Sometimes, I like to think about the effect of stress on a dog’s body- or our own!- as a bathtub.
It’s impossible to avoid stress entirely, but when things are running well, stress comes in and stress goes out. It’s a nice little system that allows our bodies to cope with whatever life throws at us. Some dogs are naturally pretty chill. They are the empty bathtubs of the world. Some dogs are… well, some dogs are like ours. Anxious. Reactive. Whatever. Their bathtubs tend to always have some water in them, but as long as the level doesn’t get too high, they can function just fine.
Of course, the level in the bathtub is constantly fluctuating. This is inevitable. Sometimes something happens that causes more water than usual to come in, like a thunderstorm, or a vet visit, or an interaction with another dog. Sometimes there’s a clog, making the stress drain out slower than usual- maybe the dog is in pain or just hasn’t had enough rest. Sometimes both things happen at the same time.
When this happens, stress starts to build up. That’s fine as long as we do something to help our dogs. If we can find a way to turn down the water tap or unclog the drain, the bathtub will slowly empty out again until the dog is back to normal. But if we don’t (or can’t!) get things back in balance, the stress will keep building up until… SPLASH! The bathtub overflows. Your dog’s behavior is suddenly out of control; he barks, growls, lunges- maybe he even bites. It’s not that he wants to do any of those things, it’s just that his body can’t cope with the amount of stress coming in relative to the amount going out. This can happen to any dog, not just reactive ones.
The bathtub will continue to overflow until you do something so that the stress can drain out. Physiologically, we know that stress hormones take an average of 72 hours to dissipate. Of course, each dog is different, so it may take more or less time to completely empty his bathtub. During this recovery period, even a small amount of water- something that might not normally have a noticeable impact on our dogs- can cause the bathtub to overflow again.
It’s worth noting that dogs who have chronic stress, whose bathtubs never get a chance to completely empty, will always be closer to that overflow point than dogs whose bathtub does empty out.
Thankfully, there are things we can do to help our dogs reduce their overall water level. This can be done by either widening their drains through training that helps them cope with stress more effectively, or by turning down the amount of stress entering through medication or management techniques. The end result is a bathtub that is less likely to overflow from daily events.
What does your dog's bathtub look like? What are you doing to keep everything flowing smoothly?