Stress in Dog Training

Podcast - Stress in Dog Training

Podcast Episode 47: Stress in Dog Training

This episode discusses stress in dog training. It is a supplement to The Layered Stress Model episode. We review unavoidable learning stress moments that come with all learning. Understand what kind of stress is important to avoid and what stress is short-lived and irrelevant. We further review why stress measurements in many dog training studies are misleading. The episode closes with a brief review of the Salirli study on learning stress from different training tools. You will be surprised to hear about those findings.

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Podcast Transcript: Stress in Dog Training

This podcast transcript was created using Sonix.ai.

Hello, this is Ralf from Happy Dog Training, and welcome to another episode of Dog Talk. Today we’re going to talk about stress in dogs. We had a previous podcast called The Layered Stress Model. That was in the earlier days of the podcast, and this is not in contradiction. It’s an amendment, because all the things we discussed in The Layered Stress Model one hundred percent apply.

There is no difference to what I’m going to say here today. I want to make some additional points about stress. The stress layers we discussed in the past: health, clarity, leashes and collars, communication, all these things which can cause additional stress in a dog, put them over the edge, and push them past their threshold … none of that is contradicted by any of this. If you listen to this information, know it’s a supplemental and not a revision.

Is Stress Always Bad?

Stress in general, is something that in dog training or even in people is considered a bad thing, right? Nobody wants to be stressed. Stress isn’t great. Who wants to be stressed out? It’s much better if you’re not stressed. But that’s not really what I mean. When I talk about stress in dogs today, it is about stress spikes from certain experiences.

In dog training, when we train to accomplish a behavior or teach a sit, or down, or stay, or more complex tasks, or service tasks, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what we’re training or what we’re stopping during this process. There is stress in the dog while they’re trying to figure out what it is we want from them. While they figure out the parameters, what’s included in the command, or what they’re supposed to not do. There is going to be some stress.

All Learning Causes Temporary Stress

That is the same as it is in us. There is no difference in terms of learning stress between an animal and a human. When you go to a math class, or when you first learn to ride a bike, or you first learn how to swimming, there was some stress. Maybe your head went under water in the pool, or you fell off your bike and the training wheels had to come back on, or it’s the first time your parents didn’t hold you when you were riding a bike. It’s all these things that can cause some stress in the process.

If we were to measure your cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone we can measure in the body, in those moments, where you have these learning stresses, they would be pretty high. So, if we take somebody who was maybe struggling a little bit with math and they’re going into a math class and are not quite getting the lecture of the day, and the teacher calls on them. Were we to measure the stress right in that moment, it’s probably going to be up there because they don’t know what the answer is. Stress is part of life. It is part of learning. Stress is unavoidable. That’s something to keep in mind.

Learning Involves Some Struggles

In general, if you, let’s say, learn a piece of music and there is this a hard passage you can’t quite get over when you’re on the piano or the guitar or whatever the instrument is. There is this one passage in the song you’re trying to master, and you can’t get through it. You struggle, you struggle, you struggle, and then you sleep on it. And then the next day, oops. All of a sudden it goes in. So you just play through it. Because all the practice you did the day before integrated into your circuits, and now you can just play through it.

But the prior day, when you were struggling and you couldn’t get it right, you got frustrated and it was a little annoying. At some point you gave up and you stopped. In that moment or while you’re working up to it, your stress will be higher. All these things apply to dogs.

Dogs Learn the Same Way

When a dog tries to figure out what it is that I want from it, when I say a command and it hasn’t quite understood yet. What does it mean? Standing or sitting or lying down? Or what is included in that command? Can I get back up when you walk away, or do I have to stay there? Will you walk away or what does down mean exactly? What’s all included in a down? Can I get up when you throw a ball? Can I go up when my friend comes along? Do I have to stay here when the door opens? All these these things that are unclear to a dog initially when we try to teach what’s part of a down is stressful because it’s trying to figure it out. Just like we did in math class or in the pool.

Temporary Stress is Harmless For People

And these stressors are not problematic. This is how the body is supposed to work. This is the normal biology of learning. As we’re going through this process, we’re having these stress spikes and they dissipate immediately because we are getting over it and we’re moving on. And we’re enjoying the game. We’re mastering the music song, or we’re mastering the bike or whatever it is. When we go through these learning experiences, we’re going to have stress spikes. If we were to measure that in math class at the wrong moment. Right in a moment when the teacher calls on you. Right when you’re really struggling to understand it. If we would measure your cortisol level we would conclude that seems to be really stressful on Timmy.

Maybe math isn’t for him. Maybe we should just not send him to math class. Obviously that’s not how we handle this in the human world. Some things have to be learned and we can struggle through it. And the temporary stressors are not something we consider harmful because they’re not. They’re temporary. Same with a dog.

Temporary Stress is Harmless For Dogs

As a dog struggles through mastering something, there’s going to be some stress moments in this process. If we were to measure stress in the moment where we have maybe popped the leash, and he may be a little stressed in that moment from trying to figure out what’s happening. If I were to measure cortisol right in that moment, I could conclude, well, that seems to be stressful. Maybe my dog shouldn’t learn that. But that would be the wrong conclusion because it’s a very temporary effect. You’re not going to have permanent stress from going through a learning cycle.

Stress in Dog Training Studies are Often Misleading

When we look at some of those canine studies that are out there that focus on cortisol levels during learning. There is the conclusion drawn that when we used a training collar and we popped the collar, and then we measured the cortisol and see the stress was high, that’s not good. That would be a typical cortisol study in dog training that concludes that this tool, or that tool, or this process, or that process causes too much stress.

But that’s very misleading. If we were to measure the same cortisol in the saliva 10 seconds later, or a minute later, it would have dropped back to normal levels. There is no downside to this temporary stressor during learning. Just like when we learn something we enjoy now. An activity. Maybe when you learned driving. Maybe that was stressful, right? So we learn things that maybe in the moment of learning were stressful, but then because of that, we have more freedom. We can do more things. We can enjoy life more. It was worth it. And it’s very temporary, so it’s not harmful.

Learning Valuable Life Skills Gives Freedom

Same thing with a dog. If I have a solid recall on my dog, or if my dog knows to stay away from rattlesnakes or things like that, my dog can have more freedom. He can be loose on a trail, he can explore nature, have a much richer and better life through a couple of temporary stress moments in learning.

When we talk about stress in dogs, we got to keep in mind that temporary learning stressors or stress events or stress moments are not an indication of a process, or tool or whatever the training is, being generally problematic. If we’re causing too much stress, and the stress doesn’t dissipate, and the stress lingers for a long time, or there is fallout from what we did in the training because there was too much that was overwhelming and it led down really the wrong path and now I have lasting side effects. Well, that’s obviously bad and we don’t want to be doing that. But temporary learning stressors just by cortisol measurements are not an indication that there is a problem in the training process or with a training tool that’s being used.

Short-Term Stress Leads to Long-Term Joy

Let me give you another example. And then I’m going to go into a very concrete study that examined three different training approaches. But let’s say we’re here in Southern California. We have a very bio-diverse environment. It’s actually the most bio-diverse environment outside the Amazon rain forest. So we have a lot of things crawling around, crawling about. We have six different types of rattlesnakes in Southern California. And when you go out with your dog on a trail, you’re going to encounter rattlesnakes. It’s just a given. It’s not that you’re never going to come across a rattlesnake. You will. It’s just a matter of when and where.

If your dog gets to go hiking with you in the mountains or in more remote areas, for your dog to be safe around, rattlesnakes is really a matter of life and death. Because if your dog finds this wriggling thing on the ground interesting enough, he gets bitten. And if that happens in a remote area, that may be the end of my dog.

Rattlesnake Avoidance Training is Important

So rattlesnake avoidance training is really, really important. If you live in Northern California, there are two types of rattlesnakes and in the rest of the US there is one type of rattlesnakes. And then there are other parts of America where you have other poisonous snakes, like black mambas in Florida. There are other poisonous creatures.

But just thinking in terms of rattlesnakes and rattlesnake avoidance class. Teaching your dog to avoid rattlesnakes gives them a lot of freedom. Your dog can now go hiking safely. You can go on a trail and actually becomes a warning system for you because it’s going to indicate with its behavior if there’s something maybe not so great under that rock or that bush that you’re trying to walk by and let you know, hey, we’re not going near that bush.

It’s a Harmless Process

But how do we teach rattlesnake avoidance training? The only way to make it reliable is to work off the scent of the snakes you’re going to encounter, so on sight is pretty useless. By the time you see a rattlesnake, it’s kind of too late. Um, and they’re not going to be these big snakes that you sometimes see placed on rocks somewhere. The rattlesnakes are going to be smaller for the most part, and they’re often under bushes, especially in the middle of the day. They come out in the morning and evening, lying in the sun, but not in the middle of the day when you may be walking down this path.

So the likelihood that the snakes are out in the open is pretty low when you get there. You’re more likely to encounter a snake under a bush or under a rock, and you’re not going to see it. And if you get too close, by the time you hear the rattle, it’s probably over. You’re probably going to get bitten, and maybe you make it out of there. Maybe you don’t. But if your dog gets bitten, it gets really tricky. Can you carry him or her? How far are you away from your car? How fast can you get to the vet? Because you do need the anti-venom.

Death is a Much Bigger Stress Event

If anybody gets bitten, you need antivenom. This is the only thing that helps anything. Rattlesnake vaccines are a completely pointless exercise. If you listen to the rattlesnake episode with Carl, the rattlesnake trainer, I used to train all my dogs, he’s a biologist, you understand why rattlesnake vaccines don’t work. I mean, if they worked, we would have them for people and we don’t. That’s a reason. They don’t work. They just buy you some time, which you can buy yourself in different ways. But avoiding rattlesnakes is key to survival out in the wild.

And it gives your dog that level of freedom, that level of life experience that otherwise your dog can’t safely have. But how we do this? We do this with shock collars, right? So the dog approaches the scent of a rattlesnake type in your area. Maybe it’s the Mojave or the Southern Pacific or the Northern Pacific, or the Sidewinder or the Diamondback, whatever the rattlesnake types in your area are.

The Training Process

The dog learns that approaching that scent is a really bad idea because it gets a zap from that collar. And that’s done a couple of times. It takes 15 to 20 minutes in a proper parkour with proper training to get a dog conditioned to avoid rattlesnakes. They simply learn that approaching that scent is unpleasant by getting a zap on a shock collar. But that’s stressful, obviously. Anybody would be. It’s momentary. Oops. What was that? Right. So they react to the scent. The trainer sees that the nose is engaging in the scent with that snake and boom, there we go. And the dog then backs off.

He now learned that scent is dangerous. Stay away from that scent. But there was stress. There’s definitely stress in that moment. So if I were to measure the cortisol of my dog right in that moment, right after he got the stim from the collar, I would conclude that it’s a very stressful type of training and I shouldn’t be doing it. But really? Because it’s very momentary. If I measure a moment, a minute later, there’s no cortisol or hardly any cortisol left because it’s already dissipated.

Momentary Learning Stress is No Big Deal

The moment’s over. And the lesson was learned to avoid rattlesnakes. Now my dog can have life experiences that otherwise are not available to him or her. So these momentary stressors are not something we should shy away from if they are executed in the right manner. Right manner means, it’s very meticulously set up. It’s very well structured. The lesson is set up in a way that a dog can figure out quickly what to avoid, what not to do, or what to do, depending on what we’re doing, whatever the stress mechanism is

The dog can learn quickly how to proceed and how to avoid the stimulation. And if they can do that, the stress will dissipate. And the important lesson is learned that gives us more freedom and more life experiences. When looking at stress tests or stress measurements in dog training studies you always have to think of, well, when was this stress measured? Is this really the right timing? How quickly was it done? Did they give it some time to dissipate? Did they help the dog after the stressful moment to forget about it?

A Human Learning Stress Example

A kid goes playing basketball and gets elbowed in the head by accident, and that’s unpleasant. But if there’s a commitment to the game, they’re going to move on quickly and get back to it. But if I measured them right after they got elbowed, you know it’s going to be stressful. That doesn’t mean basketball isn’t the right game for the kid. It just means stuff happens. And that’s the same when we train dogs. For certain things, we accept higher stressors momentarily to produce a better outcome.

While we also understand that any training, no matter what you do, let it be treats, let it be toys, let it be whatever. While the dog’s trying to figure something out and he can’t quite get it, there’s going to be some stress measurable in cortisol. So any learning, let it be a positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement or a positive or negative punishment operation. Whatever it is, there’s going to be stress. It’s just going to be different levels and different duration. It is not that one is better than the other. It just depends on what we’re doing. You can make a dog super stressed out with just treats.

The Famous Training Tool Learning Stress Study

So let’s get to that study to give you some perspective on what the stress differences can be. It was the 2008 Salgirly study in Hanover, Germany, where three types of training modalities were evaluated for stress with cortisol measurements. And the results surprised the researchers and didn’t make them happy because they went in with kind of an agenda of what they wanted to show. And it didn’t quite show that.

The things they it did were an aversive with a shock collar, an aversive with a prong collar and a pre-trained non rewards marker. So basically you’re not getting a treat if you do this or that. It was basically they said the word ah-ah or no or something like that. And the dog had learned well if I hear this word I’m not going to get a reward. That’s basically a negative punishment process. And quite popular with especially force free and treat-based trainers. They consider that very appropriate and acceptable to not give a reward for missing or bad performance. That’s very common. It’s not an unusual thing.

What Do You Think Would Be More Stressful?

But here’s the thing about this. When they studied this. Just think for a moment. What do you think would produce the highest amount of stress? Just from what I just said? Prong collar? E-collar? Or non-reward marker? What do you think causes the most stress?

Learning Stress From an E-Collar

Most people initially think, well, it’s got to be the e-collar because that’s that’s just the worst thing. It’s an electric shock. So that’s going to be bad. Right? And it was not. It was actually that the E-collar or shock collar had the lowest cortisol measurements. The lowest measurable stress level because it’s a quick bam it’s over. It’s a very quick stimulation and bam it’s done.

Learning Stress From a Prong Collar

The next one down the line which was a little bit higher in stress, not lower, was the prong collar. Because now we’re dealing with the variability of of people and what they do and how hard they check and what they’re going to do with the collar and how they’re going to use the collar. I don’t believe there were any details on the strength that was used in those. There are a lot of data points we didn’t really have, but on prong collars, they said, well, the stress was higher. And that already surprised people because they would have assumed it’s reverse.

Learning Stress From Withholding a Reward

But now got really interesting because on the pre-trained non-rewards marker where the dog was told nope, you’re not getting a treat, the stress went through the roof. It was a lot higher and that was surprising at the time. It’s not surprising if you understand what happens in these mechanisms. I’ll get to that in a moment. But that was the outcome.

If you tell your dog you’re not getting a treat, however you’re going to go about it, you’re withholding the treat, whatever the mechanism of withholding the reward is, just understand that that produces the highest amount of stress in your dog. And everybody does it. Because why would you give a reward if your dog blows you off? Why would you give them a treat if you tell them to sit and he doesn’t? Nobody does that. And I’m not saying you should either. I’m just trying to highlight the differences in stress exposures from different things. If we’re going basically just on cortisol measurements, we should never withhold a reward from a dog, ever, because that causes a lot of stress.

Why is Withholding a Reward So Stressful

The reason that a non-rewards marker causes so much cortisol release and so much stress is, is because it’s a 100% penalty without any variation. It is a 100% deprivation of what you want. The dog in this case is getting nothing. Absolutely nothing. Zilch. That’s very unpleasant. The other aversives that were used in this context, they all have degrees. I can go higher and lower on each of these tools. So there’s some variability in there. There is no variability in not giving a reward because that’s what you’re going to do. You’re not going to give it. That’s it. You’re just not going to give it.

Given that the stress measurements and the cortisol levels in dog training studies show us clearly what is more stressful and what isn’t, we should adjust our training accordingly. Which then means if you think through this study, I’m going to link it in the podcast. You can read it. It is much more preferable to give a penalty with an e-collar than to withhold a reward if we’re simply talking about stress. If that’s the only concern. That’s an easy answer.

Learning Stress Shouldn’t be our Singular Focus

Obviously there are other concerns when we train dogs than just the stress exposure in the moment and most dogs don’t need to experience an e-collar unless they go to rattlesnake avoidance training. That’s just how the right type of training is done. There is really no alternative to make that reliable. And I know there are some some baffling ideas out there, but they’re just fundamentally flawed. We talked about this in the other podcast. I won’t rehash that here. But yeah, you have to use an e-collar to create an aversion to rattlesnakes. It’s just one of those things.

But most dogs don’t need an e-collar in training at all, so it’s absolutely not necessary to use e-collars on most dogs. They’re completely overused. This is simply to illustrate the difference in stress from these tools, in the different training approaches we can take.

Be Critical of Dog Training Studies on Stress

So when you hear about a study, when you read about anything related to this causes stress or that causes stress, you should always ask yourself first, what kind of stress? How long did it last? When was the measurement taken? Was this worth doing? Is this little temporary stress okay for the outcome? Is my dog gaining a tremendous amount of freedom, liberty, and enrichment in life through a very momentary stressor? It’s usually worth it.

Some stressors are also unavoidable. The nail clip needs to happen. The grooming may need to happen. The vet visit needs to happen. It’s going to be stressful for your dog. If we measured the cortisol in your dog when he goes to the vet, you would never take him to the vet again if that’s the criteria. Because it’s not a fun place for a dog to go.

Just keep that in mind when you hear about stress in studies and this and that. Yes, stress is important. Long-term stress is dangerous and harmful to anyone, including dogs. We got to avoid that. But momentary, temporary, short-term stress events that everybody experiences during a learning process are completely benign, harmless, normal, and unavoidable.

Conclusion

There are for most people, stress events throughout their day. That would, if you measured in that moment, indicate that was a really crappy day, or you shouldn’t do this thing at all, when in reality it was a very minor event to you in the big scheme of things, and not something you’re really concerned about five minutes later. Just keep that in mind and don’t get too rattled. When you read in a study there was some stress. There’s always stress. Stress is unavoidable.

Only long-term stress, prolonged stress, stress that doesn’t dissipate, those are the problem stresses. Stress events, the ones that are quick and then they’re over, they’re completely irrelevant. We all go through them, they’re normal and we shouldn’t worry about them. We just need to structure our training plans and lessons correctly, so it is very short-term for the dog. It is a very quick thing and the recovery comes right after.

Okay.

That’s all I wanted to say about stress. I hope you found this informative. You got something out of it, and I’ll see you again next time. Bye.

 

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About Ralf and Sarah

Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.

Ralf Weber, MS, TWC CPDT, IACP CDT, CDTA

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.

Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.

Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer

Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.

Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.