The body’s reaction to an external or internal change
Stress is a useful mechanism that helps humans as well as dogs, to learn, progress and achieve their goals.
Consequently it can be very rewarding for the dog. Hence in this beneficial form we define it as “good stress” (Eustress).
On the antipodes of eustress is the “bad stress” (Distress) which is a long term – overwhelming and more cumulative stress, that finally frustrates and discourages the individual.
Stressors vary from one individual to another as well as the ways of handling it.
Consequently stress can result from environmental stimuli, due to mental or physical illness and pain, inadequate diet or genetic deficiency.
The Trait Theory explains that genetic inheritance can affect how the experiencer cope with it.
Living with humans, for more than 15.000 years now, the domestic canines have been transformed according to our needs and desires.
This affected their mental health in many ways, due to the stress of our demands and our modern, urban lifestyle.
With our coexistence, we have imposed them, indirectly and unconsciously sometimes, to share our personal stress, state of mind and anxieties.
Dogs absorb like sponges what we emit, our emotions and stress.
These emotional creatures function the same way as we do and they have to deal with their personal fears, anxieties and stress.
Our urban, fast-pace way of life, it is not the best choice for them, they try to adapt to it and sometimes they are struggle to accomplish.
Therefore, animal cognition is important – imperative – in order to recognise the signs of stress, and by educating our selves we are one step forward to the solution of the problem.
“A dog who is anxious, afraid, or fearful to the point of aggression, is not happier that way.”
Laura Van Arendonk Baugh
When the dog is exposed to the perceived threat, he hasn’t got the time for rational thinking, his hindbrain dictates immediate action, therefore reaction before reasoning.
Reactions are quicker than responses and until we teach a dog to think and respond accordingly, we need to proactively reduce the number of the triggers in his environment, show him an alternative – his way out of the danger – and offer him the time to create a new neural pathway by repeating again and again the new behaviour, until it becomes established as a default behaviour.
Before we start to work with the dog we need to always think ahead, for the best and worst case scenario.
We have to encourage him to take the good decisions, to trust us that we will keep him safe while he is doing as told.
If he fails during the attempt of a new challenge, his confidence will go a step backward, thus we need to be cautious, never push him too far, respect his personal learning pace and set up situations that we know he can cope with.
By teaching our dogs to think, in other words using their fore-brain, the less they tend to react.
Thanks to neuroplasticity we can create a new network of neural pathways and change what has been taught, especially when old habits, fears and bad associations, harming the individual’s life.
We need to stay away from any kind of aversive training or education, avoid forcing a scared dog into confronting his fears.
“Flooding” is an old outdated method of behavioural modification, which unfortunately some so-called “trainers”, still use it.
Regrettably this can lead to “trigger stacking” which means that the individual has accumulated a lot of stress during a very short time and reached his threshold, therefore he can’t cope anymore.
Actually it can increase problematic behaviours rather than desensitise, because initially it enhances fear – before the animal succumbs and becomes unable to react – and it can be catastrophic with over-reactive, shy and fearful dogs.
Induce fear to an animal, in the name of a “therapeutic procedure”, it is absolutely unethical and inhumane.
While the dog is over the coping threshold and still exposed to the stressors, he doesn’t learn to calm down, or to be strong.
On the contrary, he learns to anticipate his fears, long before their presence.
Consequently he will be prepared and stressed about the things he will face, before we open the door to take him out.
When dogs are stressed they will exhibit various behaviours, by the means of body signals in order to communicate their internal state.
Although sometimes subtle or similar to other signals of normal daily behaviour, if we look thoroughly we can learn to interpret them depending on the context.
“Each body part – ears, eyes, mouth, tail, top line (outline of the back) and balance – can indicate different emotions depending on the position of other body parts. This collection provides the whole picture”.
Dee Ganley – Dog Trainer & Behaviourist
Canines, by nature, try to avoid and diffuse a conflict rather than create one and to achieve this they will manifest calming and appeasement signals, to the perceived threat. The sooner we read the signs – the easier to alleviate the stress deriving from the environmental stimuli.
Communication Attempts & how to Respond
Under the influence of the stress/fear a dog’s reactions are focused on the following:
- Lip/nose licking
- Turning the head away, avoiding eye contact
- Sniffing the ground, moving slow
- “Play bow”
- Paw lifting, sitting or lying down
- Height seeking behaviour
If any of the above fails to increase the distance, between the dog and his stressor, he will result into active defence reflexes, a more antagonistic behaviour, by doing the following:
- Showing his teeth
Some of the appeasement signals, can be manifested in a different context, hence the importance of understanding the body language.
A dog my lift his paw to another dog while playing, similarly to “play bow” invitation for play.
He may also sniff the ground during tracing of a particular odour.
Even bark whilst greeting a conspecific, due to his excitement.
My dog expresses her joy when leaving the house, in a “loud” way. She will bark to greet and introduce her self to others, when entering the Park.
There is a clear difference between her barking because she is happy and when barking to state “do not approach”, or to warn me of imminent danger.
Is all on the body posture.
Observing continually the signs, is paramount in order to distinguish when a dog is happy or not.
When we cannot control the environment (i.e. a public Park with unleashed running dogs) the most obvious alternative is to remove the dog away from the trigger, or at least increase the distance between him and the imminent threat.
This is a way to relieve the pressure and also helps the dog to trust us, by showing that we are actually communicate and deliver the solution when is needed.
Although that could be an easy and fast reaction from our part, in order to “save” the dog, there is a third option in which we take him to the side, while we distract him with positive reinforcement, a lot of treats and praise, to reward him for the best choice, until the trigger moves away.
* This method is not advisable when our dog is over threshold and the trigger is another dog off leash – obviously in this situation we remove the dog away from the trigger.
Here is a great article about the dog’s Attempts of Communication by Sally Gitteridge.
Being on leash, adds stress to the dog, especially when he confronts other dogs or any kind of stressor.
He is trapped, therefore incapable of “escaping” the trigger – as he would have done if he was off-leash.
We should keep in mind that dogs are “cursorial” animals, in other words, in front of a threat, they will run rather than confronting it.
As i mentioned above, they prefer to avoid a conflict instead of create one.
For them, it is a matter of survival and by dealing with the threat, endangers their well-being.
Consequently, when he is restrained by his leash, in front of a running dog, a bicycle, a child, anything perceived as a threat, he will manifest these stress and appeasement signs. Is his way of communicating that he can’t defend him self or even run away.
It takes time for a shy, fearful, or stressed dog, to build up his confidence and overcome his fears, but it is not impossible.
Although we have to accept some dogs are genetically predisposed (or with inherited deficiency) to remain over-reactive, hyper-vigilant, shy, fearful and stressed, for the rest of their lives.
Thus, the least we can do, is make life easier for them as much as possible, with our love, empathy, patience and understanding.
“Understanding a dog as a dog and providing necessary guidance, will allow the relationship between dog and owner to develop to the fullest.”
Dr Ian Dunbar
Certifié - Comportement Canin Réactif
Compétences Rurales Britanniques
Accrédité - Comportement Canin Réactif