Stress in dogs is a fact of life. We all experience stress daily and must learn to develop some resilience to the daily stresses we deal with. People without the ability to handle stress can’t function in our world. This is why we coach our children on how to maneuver life but don’t do everything for them. We can’t shield them from everything as they grow up if we want them to be successful adults who live rich lives. Our kids need to learn how to cope with stress and not break when things go wrong; because they will. This is no different for dogs.
Stress in Dogs Accumulates
Stress builds up as things pile on. Imagine the following scenario. You wake up in the morning with a headache—oh boy. Next, you get out of bed and step on a dog toy—ouch. You go to the bathroom and realize you are out of toothpaste—grrr. You go downstairs and realize you are out of coffee (or tea or whatever you enjoy)—bigger grrr. Then, you get in your car to go to work and get stuck in traffic—mega grrr.
Now that is a crappy start for a day. I feel sorry for the first person who has to talk to you at work because you are probably already stressed beyond capacity. Any single one of these stress factors by itself would not have been a big deal, but because it kept piling on, it became too much, too fast. You reached and blew past your threshold of what you can comfortably handle. Impulse control is a finite resource. We can only deal with so much. What is the first thing that happens when we get tired? We become irritable and less tolerant. We may become snappy with people. We’ve all been there.
Impulse Control and Stress
Nothing in the brain uses more energy than impulse control, this is the reason impulse control is the first ability we lose as we get tired. The result is our reactivity toward things we may otherwise be able to handle increases. How much stress each of us can handle is a genetically determined trait. Our biological limit to handle stress is not something we can truly control. But what we can control is how stressful things or events affect us. We can learn better stress coping mechanisms. Make better choices to reduce stress and learn better stress-reduction skills to help us keep our stress level below our threshold and avoid blowing up.
The Science of Stress in Dogs
Guess what? All of this applies to ALL mammals. What we have learned from Affective Neuroscience in the past decade has shifted how we look at emotional systems and everything that goes with it. All mammals have the same emotional brain layout. How emotions show themselves on the outside will vary by species, but what goes on internally does not—for mammals. A mouse, a horse, a monkey, a human, a cat or a dog, etc. all handle emotions internally pretty much the same. What stresses a dog and makes him feel anxious and more snappy will be different from a person most of the time, but the biology behind the emotion is no different.
Just like we need to learn to not stress too much about unavoidable things, we must take a similar approach with our dog. Our responsibility is to build psychological resilience in our dogs as we raise them or after they join the family through adoption. The process to do so can be different with an adult dog vs. a puppy. There may be limits to what can be accomplished in a particular case. But, it is always possible to make any dog more resilient to stress with the right approach and patience.
Dogs have a base level of stress simply by living with us. We don’t read all their communication clues correctly. We miss a lot. How stressed would you be living in a place where no one understood you? That’s your dog’s experience most of the time. Dogs are confused and stressed by that, but most dogs handle these life confusions just fine.
Other stress elements that pile on top are more problematic and push any dog closer and past its threshold at some point. Every biological being has a psychological breaking point. Let’s look at the different things that cause stress in dogs.
Health issues cause stress. I am less pleasant when I have a headache, are you? What if your dog has a headache? How would you know? Or a toothache, an upset digestive system, allergies (before symptoms are visible), etc. Keeping your dog healthy and monitoring vitals is critical in reducing stress from health issues. Dogs are predators and, as such, hide their ailments as best as possible. When they show direct symptoms, they usually already feel pretty bad. As such, look for things like these. Is your dog favoring one leg or side over the other? Has food and water consumption changed in some way? Is your dog more or less active? Are urination, defecation, and feces different in some way? All these can be early warning signs of health issues.
Is your dog biologically fulfilled? Are his genetic needs met? If not, he may be more stressed. Are you a passionate runner and can’t run any longer? How would you feel if the most joyful activity was removed from your life? We do this to dogs all the time. Things dogs naturally enjoy are all part of the predatory hunting sequence: searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming. Does your dog get to do these things? No? That has consequences. Walking your dog daily for an hour or more is a great start, but it often isn’t enough. Identify which of the hunting elements are the most fun for your dog. Then play games emphasizing those elements. It makes a huge difference in reducing your dog’s stress level. It also significantly improves your relationship.
Lack of Clarity Causes Stress in Dogs
Are you being clear and consistent with your dog? Are all family members? Clarity is probably the most underappreciated and important factor in reducing stress, especially with fearful dogs. It makes a huge difference. Clarity covers many areas. Do you use commands like “off” and “down” consistently to always mean the same thing? Is the sofa okay for your dog to be on or not? Can your dog predict the daily routine? Is the crate or bed a safe space, or do the kids pester your dog sometimes in his space? Does your dog have a safe space to go when something is too much for him? Does your dog know you got his back when something unfamiliar appears in the environment? His stress is significantly reduced if your dog is clear about the environment and your home.
Leash and Collar Stress
Leashes and collars are often frustrating restraint devices for dogs. They only prevent them from going where they want to be. This causes frustration, and frustrations create stress. This originates in the emotional rage system of the brain. Frustration is the beginning and the lowest form of rage. This is where leash reactivity has its beginnings. By spending enough time explaining the leash and collar as a communication tool to our dogs, we can make these much less frustrating and less stressful. Lack of clarity and leash- and collar frustration are issues that can be addressed through training.
Last but not least, there are triggers. Triggers are things that upset us. This can include pet peeves, frustrating events, unmet expectations, certain people or situations, etc. We all have those, and so does your dog. It could be other dogs or just brown dogs with cropped ears—it can be very specific. Or, it could be unfamiliar people or men with hats and beards. It could be manholes on streets, drains under sidewalks, scary Halloween blow-up cat in the neighbor’s front yard, skateboards, bikes, cars, etc. You get the idea.
Pretty much anything can trigger a particular dog. If your dog’s stress level is already high and he is near or even past his threshold, get ready for a strong reaction when a trigger appears. If the stress level is low enough, a trigger, while still not comfortable, can be tolerated, and your dog won’t react much or not at all. You may not like the screaming child but can tolerate it. However, that probably changes if you have a headache.
The goal is to reduce stress, so your dog can handle its triggers better without blowing up. If we are only trying to prevent the reaction by addressing the trigger itself, we often fail to make our dog happier, calmer, and more balanced.
Here are a few more examples that can create stress in your dog that may not be as obvious: a recent vet visit or medical procedure, new neighbors moved next door (with or without kids or dogs), some construction down the street, going to a different dog park, changing the daily walking path, getting a vaccination (consider titers instead of annual boosters) or flea and tick preventative (consider natural alternatives), high-carb foods or poor protein foods (some very expensive brands sold at vet offices are horrible in that regard).
It pays off to always look at the whole picture. Focus on why a dog may react to something, not just the reaction itself.
For more details, please also review The Layered Stress Model.