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!

18 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:)

  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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  12. Thank you for allowing us to engage.

    I would like to know how to properly identify stress in my (and any other) dog. It is difficult to decode the clusters of body language signs I see as I’m inexperienced, and not altogether sure what to look for.

    We have an ‘easy’ dog (Black Labrador X) who has been properly desensitized since she was a pup. I also expose her to stressful situations so we can both learn how best to cope….and as far as I know she has handled every siutuation we’ve encountered very well… managing it with distractions, treats, praise, recalls, space…and yes, ‘physical intervention’ where I physically block her view from what she’s focused on when she crosses her threshold, and then moving away – and she does well … As far as I cab tell ;-)

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  16. Carole Saucell

    Great articles! I have been working with my Parson Russell through many of the behavourel problems with a behaviourist with great results. I haven’t been able to resolve separation anxiety and extreme barking and shrilling when visitors come and go, this is a dog I rescued who seemed to have every behavourel problem possible. Have you covered these subjects as I am keen to resolve them.
    With thanks.

  17. We have a key word for release and that is “okay.” Our one-year-old Springer is reactive in a good way, alerting us to something abnormal and we use “okay,” then as well to settle him down. Then, we refocus him, usually on something fun. But, the most stressful thing for our one-year old is riding in the car. He doesn’t exhibit typical signs of anxiety but, drools tremendous amounts of fluid and eventually vomits until he has dry heaves. We are currently doing short car rides (he eagerly jumps into the car) with big payoffs either at a favorite restaurant or pet store. His vet has checked him out and no vestibular problems. She recommends adding a second medication for our next trip and we are not looking forward to it. I read where carsickness in pups can improve as they age. And, that is hopeful but, when does it go away and, will it happen for our guy? We wish we could just make this form of stress “okay.”

  18. My 7 month old Japanese Chin has been super friendly and well socialized. But, she was attacked on the sidewalk by a Shiba Inu. Three weeks later and lots of tender loving care by me and vets her face has recuperated. Now she is terrified when she sees a dog on the sidewalk. How can I retrain her to be her bouncy self?

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