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Understanding Stress in Dogs

When our dogs are stressed, we are stressed. Whether it's ear-shattering vocalization that activates our survival brain, embarrassing reactions that leave us unsure about ever leaving the house again, or the heartbreak that comes from seeing someone we love in such intense distress, our stress levels will likely be impacted by our dogs' behavior, just as their stress levels impact their behavior.


I specialize in working with nervous system dysregulation, which includes hyperarousal, trauma, chronic stress, and anxiety disorders. Stress takes center stage in these cases as we mold our management, enrichment, and behavior plans around creating healthy stress levels for dogs and humans.


High levels of stress impact not only our dog's behavior but also their mental, emotional, and physical health. In the same way chronic stress harms our body-minds, it is also harmful to our dogs. And in the same way we can't use fear or punishment to help humans become less stressed, and we can't do that with our dogs either. So how do we help?


Creating a Shared Language

First, let's create a shared language to talk about stress.


Stress is your body's response to change. The stimuli that affect that change is called a stressor. Not all stress is bad; we need good stress levels to function.


Your dog is most fully in their thinking brain in the green zone. Here you'll see signs of curiosity, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior. You'll notice that they efficiently process information like smells on the ground or known verbal cues (like their name). Their body language is soft and fluid. Their fine motor skills are online (they can take treats gently), as is their digestive system, so they aren't turning down foods they traditionally enjoy, even if they are lower in value.


Dogs in the green zone could be anywhere from "relaxed" to "ready to go," - but these latter dogs are at an optimal level of arousal that doesn't interfere with their ability to process and respond thoughtfully to information. Imagine a dog at an agility trial who needs to be able to watch their handler, make small adjustments and calculations as they move, and recall from their learning history. If that dog gets TOO aroused, they'll lose those abilities.


Stress levels have increased past the ideal level in the yellow zone, but the dog is coping. This stress can be pure excitement, frustration, a bit of uncertainty, or a confluence of multiple emotions.


The thinking brain is not working as efficiently here, and you'll notice decreased processing. This is not the ideal brain for learning and remembering. You'll notice the dog tries to calm themselves, reduce conflict, or calm others through behaviors like lip licking and yawning.


You'll notice what we call "displacement behaviors" that dogs use like coping skills. Some serve them well and reduce their stress levels, like sniffing, licking, chewing, drinking all the water they've had access to all day all at once, or carrying a toy in their mouth. Other displacement behaviors like jumping, pacing, spinning, or vocalizing, serve the same purpose but can arouse the dog instead of calming them.


Here, we might help the dog take space and redirect to an activity that will promote a reduction of stress levels. But if the situation escalates, the dog will move onto the orange zone. In this space, we see psychological signs of stress like dilated pupils, tense facial and body muscles, panting from an elevated heart rate, and increased shedding or dander.


The body is now more primed for survival than thoughtful responses. You'll notice that if your dog is still taking food, they take it hard because their fine motor skills are off-line. They aren't processing known cues well. They can't find the food on the ground and may give up sniffing quickly. Any sniffing they engage in is fast and frantic, but they might also be stiff and still.


If things continue to escalate further, the dog finds themselves in the red zone. The thinking brain has taken a backseat while the survival brain kicks fully into gear. We might see a fight response that may include biting; a flight response that looks like hiding, running, or escaping; a fidget response that seems like over-excitement but isn't happy; or a freeze response that can easily be mistaken for a calm or obedient dog.


Some final notes:

  • Trigger stacking is when one stress event "stacks" on top of another to lower the dog on the stress scale progressively. This is often part of why dogs respond to stressors at different intensities, which can confuse pet parents. The dog might appear to ignore the first three dogs on their walk but really is practicing careful avoidance. Then the fourth dog sends them over their window of tolerance.

  • It can take up to 72 hours for stress hormones to decrease to baseline levels after a red zone event, and learning around that stimuli can be impacted for at least seven days.

  • You might find some of this sounds similar to what you know about human nervous systems. That's because mammalian nervous systems are very similar to one another!


Chronic Stress, Trauma, Anxiety Disorders, and Hyperarousal


For my clients who experience what we might collectively call "nervous system dysregulation," the yellow zone can be a baseline. Instead of resting in a green zone and stressing up, they start and end the day in at least the yellow zone, if not higher.


I see this present in four main ways, although these are just labels with quick explanations, and there is significant overlap between these categories. None of these are mutually exclusive, and many interlocking variables come together to determine how an individual filters their experiences and then acts on the environment.


Chronic Stress

Dogs who experience chronic stress are so trigger-stacked that the yellow zone becomes their new normal. This may be due to an inordinate amount of triggers in their environment or a dearth of opportunities for species-typical enrichment and stress outlets. For example, a dog who grew up in a rural area during her socialization period may find herself chronically stressed when she is moved to the city. Any emotions, including anxiety or frustration, can drive this stress.


Anxiety Disorders

A veterinarian diagnoses anxiety disorders and may use labels like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Globial Phobia, Neophobia, Separation Anxiety, etc. These dogs have often been influenced by genetics and early environment (including factors like their positioning in utero, birth order, maternal care, and more). These dogs may engage in any of the survival responses and, in many cases, will utilize different responses in different environments. They might sometimes be described as dogs who are "afraid of everything."


Trauma

Trauma is an exposure to an event or series of distressing events that are perceived to be life-threatening, with brain-altering consequences. Trauma is also very individual. Two dogs can experience the same event, and one can walk away just fine, the other forever changed. The differences are influenced by many factors of the dog's individual life experience, personality, and external support.


Trauma can include abuse or neglect, but it also includes things like early maternal separation. Events like re-homing or a dog fight can be traumatizing. Even a walk in the neighborhood can be traumatizing for a dog with an anxiety disorder.


Hyperarousal (<-- whole other blog post)

These dogs stay high on the stress scale and really struggle to come back down. They are often described as over-excited, but even if they started out excited, they've now reached a level of stress that is no longer fun or healthy. These dogs are often not anxious (though they can be that too) but may have a low tolerance for frustration and struggle to self-regulate. These dogs often take a long to come back down, although they stress up quickly.


Hyperarousal is one potential coping response for pain, as the exercise is a temporary distraction and pain reliever. These dogs may also struggle with getting enough sleep and are generally very responsive to their environment.


How to Help


Hopefully, if some of this is new information to you, you are now feeling much better equipped to help your dog. You have a better understanding of at least some of their behaviors and the struggles they're having. Now you need some actionable steps.


Management


The first step is to manage your dog's stressors. By identifying and managing the dog's individual stressors, we allow them to return to a green baseline, if they can, or to at least break up some of the trigger stacking.


Management can be short-term or long-term, depending on what makes the most sense for the given situation. Management prevents trigger stacking, prevents negative associations from strengthening, and keeps everyone safer.


It's always okay to take a training break and rely on management while other things take priority.


You might start creating your management plan by listing your dog's stressors.


Here are some common stressors I screen for in my new client intake forms:

  • Sounds and sights outside of the house, from inside of the house

  • Sounds and sights from the yard, balcony, or porch.

  • Car rides

  • Noises/Storms

  • Vet visits, grooming, and hygiene

  • Greeting strangers

  • Greeting known people

  • Greeting familiar dogs

  • Greeting unfamiliar dogs

  • Other animals (wildlife, farm animals, etc.)

  • Other pets or people in the home (this covers a lot, including conflict, resource guarding, fear-responses to things like coughing, etc.)

  • Aversive training history, punishment

  • Lack of mental, physical, or social engagement

  • Isolation distress

  • Attempts at enrichment resulting in higher stress levels rather than increased well-being (like fetch)

Management can include using white noise machines to drown out sounds, putting up window film to prevent reactions at passing dogs, and using a leash or baby gate to prevent your fearful dog from running up to visitors. Management can mean using event medication at a vet visit, avoiding other dogs on walks, and asking strangers not to reach for your pet.


Notice that a lack of opportunities to practice species-typical behaviors and a lack of stress outlets can also contribute to high stress levels. Activities like sniffing, licking, and chewing can be used to do both. High arousal games like fetch, tug, or playing with a flirt pole can be converted to On-Off Switch games to practice self-regulation while having fun. Because management often necessitates shrinking the dog's world to keep them safe and well, it is important that we are creative and imaginative in keeping their lives enriched.


Bring in Your Veterinarian

Remember, a dysregulated nervous system affects your dog's physical health. Our bodies and minds are not separate entities. Talk to your vet about your dog's behavior, sleep patterns, appetite, and stress levels.


Pain, specifically (though not exclusively), is an important consideration and should be carefully screened for. Aggression cases very often include pain as a direct or indirect variable. Anxiety can make pain worse, and pain can make anxiety worse. Hyperarousal often masks pain because it acts as a distraction and temporary pain reliever.


Many dogs with dysregulated nervous systems may benefit from behavior medication, supplements, nutraceuticals, diet changes, or other interventions that a veterinarian or veterinarian specialist best guides. About half of my clients also work with a veterinary behaviorist.


Behavior medication can be thought of in two categories. Event medication takes effect quickly, wears off quickly, and may sedate the dog. Event medications are often used for stressful events like vet visits, car rides, or visitors, though some dogs may use them more regularly at first when they are severely dysregulated.


Behavior medication also means medications that are given daily and take weeks to build up. These medications are meant to complement behavior therapy work with the shared goal of reducing physiological responses to triggers, increasing self-regulatory abilities, and increasing resilience (or the time it takes for the learner to bounce back after a stressful event).


In other words, behavior medications help the brain work better so the dog can recover faster, which is a net win for their well-being and behavioral health. They should not be seen as a last resort.


Behavior Therapy

And those are the overall goals of behavior work: a reduced stress response, an increased ability to calm oneself or co-regulate, and a faster recovery time when things get hard.


It can be very helpful to work with a behavior consultant. A behavior consultant is different than a trainer (although some trainers may also do some behavior work, and most behavior consultants, like myself, will call themselves dog trainers).


As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, this is where I come in to support my clients in supporting their dog.


First (after management and vet visits), we ensure all needs are met and met in the most beneficial way for the dog.


For example, it isn't enough to say the dog is engaging in puzzle toys for mental enrichment so we can check their cognitive needs off the list. I may want to remove over-arousing activities like the puzzle toy my dog knocks across the room and replace it with a snufflemat. I may want to decrease the challenge in activities that are too hard for the dog's current skill level. I may want to focus exclusively on cognitive activities that lower arousal for the time being.


Then, we build skills that support the dog in navigating their world.


We teach flight cues to empower the learner to move away when they're scared (if they don't already know how to do that.)



We use social facilitation.


We make ourselves safe people, and create safe space for our dogs.


We promote agency and choice to increase resilience and optimism.


We set our dogs up to experience success after success.


We build social skills and two-way communication.


We counter-condition and desensitize.


We reinforce calm behaviors.




We learn to read dog body language to help our dogs when they need us.


We change our expectations and learn to appreciate our dogs for who they are, even when it's not what we imagined or doesn't live up to the memory of a former dog.


We measure our progress using period-tracking apps and google forms, noting the changes in frequency, intensity, and duration of the behaviors.


We notice patterns in our dog's behaviors.


We troubleshoot.


We reorganize.


We reach out for connection and community because behavior work is isolating.


We remember to create moments of joy with our dogs.


We strive to put ourselves in the green zone, too.


Concluding Thoughts


We are getting better, as a society, at understanding our dogs and their needs. We spend more time with them, and more money on them, and some people make huge life decisions like whether or not to have children, which house to buy, or which career path to follow based on their dog's needs.


It is critical, then, that we understand them accurately. Or strive to understand them as accurately as possible. This becomes even more true when the dog struggles with their mental, emotional, physical, and behavioral health.


For a more in-depth and well-cited look at your dog's nervous system, I highly recommend "The Stress Factor in Dogs: Unlocking Resiliency and Enhancing Well-Being" by Dr. Kristina Spaulding, PHD, CAAB.



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