How to help a stressed dog

Stress in dogs:

 

We often recognize stress related behaviour in members of our own species but do we recognize stress related behavior in dogs? Once we learn to recognize indicators of stress in dogs, we can help a stressed dog.

Dogs can feel stressed by a variety of things.  Stressors can include threatening or aggressive behavior (perceived or real) from other dogs or from people, use of punishing equipment, play periods that are too long and overwhelming, or too much or too little activity day after day.

Stress can also be caused by pain or illness, hunger or thirst, or nutritional deficiencies.

Research reveals three categories of abnormal behaviours in dogs that can be caused by stress: (1) displacement activities such as licking, grooming and pica  (“pica” refers to the eating of substances that have no nutritional value) ), (2) stereotypical activities like excessive licking, flank sucking, circling or whirling, tail chasing, fence-line running, excessive barking, polydipsia (an abnormal increase in thirst) and polyphagia (an abnormal increase in appetite) and (3) behaviours like staring and ‘fly chasing’ referred to as “hallucinatory” behaviors (Casey, et al. 2002).

A stressed dog may have changes in appearance. A recent study indicated that premature greying in dogs under four years of age may be an indicator of anxiety, fear or impulsivity (“impulsivity” was defined as the loss of focus, an inability to calm his or herself, jumping on people, and hyperactivity after exercise). Analysis showed that muzzle greyness was significantly predicted by fears of loud noises, of unfamiliar animals, and of unfamiliar people. (King, et al. 2016).

Physiological indicators of stress can be identified through the measuring of the of heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, body temperature and through evaluations of immune status and disease incidence. Measuring hormone secretion is also used in assessing stress (Bodnariu 2008).

The urinary, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and immune systems have been shown to be susceptible to developing disease as a result of stress (Mills , Karagiannis and Zulch 2014).

For dogs who are experiencing chronic stress from kennelling, research has shown that even one night away from the kennel situation results in a reduction in cortisol in dogs. Cortisol is a diurnal hormone that is a measure of stress.  In a study done at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, researchers measured cortisol levels in the dogs who lived there and who were participating in the “sleepover program” where visitors can take a dog for the night to their hotel. They found the cortisol levels in the dog dropped significantly when the dog participated in the sleepover program (Seckel 2017) . In another study, half of the dogs adopted from shelters displayed symptoms of various illnesses such as diarrhoea, vomiting, coughing, sneezing and skin problems.  It was suggested that these conditions may be due to the immunosuppression caused by the previous stress of kennelling (Bodnariu 2008).

Being left on their own is stressful for many dogs as they are social animals.  Studies have shown that at 5 weeks of age, dogs experience an elevation in cortisol after separation (Nagasawa, et al. 2014). Dogs who have separation-related problems may show it through destruction of property, excessive vocalization and house-soiling. A study on treatment for separation-related behavior revealed that dogs treated with systematic desensitization had significant reductions in the frequency and intensity of the separation-related behaviors and that, three months after the treatment ended, most of the dogs showed almost complete elimination of the problem behaviour (Butler, Sargisson and Elliffe 2011).

Certain training methods can elicit stress signals in dogs. The results of a study comparing the behavior observed in dogs participating in training classes at two training schools that used two different types of training methods results suggested that training methods based on positive reinforcement are less stressful for dogs. One school used positive reinforcement (where a food reward was given) in training while the other school used negative reinforcement (where an aversive disappeared when the dog complied).  The dogs who attended the classes at the school using negative reinforcement displayed lowered body postures and displayed other signals of stress while the dogs who were trained with the positive reinforcement showed increased attentiveness toward their owners.   (Deldalle and Gaunet 2014).

Recognizing the indicators of stress in dogs helps us make changes to reduce stress and anxiety in dogs.

 

 

 

 

Tips for making the most of your training time!

Fitting in time for training can be a challenge for many people so here are some tips to help you  get the most out of your training time.

Teach new skills in an area that is free of distractions so your dog can focus easily.

As your dog progresses, strengthen the training by adding one of “duration”, “distance” and “distractions.” “Duration” refers to the length of time a dog can stay in a sit or a down for example. “Distance” refers to the distance from the trainer at which a dog can do an exercise. “Distraction” refers to things that compete with us for the dog’s attention (like other dogs, farm animals, children, ball games).

Increase the difficulty of the training exercise by adding only one new criteria at a time.

For example, if we are introducing increasing the distance from the trainer at which the dog will sit on cue, avoid increasing the distractions or duration at the same time.

Use rewards in training!

Police and military dogs in the Netherlands are being trained with the trainers rewarding desired behaviors, and by teaching the dogs in small steps that build on one another. They have been training this way since 1996 and report that they have cut their training time down to one-eighth of the time it originally took and they have found that dogs trained this way handle new situations confidently as they are not afraid to try things (Prins, Haak, & Gerritsen, 2013).

Avoid “correcting” the dog.

Instead, set them up for success. A one-year study based on detailed surveys with owners of dogs revealed that using punishing techniques when training dogs tends to increase the aggression in the animals substantially.

Results showed that 43 percent of the dogs responded aggressively in response to being hit or kicked, 41 percent increased their aggression in response to a human growling at the dog, 38 percent responded aggressively to being forced to give up an item, 31 percent to an “alpha roll”, 30 percent responded aggressively to a stare down by a human, 29 responded with aggression to being forced into a “dominance down”, 26 percent responded with aggression to being grabbed by the scruff of the neck, and 20 percent responded aggressively to being sprayed with water and so on (Herron, Herron, Shofer, & Reisner, 2009).

Incorporate play into training sessions.

Play is often used as a reward in the training of working dogs who do detection, seeing eye or search and rescue work. We know that social interactions with familiar humans are highly rewarding for many dogs and that dogs whose owners play with them have been found to score higher in obedience tests than those whose owners do not play with them (Bradshaw, Pullen, & Rooney, 2015).

Play is associated with a reduction in the stress hormone “cortisol.” To get the most out of play, keep things positive as the benefits of play are reduced if the dog receives a verbal correction from the trainer. Dogs who have been trained with punishment-based methods are much less interactive during play than dogs who are trained with rewards (Bradshaw, Pullen, & Rooney, 2015).

Invest in the right equipment for your dog.

Comfortable and well fitting harnesses are widely available as are long lines. Manage the environment the dog is in so that you can prevent the dog from practicing behaviors you may be trying to change.

Don’t worry if you can’t train everyday.

One or two short training sessions a week can result in a well-trained dog. In fact, a study on beagles revealed that weekly training resulted in better learning performance than training five times a week, when performance is measured in the number of training sessions required to reach a certain training level (Meyer & Ladewig, 2008).

Important Tips for Avoiding Dog Bites

A recent survey indicated that 54.4% of US households own a dog and that there are a total of 77.8 million dogs owned in the USA (Industry Trends, 2016). A 2014 survey of Canadians revealed that 34% of Canadian households contain at least one dog, resulting in an estimated population of 6.4 million dogs in Canada (Canadian Animal Health Institute, n.d.).

While dogs are generally cooperative and social animals who live and work in harmony with people, sometimes dogs bite. Statistics indicate 4.5 million dog bites occur in the USA each year and that, among children, the rate of dog bites is highest for children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).

Luckily studies indicate that there is a lot people can do to avoid the risk of a dog bite to a child or an adult.

A study published in 2015 analyzed the behavior of the human immediately preceding a dog bite to the face. The researchers found that the top three behaviors preceding a bite to the face were the human bending over a dog, the human putting their face close to the dog’s face, and gazing between victim and dog.  More than two thirds of the victims were children, none of the victims was an adult dog owner and it was only adult dogs that bit the face. More than half of the bites were directed towards the nose and lip areas of the victim’s face. (Rezac, Rezac, & Slama, 2015)

A 2011 study showed that seemingly benign interactions between a child and the family dog most often lead to bites. These interactions were often initiated by the child and included brushing, cuddling, kissing and petting the dog. (Reisner, et al., 2011)

Psychologists discovered that children understand the risks of approaching an “angry”  dog but that they are unaware that they should show the same caution around frightened dogs. Two groups of children aged 4-5 and 6-7 years were studied and results showed that while the children were less likely to approach an angry dog there was no difference in their inclination to approach a happy or frightened dog.  (Staffordshire University, 2016)

Another study published in 2015 investigated whether preschool children can be taught how to interpret dogs’ behaviours, with the purpose of helping avoid dog bites.

Three to five-year-old children were divided into two groups.  One group received training on dog behavior while the other group acted as the control group and did an activity related to wild animals. The group who received training in dog behavior were reported to be significantly better at judging a dog’s emotional state and were able to refer to relevant behaviors to support their judgement after the training.  The results of this study are promising as they indicate that preschool children can be taught how to correctly interpret dogs’ behaviours. (Lakestani & Donaldson, 2015)

Another study showed that parents were present in 84% of cases when a child under 7 years of age was bitten. The conclusion was that close supervision is necessary to help children avoid behaviors that may lead to being bitten by a dog. (Reisner, et al., 2011)

A 2003 study on dog bites to children showed that education could be the preventive measure in reducing the frequency of dog bites to children. The study concluded that, out of 100 accidents, 67 children might not have been bitten had they and their parents been adequately educated on safe conduct towards dogs. (Kahn, Bauche, & Lamoureux, 2003)

Parents and other adults can help children avoid the risk of a dog bite by closely supervising children when the children are around dogs (including familiar dogs), by learning what constitutes hazardous human behavior around dogs, by learning about and educating children on the signs of a fearful or stressed dog, by managing children around dogs by using baby gates when an adult cannot closely supervise the interactions, and by providing dogs with a childfree space of their own.