To look at most of our dogs, it’s hard to think of them as “stressed out” as they snooze happily in that patch of sunlight, yet all dogs experience stress, some more and some less — and it’s how they learn to cope with it that is most important.
I want you to consider something for a moment: Imagine waking up in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and don’t have any knowledge of local customs. Even the basics of life seem to be out of place — a safe place to sleep, access to food, even a place to take care of bodily functions and wash are all difficult to find. Would you feel a bit stressed? Now add to this scenario that your hosts are not human shaped, you can’t make sense of their facial expressions, and they have so many limbs that any gestures they make are a complete mystery. Now are you stressed?
In the scenario above, just discovering how to get through the day safely could be stressful — even more so if your hosts punish you for actions you thought were safe. In a very real way, that’s the life facing our dogs when they come into our homes. How we help them integrate into our human lives and cope with challenges can have a profound effect on who they become.
Rat Brains and Biochemistry
The National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. has been studying the effects of stress for some time. The results of a study done on rats in 2006 revealed some important results. The study confirmed previous results exposing rats to stress from which they cannot escape can lead to depression-like symptoms. A group of rats was exposed to some stressors that they were given control over — either by turning these stressors off or by escaping them after solving some problem. Having this control over the stressors had a dramatic effect, not only on the rat’s behaviour but in the apparent “re-wiring” the rats’ brains, which were physically changed, allowing them to better cope with the stress.
Even more remarkably, the effect of this “re-wiring” was not temporary. When these rats were later placed in situations where they did not have control, they were better able to cope than rats who did not have the experience of control over stressors. The study showed conclusively that the experience of having some control in stressful situations “appears to be critical for preventing and treating mood and anxiety disorders.”
Stress? What Stress?
As adult humans, it may be difficult to for us to see the stresses in the lives of our dogs. To us, stress is not being able to make a mortgage payment or needing to complete an important work project by the end of the week. Things are not nearly so complex for our dogs. Their stresses are much more akin to something a small child may have to deal with, e.g. “I need to pee!”, “Where did mom go?”, “Will I ever get fed again?” — these stressors are more on the levels our dogs think.
Until they come to understand how things work, all kinds of things may be stressors for dogs. To a young puppy, having a human “mom” stand over her and say “Sit! Sit! Sit!” while pushing on the pup’s bum is stressful until she learns that putting her butt on the ground is the correct response. What does that sound mean? Why is mom pushing on my butt? Until the pup can answer those questions, it can be scary for a young puppy.
Even though each new situation can be a stressor, not all stressful events carry equal weight. Wondering when dinner is coming and being cornered by a larger aggressive dog are very different levels of stress. There is a broad spectrum of stressors, many unavoidable, in the life of any dog. My Tiramisu hates going outside to pee in the rain, for example.
Learning to Cope
So if aversive events that cause stress are unavoidable, the best thing we can do for our dogs is help them to cope as best they can with such situations. But if we can’t talk with them, how can we know they are uncomfortably stressed, let alone teach them to deal with it? Maybe we can take a lesson from the rat study I mentioned above.
The rats in the study were given options to successfully escape or avoid the stressful event. If we translate this to our dogs, it simply means making sure they have behaviours we consider “correct” to use to get away from what they consider unpleasant. Have you ever scolded your dog only to see him lower his head, avert his gaze, and “look guilty”? If so, chances are you let him off the hook, said something soothing, and smoothed things over so you could get back to normal. Guess what? Your dog just found a safety valve. That behaviour (sometimes called appeasement behaviour by dog trainers) allowed your dog to get out of a stressful situation with you.
And that’s just one of many coping mechanisms dogs can develop as they live with us. But does this have to be an almost accidental process, developed by trial and error? Or can we deliberately set up a program to help our dogs be more confident and better able to cope with stress?
Super Dogs and Beyond
The US military set out to answers these questions and developed a program they called the “Bio Sensor” program which used mild stressors to stimulate a puppy’s nervous system. This program, later known to the general public as the “Super Dogs” program, involved tactile stimulation of the puppies from three days to 16 days of age. The puppy would be exposed once per day to changes in the orientation of their bodies, slight changes in temperature, and being held in different ways. Each of these exercises were carefully structured to have only a mild impact and last for only for a few seconds so as to not overly stress the puppy.
The results of the program were more than impressive. Dogs that went through the “Super Dogs” program showed improved physical health and a much greater capacity to cope with stressful situations.
In his paper on the program, Dr. Carmen Battaglia also talks about the introduction of stress in the form of novel situations as the pups approach five to eight months of age. This is another critical component of improving a dog’s coping mechanism. And, like the “Bio Sensor” program for very young pups, it is critical that the level of stress be kept within the pup’s ability to tolerate it and learn from it.
The point at which a dog can no longer handle the stress of a situation is called its “threshold” for that situation. Once the dog is “over threshold”, he will either try to do something to get away from the thing that is causing the stress or he will shut down, effectively giving up on the situation. What a given dog will do when stress reaches that critical tipping point is very much dependent on the severity of the situation (from the dog’s point of view) and the dog’s previous experience with similar situations.
In mild reactions, the dog might try behaviours he has successfully used before to escape from the stress. Growling or barking aggressively at a dog they find threatening, or peeing while being scolded can be effective in changing the situation in the dog’s favor. In more severe cases, the dog may go into a “fight or flight” mode where instinct and reflex take over. These cases are the most dangerous since we can’t reach the dog by using his training; they is simply switched off to the outside world until he are safely back below his stress threshold.
It’s important to recognize that stressors can be additive, making seemingly safe situations more threatening. For example, a dog may be uncomfortable around children. He might also feel threatened if anyone is near his food bowl. And he might be uncomfortable on hardwood floors where his footing isn’t good.
This dog might be fine with a child in the room or even in a room with a hardwood floor and a child. But if you also put his food down with the child in that room, this may push the dog past his stress threshold. A trainer who doesn’t realize this additive effect can be surprised when the dog reacts unpredictably in the presence of all of these stressors.
Coping and Stereotyping
Our dogs do find ways of coping with stress even if we don’t intervene to help. Many times the simple solution is behaviour suppression. The dog simply does nothing unless he is sure that what he is doing will not bring a scolding or punishment. Such a dog is vigilant and is always watching for signs of punishment, and will seek to avoid it.
In her book Animals in Translation, Professor Temple Grandin, Ph.D talks about “stereotypy” (yes, that is the correct spelling) — repetitive or ritualistic behaviours that some animals develop as a response to stress. In dogs, this may be compulsive licking, pacing, barking, or other behaviours that seemingly have no appropriate trigger. These behaviours can come from stress or from a lack of stimulation which is, in itself, a stressor for dogs.
Dr. Grandin notes that she was surprised to learn from her research that animals which display “stereotypy” behaviours are often better able to cope with their stress than those who remain quiet and withdrawn. It seems that the “stereotypies”, these repetitive behaviours, provide an outlet for the stress and become an effective coping mechanism.
What Does All of This Mean?
None of us can eliminate all of the stress from our dogs’ lives. But what we can do is help them to develop healthy coping mechanisms so those little aversives life throws their way don’t become problems that push them “over threshold”. Yes, good management is a big part of being successful — recognizing that your dog is uncomfortable and moving him away from things that they find stressful helps him cope. He may even begin to develop behaviours to alert you that he would like to be moved away. You should definitely encourage and reward those behaviours.
Programs like “Super Dogs”, started when dogs are young, can give dogs a great head start on coping with stress. Be sure to ask your breeders when you are looking for a new puppy about the work they do with the young pups. Lessons learned from the rat study show that making sure that your dog has an option to get out of a frustrating or stressful situation successfully can have positive physiological effects on his brain. So while genetics will play a role in your puppy’s temperament, early training and a little planning can stop many problems before they begin.
Finally, be observant. Your dog may show signs of stress in many ways. He can either be over-active or under-active. Remember, behaviour suppression is a documented response in cases of too much stress. Just because a dog is laying quietly in the corner does not necessarily mean he is happy and well-adjusted. There may be issues simmering just beneath the surface. Having a good understanding of your dog’s regular patterns of behaviour can help you learn what he needs to help him cope.
Good Training, Great Results
“Mark and Reward” training (or “Clicker Training“) has provided a number of benefits in our home, helping us work with our dogs to develop confident, well-adjusted temperaments. This type of training relies on teaching the dog the behaviours we want and not punishing them until they guess what behaviours will avoid the punishment. The training process itself advises that the training be structured so that the dog is successful about 70% of the time. This way their experiences are mostly positive, mostly successful. Like the rats in the study, they learn coping mechanisms by being given choices that make them successful.
Helping our dogs learn to cope with stress and frustration may be the most important thing we can do to help them learn. Thousands of dogs are euthanized each year for behaviour issues that can be traced directly to their inability to cope effectively with various situations. In many cases, these dogs simply lashed out because they could find no other successful option. While there are lots of TV shows and websites that offer quick fixes to these problems, understanding what is going on can help you solve many common problems without confrontation or conflict.
Behavioural science, biology, and research are opening up new options for dog owners to both understand and shape dogs’ thinking and behaviour. Rather than look for ways to simply stop an isolated behaviour you may find troubling, consider looking at the bigger picture and perhaps finding a better and more permanent solution by helping your dog deal with the stresses that may be the cause of that behaviour.
There are a lot of great resources to help manage problem behaviours at their source; knowledgeable trainers in your communities and online, websites, and lots of great books. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a fresh look at your life with your dog and how you can give him or her a better chance to cope and be successful in our human world.
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
Stress – alyak 2007 from Flickr
White dog – klynslis 2007 from Flickr
Worry – Javier Kohen 2008 from Flickr
Nerves – Sarah May Scott 2008 from Flickr
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