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Stress Series: What causes stress and what does it look like? (Part 2 of 3)

In Part 1 of our stress series we looked at the definition of stress. In order to understand stress in more detail it's important to look at where it comes from and what it looks like in our dogs.

Sources of Stress When our dog is overreacting to things, there is a fair chance that it is due to a high a level of stress. If this is the case, no matter how much we ‘work’ with him we will not relieve his stress. If anything we will probably make it worse. We need to find out what is causing the stress and do something about that. Chronic stress can arise inadvertently (the list below is not exhaustive) from owners who:

  • Repeatedly throw balls, Frisbees, sticks etc.

  • Take their puppy to ‘play groups’ - all too often the puppy is overwhelmed by the length of the class and play sessions, the size of the group, the tasks expected of him, the constant stimuli, lack of rest periods, being asked (or worse, forced) to do things he doesn’t understand

  • Cycle, jog or any other kind of repetitive activity with their dog

  • Allow their dog to play every day with other dogs or owners

  • Complete agility or obedience classes when the dog cannot cope with these activities

  • Tease or over excite the dog

  • Don’t allow the dog to make any choices of its own

  • Touch and let others touch their dog constantly and for too long

  • Do not have enough physical contact with their dog

  • Take the dog on the same repetitive walk each day

  • Walk the dog on a collar, too short a lead or one that is always tense or being yanked

  • Over or under stimulate their dog

  • Force things on their dog

  • Have high or confusing expectations for the dog

  • Treat their dog as their ‘baby’ and fail to meet his canine needs

  • Are unknowingly threatening or impolite to their dog. Often we are unaware that certain behaviour, such as walking straight towards a dog, bending over him, staring at him or moving quickly around him can be stressful. A recent study has shown that a person approaching a dog straight on substantially increases the dog’s pulse rate whereas there is no change in the pulse rate if the person curves towards them.

The environment is of particular importance when talking about stress. Canines in the wild are rarely exposed to as many stressful situations as our dogs are today:

  • Being raised by irresponsible breeders or in a puppy farm

  • Too little sleep

  • Too little water (especially for puppies)

  • Too little or too much or inappropriate food

  • Illness or trauma

  • Lack of or too much close contact with owners or other dogs

  • Too much time alone

  • Not being able to relieve himself when he needs to

  • Sudden changes such as moving home or having a child

  • Too much activity and noise in the house

  • Too little or too much freedom of movement

  • No space he can call his own, and not enough options in terms of where he can sleep and relax

  • Too many dogs kept close together with no opportunity to maintain personal space

  • Multiple threats such as strangers, frequent storms, violence or anger. Dogs react and respond to the emotions and moods of those around them.

Symptoms of stress The symptoms of stress can end up causing further stress, and so begins a vicious cycle. The body and brain need sufficient time between each stressful situation to repair. This can be anywhere from 3 to 5 days. Of course some of the behaviours listed below can happen when the dog is not stressed so we need to observe our dog, and look at the context and frequency of the behaviour that is occurring:

  • Nervous, jumpy, and generally over-reactive

  • Unsettled, restless and fidgeting such as chewing on the lead and air snapping

  • Lack of concentration and forgetfulness

  • Destructiveness

  • Excessive barking, whining or howling

  • The dog becomes quiet and unresponsive and ’shuts down’ emotionally

  • ‘Aggressive’ behaviour

  • Too few, too many or no calming signals (such as lip licking, yawning, avoiding eye contact and turning away)

  • Mounting and humping

  • Self-mutilation, such as the dog licking or chewing himself until sores appears

  • Change in bitches’ seasons and dogs may have little or too much interest in mating

  • Increase or loss of appetite

  • Diarrhoea or going to the toilet all the time

  • Allergies and skin problems, lacklustre coat, excessive dandruff, sudden moulting or body odour as well as bad breath

  • Excessive panting or sweaty paws

  • Tight muscles, shaking and trembling

  • Compulsive behaviours such as tail or shadow chasing

  • An abnormal resting pulse. A resting pulse should be somewhere between 40 and 65. If it is over 70 then action needs to be taken. To take a dog’s resting pulse, place hand on the inside of the dog’s thigh for one minute (stopwatch in hand) and count (it is worth noting that, unlike us humans, our dog’s pulse is not regular so make sure to count for the full minute).

In Part 3 we will discuss what we can do about stress and how we can help our dogs to cope. Marina Gates Fleming is a canine consultant working in Belgium.

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