Stressed out!

Long-term stress can lead to a lower aggressive behaviour threshold and irritability

My dog stressed? Never, he lives in paradise in my home, how can he be stressed?” This is how people often react when I tell them I suspect stress is the reason for certain unwanted behaviour in their dog. But what we must remember is that our dogs are more and more part of our households and social activities, and we unwittingly place more and more demands on them, often without teaching them how to cope and adapt.

We expose them to so many different situations, different environments, people and other animals. We take them to fleamarkets, the beach, attend large training classes or highly charged agility or sports training – expose them to crowds of people and other dogs and expect them to deal with the immense level of noise, activities and stimulation. When we take our dogs on walks, they are expected to ignore all other dogs, smells, birds, humans and other objects whizzing past such as cyclist and joggers and if they don’t, we give a quick jerk on the lead, which in turn leads to even more stress.

Each dog is different

Different dogs respond to certain situations in different ways. Some might find a particular situation stressful while another might enjoy it. Exposing a timid or shy dog to lots of people and other dogs on the beach, because you want to socialise her, can cause the dog immense stress (and at the same time decrease any positive associations you were hoping for). This dog might enjoy a quiet walk in the forest or field. For a jolly and outgoing dog, going to the beach and meeting different people and other dogs is an enjoyable outing.

Some signs of stress and frustration may be more difficult to detect, while others are unmistakable. You may notice that some signs relate to an increase in activity while other relate to a decrease in activity. Please take note that some of the symptoms could have medical causes and you should always consult your veterinarian.

Symptoms need to be observed and interpreted in the context in which they appear. For example, a dog could be panting because it is hot, he has just been playing or because he is experiencing stress. Another indication is the frequency and intensity of the behaviour or symptom. Usually more than one symptom will appear at the same time.

How do you know if your dog is stressed?

~ Lack of focus and attention while interacting or training

~ Biting and tugging on the leash, for example during training, in crowded areas, or at the vet

~ Sweaty paws

~ Hyperactivity, unable to settle down

~ Overreaction to triggers normally not reacted to, or not with such intensity

~ Relapses in an already housetrained dog

~ Self mutilation, like chewing a paw or tail, excessive grooming

~ Sleeping excessively or a disturbed sleep pattern

~ Chronic skin disorders such as allergies (due to weakened immune system)

~ Bad coat condition, dripping nose, bald patches

~ Excessive moulting during a particular context, such as at shows, the vet or grooming parlour

~ Compulsive behaviours

~ Urinates more frequently in a particular context (male and female)

~ Continuous diarrhoea

~ Destructiveness

~ Loss of appetite or not eating his favourite treat in a particular context

~ Over-eating (gulping down food); also eating non-edible objects such as stones, paper, wood

~ Unpleasant body odour and breath (due to over-secretion of gastrointestinal acids)

~ Excessive panting

~ Shivering (as if getting cold)

~ Displacement behaviours (behaviours that are happening out of context)

~ Withdrawn and passive

Situations that can cause stress in our dogs

~ Direct threats towards the dog (by humans or other dogs)

~ Inconsistent rules, no clear boundaries

~ Violence, anger in the environment even if it not directed at the dog (humans fighting in the house)

~ Physical punishment, jerking on the lead, pushing him down, pulling him along, alpha rolls

~ Restricted movement, for example being kept in kennel, tied down on chain, kept in small rooms such as a laundry room

~ Too high demands in training and daily life; expecting too much too soon

~ Sudden changes in routine and environment, like longer working hours, moving house, kennelling, new baby in the house, new pet

~ Grooming parlours (noises, strange dogs and humans, kennels, etc.)

~ Bad weather such as thunder, lightning, strong wind

~ Loss of a human or canine companion

~ Too much exercise for your puppy or adult dog

~ Too rough and too long play sessions in the park with other dogs

~ Not enough time to sleep or being disturbed while trying to sleep

~ Too little exercise and activity for dogs

~ Hunger, thirst

~ Not having access to his toilet area when he needs it

~ Getting cold or being too hot

~ Pain and illness (HD, arthritis, injuries, trauma, shock)

~ A female dog in season in close proximity. It is stressful for the males and stressful for the female trying to ward off overbearing males

Stress is not always bad

Stress is not always a bad thing. Dogs (and humans) need a certain amount of stress to learn, function and survive. Stress raises the blood pressure and increases the heart rate. Hormonal activity provides the body with extra energy to sustain the flight/fight response which is vital for survival. If another dog or situation threatens your dog, he needs to activate his flight/fight response in order to survive/get to safety/defend himself. The intensity of the response is dependant on the severity of the threat or the ‘perceived’ threat, previous learning in similar situations and the dog’s temperament. This type of stress is called positive stress or eustress.

When is stress bad for your dog?

If the dog is experiencing chronic stress or is frequently exposed to stress-causing triggers, and the dog is not given a long recovery phase (such as rest), so-called adaptation diseases such as kidney, bladder, skin and cardiovascular diseases are to be expected. (It is exactly the same for us humans.)

When a dog experiences acute stress, the following physiological response happens. In short, the brain and pituitary glands release the ACT hormone. This stimulates the adrenal cortex to increase the production of corticosterone and cortisol. The adrenal medulla then produces adrenaline and noradrenaline that increases heart rate and blood pressure. It constricts certain blood vessels to increase blood flow to the muscles and brain, while decreasing blood to the digestive system and internal organs. This then prepares the dog for fight/flight response. It also stimulates the liver to increase glucose into the blood, therefore giving the heart, muscles and brain the energy it needs for the impending response.

14 Things you can do to reduce your dog’s stress levels

1. Keep routines or change them gradually – give the dog time to adapt.
2. Stop using harsh methods for training and handling. Train your dog obedience by using positive, gentle and humane methods and have realistic expectations.
3. Avoid putting a dog in a situation of hunger, thirst, cold or extreme heat.
4. Give him access to his toilet area.
5. Find a balance in his exercise and activity routine.
6. Give your dog enough time to sleep during the day.
7. Provide him with his own ‘safe’ space where he can retreat to should the environment be too noisy or stressful.
8. After excitable periods, your dog should be given ample time to rest and relax. Excitable situations can be training, agility, Schutzhund training, playing in the park with other dogs, a trip to the beach, after family has visited, etc.
9. When you have visitors, go out with your dog, or do any other activity with him, and watch him for signs of stress. This way you will know if he really enjoys the activity with you or if it stresses him.
10. When entering new environments, allow the dog time to investigate at his own pace. Let him sniff around – only then will he feel more secure, for example, at a new training area, at the vet, the groomer, or when taking your dog to friends or a dog-friendly restaurant.
11. Let your dog be part of the social group as much as possible, and only gradually teach him to accept time on his own.
12. Be consistent in your interactions with your dog (same rules every day).
13. If you are not sure if something is too much for your dog to handle, stop or shorten the duration or get away from the situation.
14. When getting another pet for your home, consider your current pet’s temperament.

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