Stress in Dogs: a Basic Introduction

Stress is a major topic in dog training, but one that is often highly misunderstood. Extreme stress can make learning difficult or even impossible, and can have seriously detrimental effects on the body. Alternatively, without some stress, growth and personal improvement is impossible. A wise trainer pays attention to his or her dog’s stress level and adjusts the environment, demands on the dog, and expectations appropriately.

Photo by Neal Fowler

For the purpose of our discussion, let’s start by defining what stress is. Stress refers to any internal or external factor that disrupts homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of balance or equilibrium that all organisms (including dogs and people) strive to maintain. Stress causes physical changes to the heart rate, respiration, and blood levels of certain hormones. It also causes emotional reactions.

Stress can be good or bad. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on produce two very different emotional states, but actually cause the same physiological reaction. When a stressful event such as these happens, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. Your heart rate and respiration increase. Your pituitary and adrenal glands kick in, releasing a bath of hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine into your bloodstream.

Mild stressors, both positive and negative, can be incredibly helpful in training. In fact, the act of training itself is mildly stressful for dogs. Reward-based training methods promote positive stress (also known as “eustress”), which encourages betterment of oneself. Without stress, there can be no growth or learning.

That said, chronic or severe stressors are a major concern with our dogs.

We know that chronic stress takes a significant toll on our bodies. Study after study in both dogs and people has shown just how dangerous this is to our wellbeing. Anxious or reactive dogs in our behavior practice are more than twice as likely to have chronic health issues such as allergies or gastrointestinal issues than those in our obedience or sport training programs. Chronic stress can hasten the aging process, delay wound healing, contribute to depression or anxiety, decrease cognitive function, and increase the risk of illness from bacteria or viruses.

While less dangerous than prolonged chronic stress, severe stressors, also known as acute stressors, are also a concern. Highly stressful events cause observable changes within our dogs’ bodies in moments. While some resolve quickly, many of these changes last about 3 days, and may last longer for some individuals. This is because stress hormones don’t just disappear once the stressful event is over. After a stressful event, a dog may become more quiet and subdued or may be more agitated and restless.

Later on, we’ll discuss the various reactions dogs may have to stress, ways to recognize and reduce chronic stress, and how to teach your dog coping strategies. In the meantime, what questions would you like answered about stress in dogs? How do you recognize and modulate your own dog’s stress levels? Please comment below!

10 responses to “Stress in Dogs: a Basic Introduction

  1. Anxiety in dogs is something that has become a big issue for dogs and their owners. This can cause a lot of stress and can be very painful for dogs. We have had a lot of great discussions about dog anxiety on our Facebook page and have received a lot of great tips. We would like to invite you to check out some of the advice on our page or feel free to join in the conversation on our page. Happy reading:) http://www.facebook.com/thundershirt

  2. looking forward to reading more about this topic. i am able to recognize both physiological and behavioral signs of stress in my dog by observing her closely from day to day — not just during/after what i think may be stressful events. sometimes i am unable to pinpoint a specific stressor, but if i am listening to my dog she will tell me in no uncertain terms that she is stressed. that’s my cue to provide downtime and remove all unnecessary stressors (whether those are sources of eustress or distress). we continue to work on coping skills for those situations that we simply cannot avoid (vet visits, thunderstorms, e.g.) but i try to avoid purposely exposing her to stressors that are not beneficial for her well-being. i’m guessing that if she could have free-will to choose exposure to stressors, she might decline those things that make her feel anxious and don’t make her feel happy at all — but that’s just a guess on my part and likely involves both projection as well as some anthropomorphizing.

  3. I am in the midst of trying to teach my “reactive” dog. This term was introduced to me by my groomer and since then I am seeing what it means. I’m challenged beyond my abilities with my dog – don’t get me wrong, he’s a wonderful doggie and we love him – we just wish we knew more before acquiring a dog like this so we could help him better.
    Our training target – going in the car, walking on the leash. In both instances he’s completely unhappy. Currently I’ve hired an animal behaviorist/trainer who has given me minute steps to practice, this is going to be a long haul.
    I appreciate your information and look forward to seeing more on this topic.

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