Just like people, most dogs have both a variety of coping strategies and a relatively normal nervous system. These things allow them to deal with the many small stresses of day-to-day life, as well as occasional larger stressors.
However, also like people, not every dog deals with stress the same way, and some may struggle more than others. Whether due to chemical issues in the brain (such as a deficit or inbalance of certain neurotransmitters contributing to an anxiety disorder), the absence of a supportive environment in which to learn adequate coping strategies, or a personality that just doesn’t mesh with the lifestyle of their owners, some dogs simply aren’t equipped to deal with the life they lead.
It’s a sad state of affairs when a dog suffers from chronic stress, and as we mentioned before it can also be dangerous. Chronic stress is hard on the entire body. It 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. Many chronically stressed dogs suffer from immune issues such as allergies or gastrointestinal problems. This is serious stuff.
Remember that stressors cause a chain of physical reactions in the body, which lead to heightened levels of stress hormones. While the first jolt of adrenaline released during a stressful event will begin to subside within the first fifteen minutes or so, the glucocorticoids that follow may take two to six days to return to baseline levels provided no other stressors follow during that time period.
At some point, a stressed dog is likely to reach his or her threshold. The threshold is the point at which the dog shows obvious signs of stress (whether by stressing up or down). Dogs have various thresholds – points at which they exhibit stress, points at which they may act out, even points at which they snap or bite.
Let’s say that your dog has a stressful event (perhaps a frightening thunderstorm or a really intense play session with the neighbor’s new dog). His stress level will spike, and you may see some signs of this in his inability to settle easily. If he has plenty of time to recover from that event, he’ll return to normal with no real concerns. This is what’s happening in the graph below.
In an ideal world, we would always give our dogs plenty of time to recover after events that pushed them over their threshold (and caused visible stress responses). However, this isn’t an ideal world, and sometimes stressors will stack up, coming in quick succession without time in between for the dog to recover. This happens in our lives too, sometimes, and provided we can acknowledge that this is happening and work to move beyond it, it’s not typically a big deal.
For some dogs, however, this becomes very important because they are never able to recover. Stressors continue stacking, so that the dog winds up beyond their threshold constantly. I often see this with the fearful or reactive dogs I work with. These dogs are chronically stressed, set off by every little things and constantly on edge. Their charts might look more like this:
Later this week, we’ll discuss how to help a dog who’s gotten stuck past his or her threshold. What sort of things cause a visible stress reaction in your dog, and how have you helped your pup to develop coping skills? Please share your stories in the comments below!