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Stress serves as an adaptive function for both animals and humans. Without it, neither would survive to pass along their genes to the next generation. Stress helps to ensure an animal's survival by triggering a series of physiological responses to prepare the body for its stressor. In real-time, stress aids survival. We do a bicep curl to stress the bicep so it can repair and rebuild stronger, leading to a higher likelihood of gaining access to resources like meat and mates. But, like most things in life, there’s a fine line between too much, not enough, and just right. And too much stress wreaks havoc on the physical and psychological systems whether you're a human or the dog next door.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is sometimes referred to as eustress. This stress is often thought of as ‘good’ stress. Much like the example above, acute stressors can lead to greater advantages. Keep in mind, however, that each individual perceive stressors differently.

Episodic Acute Stress

Experiencing episodic acute stress is much like the yellow traffic light. It can serve as a signal that you’re nearing a point of greater friction and need to slow down. Episodic acute stress can be preparing for a final exam, moving, changing jobs, a breakup, or even simply dealing with a not-so-friendly coworker. Remember, individuals perceive stressors differently.

Chronic or Toxic Stress Toxic stress is b-a-d and occurs when a stressor lasts anywhere from a few days to weeks, months, or even years. This is where the damage is done. Toxic stress sets off a whole host of psychological and physiological problems, some of which are explained in the infographic attached. The biggest shock, for me, when learning about how stress affects us and our dogs was that toxic stress need not be a massive upending event. Stress can become toxic within days.

Okay, so toxic stress is bad. We get that. But how many dogs are really affected by toxic stress? I mean, they sleep in our beds, get fed twice a day, go for walks, and even get to go to the brewery with us. What could be so bad about that kind of life? They don’t have to worry about work, bills, or grocery shopping!

This is where perception - or umwelt comes into the picture. Umwelt is how an organism perceives their surroundings and environment. If stress, identifying it, and rectifying it were an easy task, dog trainers and behavior consultants wouldn’t have consulting waitlists weeks long. We’d be spending our days hiking and playing with dogs, much like society already imagines we do. Though one can dream, that is just not the case for the majority working in our field. Instead, we’re spending our days educating owners on the intricacies of stress, fear, and anxiety. We’re studying and coaching how to read canine body language with our clients to help them identify stress and understand their dogs’ umwelt. We’re explaining that although Fido appears to be living the good life with his new adoptive family, factors such as genetics, maternal stress, epigenetics, stress in early development (before dogs go to their families), and stress during the juvenile phase can lead to structural changes in the brain which then affect how their dog experiences the world around them (their umwelt). Complicated, right?

What to do about stress

Now that I’ve likely stressed you out by this blog, let’s mitigate some of that stress and discuss what we can do to help. There is hope and there is plenty that we can do to help our dogs cope with stress.

  1. Exercise & Nutrition: Any surprise here? Probably not. Grab the leash and get out with your dog, even if you have a fenced in yard. Most importantly, let your dog sniff. We could get into a whole book about the benefits of sniffing but it's been written already. I highly recommend the book Inside Of A Dog - What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.

  2. Play: This can be especially beneficial for adolescent dogs. Social play benefits health development of the brain and social skills. A caveat: social play does not necessarily need to be dog to dog centric. Play won’t be beneficial if your dog is fearful, timid, or shy around other dogs. Social play can be between you and your dog!

  3. Address pain and health issues: Pain has shown to be linked to aggression in dogs and before you discount any pain or health issues, you should know that dogs are notoriously great at hiding their pain. Make sure your dog gets regular veterinary care. Be observant and if there is a change in their usual behavior call your vet right away.

  4. Increase choice and control: This is a huge one for our pet dogs! While their access to resources has greatly improved by sharing a life and world with humans, their agency has severely declined. Humans control every single aspect of a dog’s world. We decide what, when, and where they eat, sleep, walk, play, etc. Imagine have no control over your day to day needs? Someone telling you when to go to the bathroom, where to go, when you can interact with other humans, exercise, or where you can sleep. Before you worry that I am about to recommend we let dogs run a muck in our homes and neighborhoods – let me give you a few simple ways you can safely provide more choice and control in your dog’s daily life.

  5. Let them choose the route of their daily walk

  6. Take note of their preferred resting spots and move their beds to those locations

  7. When giving them a toy or chew; present a few options and let them choose. You may be surprised by their decision!

  8. Hire a qualified professional: This cannot be understated, particularly if you’re living with a dog experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, or fear. Getting connected with an educated, humane dog trainer can have a positive impact on your dog’s quality of life. The advent of online training means you have access to experienced and credentialed trainers, no matter where you live.

Need help?

Free To Be Dog offers online behavior consulting. Book a consultation today to get started. You don't have to tackle stress alone.


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