How good stress can turn bad
Stress is a natural part of life. Eustress (mild stress/good stress) is beneficial for the mind and body. We all know what it’s like to experience good stress and bad stress. For us humans, bad stress might be being trapped in a terrible traffic jam and being late for work, then being yelled at by a boss or loved one. Good stress could be hanging out with a friend and going for a hike up a mountain or giving a small speech at a small gathering. But can one have too much of a good thing? What if your friends and family started coming over in ALL your free time and you went on hikes longer than you wanted to… The scales can begin to tip and something good that is no longer in moderation can start to have a negative affect on your physical and mental health. This is true for dogs as well. It is important for us to take this into consideration when addressing a dog’s behavioral problem as well as a physical illness.
I am frequently contacted by people whose previously happy go lucky dog has started lunging and barking at other dogs on walks. They are baffled because their dog is playing and being social with dogs all day at day care while they are at work. What often times is happening is the dog is getting too much physical and mental stimulation and not enough rest during the day and the added stress starts to take it’s toll causing the dog to over-react to other dogs on walks. Dogs, like people, all differ in how stressful social interactions are for them. For example, there are some people who like to go out at night and talk to complete strangers or hang out with different friends all the time every evening. Then there are other people who like to hang out with just their own friends or family members on the weekends. Sometimes doggie day care can be like a dog having to attend a 6 hour Christmas party multiple times a week… Some dogs go with the flow, other dogs become chronically stressed by too much of a good thing. When too much stress is continuous and becomes chronic stress, it is believed that it begins to change the brain and how it functions.
Everything in moderation
We know that eating too little or too much can be unhealthy. Well the same can be true for exercise and mental stimulation. It is common knowledge that too little exercise and mental stimulation can be harmful, but it is not commonly understood that too much can also affect a dog’s physical and mental health. On a popular tv show, “problem dogs” are often shown over-excited, jumping and pulling, then after excessive exercise the dog is then laying on his side not moving in the living room. The owners are happy as the dog looks calm. But what is really happening is the dog is actually exhausted. Exercise disrupts the body’s homeostasis or in other words equilibrium. Too much exercise can cause an increase in injury and illness and can add to the allostatic load, the things that have a negative affect on a dog’s physical and mental health. It is possible to do too much exercise for a specific muscle but also too much for the whole body. When an owner sees that their dog is stressed, and provides an extreme amount of exercise, the dog then looks calm. However what can happen is the more exercise that is provided the more physically fit the dog becomes requiring more and more exercise to reach a state where he will flop down exhausted and look calm. The excessive exercise can start to increase the stress in the dog’s life, as their body is working harder to achieve homeostasis. Also the reason the dog was acting stressed and over active to begin with might not have been that he needed exercise but due to another behavioral problem or a different need that was not met. Exercising a dog to the point where they lay down will not address the real problem, it will just cause the dog to need to rest from the exercise. Instead, exercise should be done in moderation along with following a plan to address other existing behavior problems and temporarily reduce other stressors in the dog’s life during the training.
Some dogs know when they have had enough food, social interaction or exercise. Other dogs don’t and will keep eating, keep playing and keep chasing the Frisbee even when they have passed the point where it is no longer good for them. As their caregivers we need to make sure they are getting all their needs met but in moderation.
Here is a list of things that could turn from Good Stress to Bad and Ugly when a dog gets too much of a good thing:
- Social interactions with Dogs, People, and Kids
- Doggie Day Care
- Dog parks
- Chasing wild animals and prey
- Excessive exercise – playing fetch, Frisbee, jogging, running, and doing excessive or overly taxing tricks and behaviors
- Training your dog (yes, I’m a dog trainer saying that too much training can be detrimental to your dog’s physical and mental well-being! Train in moderation.)
- Going everywhere with you – service work, dog shows, dog sports and performances
For some dogs these things can always be good stress, but for others the scales can tip. Our bodies and minds are never perfectly balanced… internal states are frequently being disturbed and corrected. So sometimes visiting a dog park might be relaxing and fun for a particular dog, while if that same dog was stressed from something else that day or worse chronically stressed to begin with visiting the park could negatively affect the dog.
Other potential stressors (some we have no control over):
- Moving to a new house or visiting somewhere new
- Getting a new family member
- New noisy neighbors
- Alone time at home that is longer than usual or at an unusual time
- Exposed to something they fear or new
- Change in the weather/temperature
- Change in diet
- Change in sleep
- Change in health
- Aging – becoming deaf, blind or senile
Some signs that stress could be affecting you dog:
- Behavior – You notice a change in your dog’s normal behavior. The dog starts to hide or want to be alone or conversely starts to seek attention more than usual. The dog is becoming hypersensitive to sounds, sights, smells and or touch. You notice an increased startle response. Your dog is seeming more agitated, frustrated or aggressive.
- Eating – Decrease or increase in appetite. Weight loss or gain.
- Health - Illness – such as allergies or digestive problems
- Sleeping - Change in sleeping patterns – Restless, pacing or lethargic
Keep in mind these changes could also happen from an undiscovered illness or injury, for example, an infected tooth or painful hip dysplasia. If your dog is suffering from a sudden illness, along with medical care, you can also focus on temporarily reducing stress in your dog’s every day life as a way to boost your dog’s immune system.
Have you ever felt like you where about to get a cold or the flu and then you took it easy and the illness didn’t manifest? And conversely, did you ever feel like you were going to get over some mild illness and then hanging out with friends or going for a run caused the illness to progress with full force? Or perhaps you were out and about without warm enough clothes and you felt cold for many hours or perhaps too hot… and then became sick? For sick dogs, reducing bad stress but also GOOD STRESS will help your dog get better just like with us. Too much of a good thing can cause the body to work over time and not be as efficient at repairing itself.
The Downward Spiral
Everything is connected. Physical health can affect mental health and vice versa. Pain and illness can cause behavioral issues to become worse and conversely, psychological stress can exacerbate illness.
An example of this is a dog who can be anxious to be left alone is left alone longer than usual. While the owners are gone the dog becomes overly stressed. The next day the dog’s skin allergies have become much worse. Now the dog has become extremely itchy and uncomfortable, so the dog starts to get less sleep. The lack of sleep and the itching make the anxiousness of being left alone worse… and in turn the stress of being left alone causes the dog’s allergy to get worse until it becomes a chronic condition. Now the dog is following the owner from room to room and stops sleeping deeply not only when the owner is gone but while the owner is home and starts jumping and barking at noises. The dog is on a downward spiral.
The Upward Spiral
The good news is small changes you create can affect health and behavior positively and instead create an upward spiral. Working on one of your dog’s behavioral issues will cause another issue to become easier to solve. If you think your dog is overly stressed or becoming chronically stressed try to reduce stress in everyday life. Provide nourishing food, increase quality and quantity of sleep, remove stressors from his environment, and temporarily decrease social interactions and exercise. I’m not saying deprive a dog of social interaction and exercise, but to reduce it when a dog needs time to rest to achieve homeostasis. When your dog starts to feel better slowly increase the amount of social interactions and exercise but look out for warning signs that you are going too fast too quickly.
Some examples of limiting exposure to stressors in the home:
- Put music on or a white noise machine to drown out the noise of the neighbors.
- Prevent your dog from being able to look out the windows if he can see things that are arousing or startling to him.
Activities to do when taking a break and reducing stress in everyday life:
- Foraging – Hide food in your house or yard and have the dog forage for it.
- Food puzzles – You can give your dog food puzzles if he doesn’t find them arousing or frustrating.
- Calm sniffing walks – If there is a place to walk your dog where he is not overly stressed, walk at a time when there is little activity and allow him to sniff and follow his nose. Follow behind him keeping the leash loose so he can make choices and explore. If your dog can’t slow down, you can start this out by sprinkling treats in the grass and saying “go sniff” as you point out where to sniff for the treats.
- Work on calm behaviors – Either take a break from training completely or start to work on calm behaviors like reinforcing your dog for settling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wesm2OpE_2c Avoid working on behaviors and tricks where the dog gets aroused or excited.Take a break from activities like agility, fly ball, and performance. Instead focus on calm behaviors and calm activities. In the future get a physical therapist or canine fitness trainer on board if you think your sports training plans might be too mentally or physically taxing for your dog so they can help you create a new achievable plan.
- Massage and Touch – If your dog likes being touched, you can touch your dog in a calm way, but not the typical arousing way that people usually pat, ruffle and rub dogs. Sit on the couch and watch TV together while you calmly stroke and massage your dog with the goal of calming and relaxing the dog rather than arousing the dog.
Control over the environment
It is important that a dog’s caregiver makes sure all their basic needs are being met for their physical and psychological health. There is one basic need that is often overlooked in pet dogs and that is to provide the dog with a sense that he can control his environment and can make choices from time to time.
In many popular training manuals, dogs are to be put in crates while the owner is at work. For some dogs they can cope with this, but for others the barren environment where little or no choice is possible can create behavioral side effects when the dog is in the crate or released from the crate. For new puppies or rescue dogs, keeping the dog in a safe escape proof pen with a bed area, a play area, some toys, chews, a water bowl, and possibly a toilet area will allow the dog to be able to make choices throughout the time he is left alone, rather than what happens in a crate, where the dog is only able to stand up, lay down or turn around.
Many people want their dog to walk close to them in the heel position and never sniff the ground. This provides the dog with no choices when out on a walk. In some environments it’s useful to walk a dog next to you, for example to get through crowds, but then it is also important to give the dog a chance to make choices, explore and “be a dog”. You can do this by finding a place where you can cue your dog “Go sniff” then follow your dog and let him choose where he wants to go. Then when you need to move on again, say “Let’s go” before continuing on your walk.
We can teach dogs to be resilient and deal with good and bad stress
Through training with Positive Reinforcement we can open up a two-way communication system with our dogs and teach them to cope with both good and bad stress, allowing them to make choices and have control over their environment along the way.
An example of creating a two-way communication system is The Bucket Game created by world-renowned trainer and behavior consultant Chirag Patel. Through the training game the dog is able to tell the trainer when he is comfortable with something such as being groomed or handled as well as when he is starting to feel uncomfortable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJSs9eqi2r8
Remember things don’t always just get better and better. Stress is a natural part of life and our bodies are constantly re-balancing to homeostasis. But giving our dogs and ourselves a little break from physical and mental stressors can help us all on the road to recovery when dealing with the onset of too much stress or an illness. I hope that this article might not only help dogs, but also help their humans be conscious of their own activities that might be tipping their own scales with “too much of a good thing”.
Copyright of Emily Larlham 2018
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