Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Stress in Dogs

The second day of Sarah's seminar was largely about aggression. Again, the day was just jam-packed with video. Of course, it was largely video of scary dogs, but still: it was nice to practice all of the information on body language that we had learned the day before.

So why do I mention aggression when this post is titled “Stress in Dogs?” Because throughout the weekend, Sarah's message was that stress can lead to aggression. This is especially true when we combine chronic stress with increased arousal because dogs under regular, repeated stress never have the opportunity to fully recover.

This has to do with the physiology of stress; within half a second of a stressful thing, the dog's adrenal glands begin to produce both adrenaline (which causes “hyper-alertness” by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood-sugar levels), as well as cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone which the body continues to make long after the adrenalin rush subsides, and as a result, it can take a minimum of seven to ten days for a dog to fully recover from stress. If a dog doesn't get the chance to fully recover from stress, he will have chronically elevated cortisol levels and a drop in testosterone. This leads to fatigue, slowed metabolism, and a weakened immune system, all of which lowers a dog's threshold for aggressive behavior.

As a result, it seems to me that we dog owners would be wise to pay attention to our dogs' stress levels. Unfortunately, this can be difficult because stress is sort of a nebulous concept. Not all dogs are stressed by the same things. Similarly, every stressed dog will react differently, and will show different signs of stress. Complicating matters even further, stress-related behaviors are very fluid, and a dog's stress level can change back and forth very quickly.

To address that last point, Sarah shared what she called the “two key indicators of internal emotional state.” First, is the dog eating? If you offer the dog a treat that he normally enjoys and he refuses it, it's highly likely that he's feeling stressed. Sarah also recommended paying attention to how the dog eats. Maisy becomes frantic in her treat-taking when she's stressed, but I've seen dogs that become slow and act is if they are doing you this grand favor by taking the treat. The second indicator is to ask if the dog responding to well-known cues. For many dogs, “sit” is a great test (Sarah also suggested “shake” as a commonly known cue). If the dog is normally quite solid in his performance and is now acting as if he can't hear you, or is responding very slowly, it is probably because he's stressed. If you see indications of stress in your dog, Sarah advised that you should modify the situation or, if that's not possible, to leave entirely.

But remember- the recipe for disaster combines stress and arousal! Arousal is similar to stress in that the dog's body releases a hormone called epinephrine. This increases the dog's heart and respiration rate. So if you have a dog that's already suffering from constant, low-grade stress, it's easy to see how just a little more excitement could push a dog over the edge.

Some things which dogs often find arousing include sudden changes in the environment (such as someone coming or going), being unable to access a desired person, dog, or thing due to barriers like fences or restraints like leashes, and intense, unrestrained play. These are generally seen as good things- owners coming homing, seeing another dog while on a walk, or going to a dog park are all things most dogs enjoy. No matter how exciting these events are, they also increase the dog's arousal levels. If the dog happens to be stressed when something arousing happens... well, the end result might be unpleasant. Therefore, it seems obvious that we need to reduce the amount of stress in our dog's life in order to ameliorate the potential interactions of stress and arousal. 

Sarah identified a number of causes of stress, ranging from undersocialization or social conflict to a lack of physical or mental exercise. On the flip side, too much activity (and not enough rest) can also be stressful; dogs need 17-20 hours of rest a day, but this should come in spurts, not all at once. Another set of seemingly contradictory causes of stress is a complete lack of structure as compared to too much structure. In other words, in order to modulate a dog's stress levels, we need to create balance and stability in his life.

Sarah also recommended setting up a “safety zone.” This is an area where the dog can get some down-time. It shouldn't be a place of isolation, but it should be a relatively low-traffic area with low visual stimuli; the dog shouldn't be able to see people coming or going, nor out any windows. The safety zone should be a comfortable place with plenty of low-key reinforcement (bully sticks and Kongs instead of tennis balls and squeaky toys, for example), and a place the dog spends time regardless of whether or not you're home. Sarah also uses DAP and Through a Dog's Ear CDs in her dogs' safety zone in order to promote relaxation.

Finally, Sarah recommended teaching what she calls the five foundation behaviors: a bridge sound that tells the dog reinforcement is coming (ie, the click-treat relationship), targeting skills so that you can encourage a dog to move without having to touch him, focused attention (eye contact that is both on-cue and automatic), a do-not-proceed cue like “leave it,” and a turn-away cue that encourages the dog to move in a different direction. A sixth bonus behavior is teaching your dog impulse control. All of these skills will allow you to deal with a stressful event or begin behavior modification if needed.

By giving our dogs appropriate exercise and structure we can help reduce stress. By giving them the space to relax, we can allow them to recover from stress. And by teaching them the five (or six) foundation behaviors, we can give them the skills they need to deal with stress. This helps prevent the terrible combination of stress and arousal that can lead to aggression.

It's your turn now! I'd love to hear what you do to help reduce your dog's stress level. Maybe you do something similar to Sarah's safety zone- please share the details of your set-up! Or, perhaps you have found another foundation behavior that really helps your dog deal with stress. No matter what it is, I'm looking forward to hearing what you do to help your dog!


Cheryl and Kirby said...

Hi Crystal, Wow! I love this post. I will be posting on Kirby's blog either later today or tomorrow about what WE dealt with this week (separation anxiety), but your post makes comlete sense and I had no idea how long the cortsone that causes stress lingers in their body. Kirby had separation anxiety when I got him a year ago and after a few months he was doing great!! But this past week has been awful with him going back to his old habits, and I couldn't figure out what was making this happen. I really still don't know, but it looks like after yesterday we are on the upswing so we will see how the weekend goes. I talked with my rally instructor last night and she also mentioned "stress" and how it affects dogs. If you could stop by my blog sometime this weekend and check out this post. I hope to get up later today.
Thank you for such great posts, I really find them helpful!


Kallum Mittler said...

Dog stress is one of the leading causes of pet aggression, ailments, anxiety, and worst of all it can be the reason why your dog may have to be put to sleep. The problem with dog stress though is that not a lot of pet parents really understand what it is, what causes it, and how it can be avoided or treated. Most of the time, owners consider what can already be a stressful situation for their dogs to be a very common activity. See more

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