The Cortisol Vacation

We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?

Photo by Liama Hal

The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.

Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.

Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.

The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!

18 responses to “The Cortisol Vacation

  1. Love this post. We have been trying to take a stress vacation for several months. We can’t seem to find a way to do it with our dog’s combination of problems. He has separation anxiety (diagnosed by a DACVB) so working on being alone is stressful, and we have to keep him with us almost all the time, which makes it difficult to avoid triggers. Chasing toys is about the only thing he likes to do for exercise. We try to keep it calm with lots of breaks and some focus activities. Leash walks are pretty much not an option because he is very reactive. We can only be in barren places (parking lots or downtown after work) or go out very early in the morning, so not practical very often, and even then we may encounter triggers. We have to take him to daycare once a week on the day he can’t go to work with my wife, so who knows what kind of stress he encounters there. Having trouble stringing together enough stress-free days to have an impact.

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  4. I’ve learned how to teach my dogs the technique to actually RELAX that was developed and is taught by PK Shader. Practiced regularly it effectively breaks the cycle and gives a dog an alternative to an adrenelin rush.

    Since learning it I’ve actually had my formerly horribly reactive dog, Emma, basically ask me to help her “get easy” as we say.

    This skill isn’t static and transfers into teaching the dog to stay relaxed in real life. Obviously one makes an effort not to overface the dog while one is doing this! But because they now know how to bring themselves down, they have a skill they can use to deal with situations that formerly they simply could not.

    At any rate, it’s a great tool and an extremely kind thing to teach any dog that suffers from reactivity, anxiety or stressors of other kinds.

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  6. “both your dog’s body and his brain” is redundant. When did the brain stop being a body part? Apparently it isn’t, but I don’t recall ever getting that memo.

  7. I have a very good example in my home: We sold a puppy that came home to us after one year. She bate me throughout the whole day. Never angry, just stressed and helpless. She could not play with the other dogs for more than 5-10 second before it was too much for her and she lost the control over her biting and other “bad” behavior. We gave her many months of no training, no ” do this – don`t do that” …. After about 3 month we could take her for a walk without her starting to bite me.
    We were lucky to have her mother still with us, and after about 8-9 months she begun to tell her “puppy” what was more good behavior.
    I went to a seminar about stress and there i learned that the brain need around 9 months to recover after bad experiences before they could start to develop new braincells in a normal way.
    Perhaps her mother knew that already ?? The “puppy” ended up as the most lovable and funny dog we ever have had in the house.

  8. I don’t now about dogs so much as my own experience.
    I know my own levels of stress with I can cope with.
    People tend to think that I am ‘piking out’. But I know that if I don’t stop, go home, rest and relax then I go into meltdown which can take far longer to overcome than the frequent ‘time outs’ I need.
    I find that also for my dog training, it is often me that needs the break before I am aware of any stress in the dog. Though maybe it IS the dog’s stress than alerts me?

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  11. it is so reassuring to read this article simply to see that what I believe is written down by a trainer………..that a reactive dog can unlearn and relearn more effective ways to manage arousal. I’m witnessing it as I work on training my rescue dog. I’m constantly reminding myself that we don’t have to face situations head-on; that it’s alright to ‘back off’ and take another route. If I see a potentially difficult situation ahead I turn around and find another direction to take. Sometimes I don’t want to place my dog in a testing environment when I know it may be too much for him. I’ve seen how this has worked well for him and how he has begun to manage difficult situations better than previously; only because we have worked up his management skills incrementally. It’s about engineering success for the dog and it’s very hard, meticulous and patient work but worth the investment when the dog begins to show signs of being more settled in situations that previously provoked stress. It’s a very slow process and there are times when it feels frustrating because it seems like he has forgotten how to respond. Good days and bad days. As a friend of mine (who has a long history of dog companions) asked me, “does he have moods?” and yes he most certainly does; he has his good days and his bad days; just like me!

  12. Kerry illingworth

    Very interesting article . My dog is having a cortisol vacation , after having a terrible reaction to steroids, and 2 phantom pregnancies . The results are astounding. The past two weeks she has become the do we wanted her to be . She had inter aggression towards the other dog. But it appears to have subsided!!today they sat in one crate together licking each other!!!i couldn’t believe my eyes 😊

  13. I wish I could find something to calm my dog. She is a Bichon Poo she is a puppy mill foster that I adopted after spending 7 years in horrific conditions. She has been with me 3 years and has come a long way she is dog friendly and a little shy around people she doesn’t know but warms up in time. Not aggressive but more submissive. Every night around 6:00 pm she starts stressful panting until I wonder how her heart is going to take it. She has climbed on me in desperation panting and clawing at me seem like she wants me to help her. The vet has given me medication but I found it made her rather dopey all day and it’s very expensive and I didn’t want to drug her all day because her issues is sporadic at a certain time of the day. I have turned to Rescue Remedy and I do find it works to take the edge off her. I give her a bone at the times she is stressed which also helps. This poor girl just can’t get over the time of day that stresses her. I often wonder what actually happened in the mill at that time that scared her to death and she just can’t seem to leave it behind.

    • Cheryl it seems like you really have your dogs best interests at heart. It’s impossible to know what happened her but your concern for her is taking you in the right direction in following your instinct in how to allow her to learn to trust you. I think you are so tuned in to her and you are on the right track. Just keep doing what you are doing. You are winning her trust just by being who you are. Lucky little dog having you to care for her.

  14. This is all such great stuff. Racking my brains at how I transfer all this information to helping a dog who is terrified of bees, to the extent that if he sees one while we are training – shut down! He was snuffling along and disturbed a ‘gang’ of them in the summer and although not stung was terrified when they flew at him.

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