovering from stress is rest. As a result, the first day or two should be as boring as possible.

For Maisy, this means we don’t leave the house except to go potty. Even time in the yard needs to be minimized as you never know who might walk by your yard. No demands should be made on her during this time, and this includes training. If she initiates play, that’s fine, but it should be kept short and sweet. For the most part, she should be sleeping.

After the initial 48 hours, I gradually add activities back in to her routine. Easy training activities (nothing new!), extended play time in the yard, and very short walks in the neighborhood (longer ones are okay only if I know we won’t encounter scary stuff) are incorporated back into our lives as I see less edginess and her startle response decreases.

It might seem excessive, but I try not to return to "normal" for about a week; this site says it can take up to six days for the stress hormones to return to normal, and I believe it. Maisy is definitely edgier for several days after a stressful experiment. On Monday- four full days after the incident- Maisy growled over things that normally wouldn’t provoke a response: kids on skateboards a block away, a person sitting under a tree, a motorcycle parked in a driveway.

Despite the reduced amount of activity, I try to keep things as normal as possible. I must admit, this is hard because things like our daily walks or evening training sessions are a huge part of our routine. Still, I feed her the same things on the same schedule, play with her if she asks, and allow her free range in the house, even if that does mean she doesn’t rest as much as she might otherwise.

This is what seems to work for us. I suspect that some version of the same things would work for most dogs, although the timeline will likely vary a bit dog to dog. Similarly, some dogs may be able to tolerate more or less activity at different times than Maisy can. I think the real key is watching our dogs’ body language and adjusting our expectations as needed.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

oh man, I'm so sorry this happened to you again. I'm glad you were able to remain calm and that the citronella spray seemed to work pretty well for you two.

K said...

poor maisy, sounds like you are doing all the right things for her. My trainer recently told me that pasta releases the same feel good endorphins in a dogs brain that chocolate does for us. He suggested to feed my dog pasta before a stressful event but i don't see why it wouldn't work after a stressful event too. I know pasta also makes me feel sleepy and relaxed!

Crystal said...

Thanks, Laura. We actually encounter a lot of loose dogs. I'm afraid that my neighbors think of me as "that lady that hates all dogs but her own" because I'm beginning to have a "spray first, ask later" approach to loose dogs.

Kat- I've never heard of that. I'll have to look into it. I'd love to have SOMETHING I could do to help Maisy feel better, faster.

Anonymous said...

Exercise also releases endorphins, so perhaps instead of relaxing and low key, a good bout of vigorous exercise might help her relax and de-stress more quickly.

Crystal said...

Hello Anonymous Commenter! :)

I have heard that before, so I've experimented with exercise following stressful events. I was very hopeful that the endorphin release would help, but unfortunately, it hasn't.

On the Sunday after our most recent incident (which happened on a Thursday, remember), we went for a 90 minute, 4 mile hike at a deserted State Park. Maisy ran almost the entire time, and there were quite a few hills involved. Even so, Maisy remained jumpy and vigilant Monday and Tuesday.

So, in my experience with Maisy (can't speak for other dogs), it is not only ineffective (although perhaps the vigourous exercise didn't happen soon enough after the incident?), but it is also very difficult to accomplish. The risk that she will be re-triggered during exercise is high. We live in the middle of a large urban area, and we encounter multiple dogs on our daily walks. Most are safely contained behind fences or on leash, but even those dogs seem to re-trigger her when she's been under stress.

Add to that, VonReinhardt and Scholz write in their book "Stress in Dogs" that rest is one of the most important factors for stress reduction in dogs.

I say all of this because I don't want to be a person who says "That would never work for my dog" without fully considering the idea. I hope it's clear that I've tried exercise. In fact, I desperately wish it would work, because I'd love a quicker stress recovery time.

Kristen said...

Loose dogs sure are scary! I had my first experience with one on Wednesday. Luckily Griffin and I were right by the training building and ran the 15' to the door (thankfully unlocked... WHY I didn't go to the car, I don't know!) and inside. For the next hour and a half I was still quite scared.

Have you noticed if she's more jumping in your neighborhood compared to other locations? How is she in different environments her first time or two? Was she alert and jumpy the day at the park in your above comment?

Crystal said...

Kristen, those are excellent questions! :)

She's actually quite good in our neighborhood in general. She can heel past barking dogs behind a fence only 4 feet away- I don't ask her to do that, but she frequently offers heeling as a behavior because I reward it heavily. She barely bats an eye at kids on bikes, skateboards, and scooters only 5-10 feet away on a regular basis.

On Sunday, when we went to the park, she was fine, although a little hyperactive (she got MAJOR zoomies- stress related or just exuberance? I don't know). We saw one other dog and a couple pushing a baby stroller. She actually greated the dog (a Golden) appropriately, and was very friendly towards it. She wagged happily at the people and stroller.

The next day, she was jumpy in our neighborhood, even though we went on a different route. I suspect she'll be jumpier in our neighborhood again for awhile- she was for several weeks after the first incident last spring. I treated that by keeping the walks shorter, avoiding places where I know dogs are, and using LOTS more treats.

In general, Maisy is happy and alert, and enjoys going new places. The jumpiness seems to happen more when there are stressful things (dogs, people, activities) going on. But, that seems to wear off once the stress is gone. For example, she loves going to TCOTC, even though it can be stressful there. The only place she hates going is the first vet clinic we went to.

Barbara said...

Hi Crystal! I came across your blog while doing research for a project I'm volunteering for; however, I wish I had found it sooner. I have two reactive Jack Russell Terriers whom I've been training for about a year and a half. One got pretty decent socialization and only became reactive after staying overnight at the vet after being spayed; however, she has always been a bit on the shy side. The other came to me when he was about five months old and didn't receive the socialization he should have gotten. Both have come a long way, but still can't be more than 10-15 feet away from a dog. We haven't greeted dogs in almost a year and am wondering if we ever will be able to. Thanks for the thorough information! Your blog is a spark of hope in this difficult journey.

Crystal said...

Hi, Barbara! I'm glad that you've found my blog useful. Having a reactive dog IS difficult. I'm sorry that you have two- that's the main reason I've never gotten a second dog. I don't want to have to do this again!

Can I ask what your project is? If it brought you to my blog, it must be dog related, and therefore, interesting! :)

katie, maizey, magnus (and meeka in our hearts) said...

Hi Crystal, this is a great thing to think about, and something very under-addressed when it comes to reactivity.

We focus so much on controlling the environment and preventing a stressful episode, but it is impossible to do that at all times. No matter what the unexpected will happen so how we react and what we do is a vital part of helping our little reactive pups.

Here is another aspect, since I brought Magnus home, my Maizey has been on high alert. She is doing so well and adjusting quicker than I expected, but still her stress level is obviously high.

If I thought it would be worse fore her in the long run I would never have got him, but I can already tell she is learning things that are so good for her. It is so joyful to see her actually trying to play with him, and starting to warm up to him!

Here is my question, what can I do to minimize a stressful event that is in her home? I have following what you say about letting her rest and resting with her. Giving her a lot of "puppy breaks" where Magnus is in his crate, and training only "fun" things, nothing to new or hard. Any other suggestions of how I can help her adjust?

I am so proud of my little girl, she is so amazing and I am sure in the long run she and magnus will be buddies. Until then I just want to help her any way I can. Thanks for another great post!

Crystal said...

Katie, that's a good question. I haven't brought home a puppy, obviously, since I've had Maisy, so I have no first hand experience with it. It sounds like you're doing it right by giving her puppy breaks! I'd make sure she's still getting a lot of individual attention, and to stick to the pre-puppy routine as much as possible. Make sure she's still getting her walks and training sessions as usual, but like you noted, make sure you aren't asking too much of her, either!

Good luck- Magnus is such a cutie, and I can't wait to read more about him. :)

katie, maizey, and magnus said...

Hey Crystal and Maisy! Just wanted to let you know what a useful post this was for me. I applied some of what you mentioned and I think it really paid off. I posted the full story called, Gratitude For Friends. Thanks for sharing such useful info!

Ettel, Charlie Poodle, and Emma Pitty said...

Hi Crystal and Maisy! We just found your blog, it was recommended to us as we had a scary run-in with an aggressive off-leash dog yesterday morning. My poor girlie's recuperating and we're both definitely feeling the repercussions of such a stressful event. Thank you so much for writing this out, it's quite helpful!

Crystal said...

Hi Ettel,

I'm so sorry to hear about your guys' run-in. I know that shaky feeling you describe in your entry. Maisy and I have similar experiences, and each time, I've been on the verge of tears.

I hope you're both feeling better soon!

A to Z Dals said...

You wrote: "As we were walking away, I fed Maisy a continuous stream of treats. This allowed me to both assess her mental state (not too bad, actually) as well as do “damage control.” I’m quite sure there are no amounts of treats that can overcome the emotions that come from an experience like that, but it offers a certain amount of normalcy."

My experience was different. My dog is reactive to other dogs (her only trigger) and a child dropped the leash on a mini-poodle that came over and bit at her legs. I had to hold her head up and away, as it would have been an unfair fight and besides, I don't want her to practice fighting. Meanwhile I'm kicking at the other dog and it finally went away.

Afterward, my response was to sit right there and give her non-stop treats until *I* was completely calm. Effectively, it was the biggest jackpot of her life.

A little later on that same walk we had to pass another dog and I was concerned that she might over react because of the earlier experience. She paid no attention to the other dog.

My theory is that the humongous jackpot totally overwrote the bad of the experience in her mind. I think she completely and vividly remembered all the treats and the nasty poodle was just a hazy vague memory.

Of course, it may make a big difference that she only has one trigger and in general believes the rest of the world was created for her personal benefit.