Paws Abilities

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!