How do you know when your dog is stressed, and what can you do to help him?
Stress happens and is a fact of life. Many things can cause stress… Change, excitement, new environments, and so much more… These triggers that cause stress could be good or bad things. If I was stressed over an up coming canine freestyle competition, I would categorize that as something good that is also causing me some stress. However, if I were late to a serious appointment and find myself stuck in traffic, then that would not be a good form of stress.
We expect changes to take place in our dogs lives, such as moving to a new place, meeting new people or dogs, traveling, are just a few things that can be stressful. Even learning a new behavior, raising criteria, or adding a distraction into the environment can also be stressful to dogs.
Once a dog is stressed no matter how small or large the trigger or reason for being stressed was, it could take the dog some time before he is able to calm down and get back to “normal”. If one thing after another happens to stress out your dog, it will have a cumulative effect and it could take the dog a lot longer to adapt or calm down. It will depend on the dog and the level at which he is able to cope with new situations, etc. A dog that seems to “lose it” and become reactive or “aggressive” all of a sudden and without warning usually had shown many warning signs that he was worried or stressed about something either, minutes, hours, days, or even weeks earlier. This stress related reaction had been building and building and finally the dog had enough and could not cope anymore. He was pushed to his limit.
How can you prevent stress from building to the point at which the dog finally snaps. Everything in the human World could be stressful. Training… Learning… Meeting new people… Having house guests… Meeting new dogs… Going to new places… Performing doing dog sports… The owner leaves to go to work… A new dog comes into the home to live… Good things and bad things are stressful! Let’s face it, we can’t remove all stress from our dogs lives. However, we can lessen the stress, learn what actually stresses the dog, and figure out how to help the dog through a variety of situations in order to help the dog overcome future stressful times.
A dog that is stressed can not think properly and is not able to focus on tasks while stressed. This is why it is so important to start teaching or training a dog in an environment that has little to no distractions. If a dog is worried about something or stressed about something in his environment he will not be able to learn and concentrate on what you are teaching him.
How can you tell if your dog is stressed? Many dogs will show stress signs in the form of calming signals which I like to explain as doing what he can to calm himself or to calm others down.
A stressed out dogs might do one or many of the following behaviors:
Sniff a lot more than normal
Avoid you or avoid the situation he is in, by looking away with a glossed over blank look on his face.
Blink his eyes more than normal
Yawn (which can range from a slight yawn to a large shaking yawn)
Bark, lunge, growl, air snap, or bite
Hide behind you
Become stiff and not move
Could possibly raise his hackles (some dogs do this out of excitement as well, so it helps to know your dog)
To learn more about calming signals, I would suggest to read “Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas.
It is always best to deal with the situation while the dog is slightly stressed instead of waiting until it becomes a problem.
Step 1: Assess the situation…
What was it that stressed, scared, worried, or excited your dog? Can you pinpoint one thing or were there multiple “triggers” that caused the dog stress. Being able to identify exactly what caused (triggered) the stress is crucial in order to help the dog learn to deal and cope with life.
Are you able to control the environment? Can you prevent the stressor from just popping up at any moment and freaking out your dog again?
How intense was your dogs reaction? Did he just look a little worried and give a few small calming signals? Did he completely lose it and have a serious blow up? Is he able to eat treats in the presence of the stressor (trigger).
Step 2: Dealing with the mild reaction
If the reaction was mild, you can control the environment, he will eat treats and you can identify what it was that he was reacting to; then you can stay in that particular environment and work on calming your dog. Maybe by getting him to give you eye contact or play the fun “Surprise Party” Game. This will help divert the dogs attention.
In order to build a positive association to the thing that the dog finds scary, exciting, worrisome, etc… You could reinforce the dog for looking at the trigger. I like to mark with a verbal marker (not my clicker as I do not want the dog going into work mode) and then give the dog a treat with his head still facing the thing that stresses him out.
For example: If a dog is worried about a dog and you know that dog is not going to get any closer. You can say, “yes or yep” when the dog looks at the dog and feed the dog in the position in which he was looking. This tells the dog that by looking at that thing that he is nervous about, he will get a treat. Make sure it is something wonderful. It is better to have the scary stressful things be predictors of good things happening to the dog and will encourage the dog to like the things he is stressed over. When the dog goes away, so does the reward. This will only make the dog want those stressful things to come back and he will learn to really love those things that used to stress or worry him.
Step 3: Dealing with a severe reaction
If the reaction is severe, you can control the environment, he is not able to eat treats, and you can identify what he was reacting to; then you can stay in that environment, but move further away and keep moving away until your dog is able to “think” again and is able to eat treats. If a dog is not able to think, he is not able to concentrate on learning. If he is too focused on the trigger, then you are not going to be able to help him. You must move him to a point where he is below threshold and able to concentrate on you and listen to cues you are giving him.
If you reach down to have him offer a chin rest and when he does you can tell that he is stiff as a board, then he is still too stressed. Move away further. Move away until he is at the point where he can calmly rest his chin in your hand without any tension on his neck, jaw or face.
If your dog is still not able to calm down, then remove him from the environment completely.
Step 4: Your dog is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY and you should have his best interest in mind at ALL TIMES.
If your dogs reaction is getting worse and the environment is not controllable, calmly remove your dog from that situation immediately. There is no sense in trying to work through the situation. He is not able to learn in this state of mind and this environment can only make his reactions worse. It is so much better to get out of that situation with as little stress as possible.
Do not add to your dogs stress by getting upset. REMEMBER, your dog is stressed and he is not reacting to embarrass you or to make you mad. Have compassion for your dog and take care of him.
You can always try again another day and focus on keeping him successful.
Step 5: Set your dog up for success
Now that you know what your dog is stressed by, you can develop a training plan where you can slowly desensitize and counter condition him to learn to love that thing that is causing him stress.
You will set up a training situation in a controlled environment.
Take your time and do not move too quickly. If your dog seems fine at 100 feet away, do not automatically move to only 5 feet away from the thing that stresses him out. Create your plan so that your dog is always successful and always has a great experience around those stressful things. One day you might be at 100 feet away and the next day you might be at only 95 feet away, but you will eventually get to your goal. The more time it takes you the more solid and confident your dog will be around that particular trigger.
Step 6: You know what happens when you assume…
Never assume that your dog will just learn to deal with it and get over his fear or stress. Most of the time problem behaviors get worse after what might seem like a minor event. Address the issues right away! It is best to just take care of it before it becomes a problem.
Have patience with your dog. Put yourself in his paws. How would you feel is someone rushed you into a situation that worried or stressed you out?
Take your time and work slowly at changing your dogs emotional reaction to whatever it was that caused him stress.
NEVER get upset at your dog!
If he reacts to something in an unfavorable manner, deal with it and help him get over his fears.
WHO CARES what other people think! If your dog is reacting, there is a perfectly good reason he feels he needs to do that. So, IGNORE what other people say or do and TAKE CARE OF YOUR DOGS NEEDS!
In the end YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOUR DOG! YOUR DOG NEEDS TO KNOW HE CAN TRUST YOU TO PROTECT AND HELP HIM!
Pamela Johnson, CPDT-KA, M.A., and B.S.