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Some Notes on Stress

What do you think when someone says they are stressed? Do you think they are struggling? Overwhelmed? Anxious?

Stress is a word we hear often in relation to the way we live, how we feel, and our physical health.  It also has a negative implication. Our relationship with stress - how we assess it, feel it, and respond to it is connected to almost everything we experience...but it’s not always bad. 

Let’s start with a quick definition focusing on dogs. Stress can be defined as a demand resulting from a change in the environment requiring a dog to respond. Because stress results in a physiological change, the function of the dog’s response is to maintain or return its body to a system-wide balance. This includes both physical and emotional types of demands. An individual's response to stress hinges on several factors, including genetics, learning history, and current environments - both internal and external - all inform stress responses. 

Not all stress is bad. Some stress, namely eustress, is good stress. It is a demand on the dog that they can experience and still regulate their physical and emotional states with success. This kind of stress is adaptive and if the animal can cope and achieve a positive outcome, they will build resilience.  

The next kind of stress to look at is called tolerable stress. This type of stress takes more effort on the dog’s part to cope with this kind of stress and usually results in some time spent feeling distressed because they have to use more resources emotionally and physically to meet the demand. If they are able to change their environment - internally and/or externally - and successfully return to their emotional and physical baseline, they will tolerate the stress. If they cannot resolve the demand on their physical or emotional systems, they will become distressed. 

Distress is also called toxic stress—and this is where stress is actually negative. Toxic stress is inescapable stress that the dog cannot resolve and can be experienced through one traumatic event or sustained levels of intolerable stress that lasts for an extended period of time. The latter is also known as chronic stress. It is worth noting that not all chronic stress rises to the level of being toxic but it will become toxic if the dog is never able to go back to a low-stress baseline.

Once a dog’s stress reaches these levels, it can be expressed in other seemingly non-related ways. In other words, if the dog is always stressed, then everything becomes stressful. It’s like a 600-pound gorilla riding them all day.

High levels of stress pose the most risk for dogs in critical developmental stages like puppies/juveniles (0-6 months), adolescents (~6-36 months depending on size), and senior dogs (age will range depending on size). Adult dogs are also susceptible but tolerance varies depending on experiences during development. 

Stress is all around us all of the time and is something that should be monitored and managed closely with our pet dogs. At no time do we want to create a stressful situation for any reason, including putting a dog in a situation that triggers a behavior for observation and/or “correction.” If you are working with a trainer that repeatedly stresses your dog so that they can use positive punishment, take your dog and run.  


As we mentioned, not all stress is bad. In fact, it actually has a role in learning. When a dog is presented with a problem - either by us or life itself - a change will need to happen to respond to that challenge. Learning happens with the feedback they get from the choice they make. If the dog can solve the problem and access something that is meaningful to them, or returns their system back to balance,  stress has provided the fuel for the attempt and the positive outcome has made a deposit in their Resilience Bank.

Here are two examples: 

A dog is outside sitting in the sun and their body temperature starts to change and they begin to pant, and then their body temperature returns to normal. The stress is the demand of the body being out of balance. Panting is the selected behavior and the resolution is their body returning to a comfortable temp. If the dog gets hot again and panting doesn’t work, the increased stress (demand) on them may lead to them getting up, moving to the shade, or getting some water.  If they are confined to an area where there is no shade, water, or means to escape the heat and their body temperature continues to rise without the animal being able to control it in any way, the stress will become intolerable. It will also be compounded by the emotional stress added to the dog’s life being in jeopardy.

Another example is a dog that is presented with a training challenge. If the challenge is broken down into steps that the dog understands, they will be able to solve the problem with a manageable amount of effort and earn a reinforcer. Here, stress is the demand of thinking through and solving the task. If we continue to increase the challenge gradually, and they continue to succeed, resilience is built through positive outcomes.

 If we present a training challenge that is too “big,” i.e. the dog has to think through too many unknown steps, they will most likely not be able to offer the response required to solve the problem.  They will become frustrated with the inability to earn the reinforcer. Stress, which could be both physical and emotional in this example, will continue to rise. This can lead to behaviors like jumping, whining, crying, barking, or walking away and checking themselves out of the session.


Here are some common physical indications that your dog is experiencing stress and may be approaching difficult-to-manage levels:

Image credit: © 2011 Sophia Yin, DVM Bite Prevention Resources

STRESS OPTIMIZATION As you can see, stress is pretty important. It can be a positive factor or a negative one. So, how exactly can we manage our dog’s environment to preserve the good stress and kick out the bad stress? Consider Stress Optimization. Here is a basic outline to understand how we might look at manipulating stress to help our stressed-out dogs learn to cope, build resilience, and heal.

  1. Understand the physical and behavioral indications of stress that is intolerable/toxic:

    1. Inability to relax or settle

      1. Pacing, panting, whining, wet paw prints

    2. Inability to focus on a known task in a familiar environment. For example:

      1. Can’t comply with a “sit” cue in a place where “sit” has been trained

    3. Reactive behaviors when events arise. For example:

    4. Barking and snapping when trying to be crated

    5. Growling while being groomed

    6. Snarling when approached with a resource

    7. Increased intensity of behaviors they may normally exhibit

      1. Over-grooming 

      2. Stereotypic or repetitive behaviors

  2. Remove all environmental conditions - internal and external - for chronic and toxic stress

    1. Environmental changes are mandatory

    2. Medication may be explored to lower stress levels that have been too high for too long

  3. Work on procedures like fear extinction combined with counterconditioning work to reduce the intensity of known stress triggers

    1. The application of these types of procedures is complex. It is likely you will need to work closely with a behavior professional to assess and address your specific dog’s tolerances

  4. Build resilience (coping) by presenting tiered and managed cognitive challenges

    1. Example: A structured introduction to puzzle toys with an appropriate success ratio

      1. This will change over time

    2. Shaping procedures for confidence with an errorless approach to challenge setting

Understanding stress and its role in our dogs’ lives will help us to more effectively attend to their wellbeing. Stress Optimization - knowing how to utilize positive stress and eliminate chronic and toxic stress - will lead to a dog that is more resilient when exposed to life’s challenges.

Dealing with a stressed dog and ready to get some relief? Fill out our New Client Profile here and we will see how we can help with your dog's stress experience.


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