Helping the Stressed Dog

Understanding what triggers stress in dogs and recognizing stress related behavior in dogs is important so we can help a stressed dog and avoid misunderstandings between our two species.

Stress can be defined as “any factor that threatens the health of an organism or has an adverse effect on its functioning. Such factors or stressors may occur in the external environment or arise within the body” (Concise Veterinary Dictionary, 1988).

While the words stress and distress are often used interchangeably, there is a difference.

Stress is a normal feature of life for all animals and serves important adaptive functions, such as flight-or-fight, predation, or “social-climbing”. “Distress “occurs when an animal is unable to adapt completely to a stressor.” (Rollins and Kessel. , 2017).

The transition to distress occurs when the body cannot cope against the assault of one or more stressors. “Stressors” are events that precipitate stress (Committee on Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals, 2008)

When a dog is stressed, he or she experiences physiological changes over which he or she has no control. These include increased blood pressure, heightened senses, increased ability of the blood to clot, and increased heart rate.  These changes all help the dog to respond to potential danger.

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 because of stress (Mills, Karagiannis and Zulch 2014).

Some dogs are stressed by spending long hours alone. 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).

Stressors can include threatening or aggressive behavior (perceived or real) from other dogs or from people, punishment, wearing punishing equipment, too much or too little activity day after day, being hugged or stared at and being bothered while he or she is sleeping.

Certain training methods can also 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).

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

Owners can identify stress signals in their own dogs.  By looking at the whole dog and all the indicators one can interpret the dog’s behavior. When stressed, often the eyes will look rounder than usual and are opened widely, the whites may show. Generally, the dog will be looking away from the trigger or stressor, ears will be flat against the head, he may be panting or his lips are pulled up to reveal the front teeth or pulled well back to reveal front and back teeth. The tail may be tucked between his legs. His hair may stand on end and he may

shed more than usual. Often stressed and fearful dogs will lean away, crouch, roll over, freeze and may urinate or defecate (ASPCApro

 

blog.org, 2015).

They may vocalize also. Howling, whimpering, high-pitched repetitive barks and growling can all indicate stress and distress.

Some dogs urine mark when feeling stressed.

Research has revealed 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)

(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).

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).

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

 

The release cue!

Training Tip!

The “break” or “release” cue is a word we teach the dog to indicate that the exercise we have asked them to do is now over. It means that we (dog and handler) are finished working for right now and that the dog is on his or her own time.
Examples of good “break” words are: all-done, break, release,. The break cue  indicates to the dog that he has finished an exercise like a sit or a search).
The release word is not a cue for playtime. The release word just means that the exercise we have asked the dog to do is over but it isn’t necessarily playtime. 

The tug-toy game

Playing tug with dogs is a great way to reward a dog, to teach bite inhibition, to teach a dog to release an item on cue, to tire a dog out and to teach control of arousal levels.

To teach tug-toy, decide what the cue will be for tug-toy. Have ready a toy the dog enjoys playing with-this can be a tug toy, a rope or a Kong™ on a rope.

Pick a time when the dog appears to want to play. He or she may have invited their person or another dog to play.  Take the dog to a low distraction area and ask the dog to sit.  Then bring out the toy, shaking it close to the ground or dragging the toy away from the dog to encourage the dog’s interest. The dog will generally pounce on and grab the toy. After a few minutes of play (and while the dog still wants to play) the person stops the play by letting the toy go limp and withdrawing it. Initially, I reward the dog for letting go with a treat.

When the person has practiced stopping and starting tug-toy with the dog and the dog appears to enjoy the game, the person can add the cue for tug-toy.

Give the cue (for example: “tug”) and then bring out the toy and engage in play with the dog, give the cue for break, immediately stop playing by letting the toy go limp and rewarding the dog for releasing the toy, then, give the cue to play again and engage in play with the dog and so on…

I have rules for the tug-toy game which are, (1) if the dog’s teeth contact the person’s skin, the game stops immediately (let toy go limp, remove)-at no time should the play game involve the dog using his or her teeth on the person so it is important to be consistent and calm about this (2) anytime the toy is near the person’s face, the game stops – as long as the person is consistent, this teaches the dog to stop playing when the toy is near the face. If the dog tries to grab the toy out of my hand, I put the toy away for a few minutes.

Tracking training!

Tracking is a fun activity many dogs can do and that most enjoy. Generally if a dog enjoys retrieving, has some prey drive, shows persistence in finding things and is in good health, they will do well in tracking. Success in tracking is also dependent on the skill of the trainer, the time spent teaching the dog the basics and beyond and the rewards for the dog.

Tracking and search work utilizes the incredible senses that dogs possess. In particular, their sense of smell. When trained, dogs can identify and follow the scent of a particular person or animal, indicate to their handler when they have identified a certain odour like that of illicit drugs or the presence of bedbugs for example.

The human body reportedly sheds about 30,00 to 40,000 skin cells per minute (varies due to several factors) and these cells become a part of individualized “rafts” made up of one or more cells and about 4 microbial “passengers”DSC_0013 of bacteria unique to the person. This is what tracking dogs follow when tracking an individual.

By keeping the track simple initially, the dog’s confidence in both himself and the handler will grow. Over time and as the dog’s skills increase, the tracks can be made steadily more difficult in a variety of ways, always working at a pace where the dog’s confidence is built and maintained. There are many things that can influence the difficulty of the track, such as surface of the ground, direction of the track, weather conditions, wind speed and direction, terrain, wildlife that may have left “cross-tracks”, human traffic, buildings, fencing and the speed of the tracklayer’s movement.  The key is to challenge but not overwhelm the dog so he enjoys learning and so he enjoys the search.

Dogs learn quickly when trained using “inducive” techniques, (appealing to his senses, instincts and temperament to provide the dog with a reason to behave in a specific manner), and then rewarding him for the behaviour.

Tracking is a good way to mentally tire a busy dog and dogs of any size and a variety of breeds enjoy fun tracking and search exercises.

5 Ways to Improve Loose-leash Walking!

Dogs generally pull on the leash because they walk faster than we do. We need to gently teach them to slow down when on leash. Here are some tips on teaching dogs to walk nicely on the leash:

  1. If the dog is being walked to the person’s left, place the leash handle around the handler’s right wrist and use the left hand to hold the leash at its midpoint. There should be a “J” shape from the dog’s collar in the leash.
  2. Begin walking the dog and when the dog looks up at the person, reward this with a treat from the left hand or hand closest to the dog (this prevents teaching the dog to cross in front of the person).
  3. If the dog starts to forge ahead, get the pup’s attention by patting your own hip or thigh to get the pup’s attention and gently changing directions (reward when the pup is in the correct place and leash is loose). If there isn’t room to change direction and the dog is pulling, simply stop and wait for the dog to return to the handler and then proceed and reward while the dog is walking on a loose leash next to you. The dog will soon understand that the walk only continues when the leash is slack.
  4. Often pups will grab the leash in their mouth. To redirect this I take toys or a tug toy with me to let them carry or I tie a toy to their collar for them to grab and hold instead of the leash.
  5. Use a humane no-pull harness (with a d-ring on the front) to walk the dog in when you are not actively training your dog). I like the Tellington Touch harness and the Freedom harness.

And here are a couple of “don’ts”:

  1. Don’t allow the dog to pull toward the other dog and then have a greet and play. This is a huge reward for pulling so don’t allow the pup to get into this habit- I put greetings on cue so the dog is clear.
  2. Avoid using a flexi-leash. These leashes actively reinforce pulling by rewarding the dog with more leash when they pull!

How to make a “snuffle mat” for your dog !

Snuffle mats are a great indoor activity for dogs (and cats!). They are easy to make and you can easily create one for your dog!

Here is how:

Purchase an outdoor rubber mat with holes in it (easily available at Canadian Tire ).

Purchase several meters of fleece (it’s surprising how much fleece is needed).

Cut the fleece into strips about 2 centimeters wide by 25 centimeters long.

Working from the underside of the mat, thread a piece of fleece through one of the holes and the other end through the hole next to it. On the topside of the mat, tie a knot between the two ends of the fleece. To make a thicker pile, repeat in another direction to make an “X” on the underside and knot those also. Repeat with the fleece pieces until every hole is filled and you have created a pile on the top of the mat.

 

20151031_123310.jpgYou can also make three different lengths of pile to vary things for your dog.

Once complete, spread treats across the top and, as the dog gets the hang of the game, make it more difficult by hiding treats amongst the fleece pile.

Travelling safely with your dog

Regularly I see dogs being transported loose in vehicles or in the backs of pick up trucks. Not only is this dangerous for dogs and drivers, but it is also against the law in our province.

Always use either a seatbelt harness or a secure crate when travelling with a dog. This keeps everyone safe from being distracted while driving and secures your pet in the event of an accident.

Inside your vehicle unrestrained or uncontained dogs are a hazard to themselves and to others. According to the BCSPCA website, a 50-pound pet, when traveling at speeds of 50 km/h, has the weight of approximately one ton.

In the event of a sudden stop, the dog can be seriously injured or seriously injure someone.

Train your dog to remain in the vehicle until given the cue word to exit (even once their seatbelt harness is undone). If you use a crate, attach an information sheet about your pet (address, vet information, contact for friend or family. List care information for your dog too like vaccinations, food also).

Don’t ever transport your dog in the bed of a truck without using a secured crate. I prefer the hard sided airline crates. In BC, Section 72 of the Motor Vehicle Act prohibits the transport of an unsecured pet in the back of a pick-up truck. Even restrained in the back of a truck with a leash, dogs can be hanged. They are also exposed to the elements risking hypothermia, heatstroke, eye and ear injury and they have no protection in case of an accident.

If you are injured, emergency personnel may be prevented from assisting you in a timely manner if the loose dog is now guarding you and your vehicle. A frightened dog may bolt from the scene.

Stay safe!