This week I want to talk about stress, a theme that often surprise people when mentioned, but for those who did not know stress is not exclusive of the human being, and dogs also are victims of it. Recognise the symptoms of stress on your dog is key to be able to act in time in many situations, so I hope that you like the post, although it is longer of what I intended, I already have left some things to not do it so dense. 😉
Stress is defined as a set of physiological reactions triggered by any demands exerted on the body, by the incidence of any stressor (stimulus that causes stress). What you have to understand simply is that it increases the levels of adrenaline and cortisol (hormones triggered by stress) and this has effects on the body.
Adrenaline is segregated very quickly, as soon as the brain picks up the message by the senses. On the other hand, cortisol begins to rise when there are high levels of adrenaline, indicating that there is long term stress. The more episodes of stress, the more cortisol accumulates in the body.
The stress hormones are produced in the adrenal gland. It is normal that it releases small quantities all the time so there is energy for daily activities. The gland produces more hormones when we need them. Example: If you arrive late, automatically you start producing them as soon as you look at the clock, and you can’t stop it: you can’t order your body to produce more or less hormones. It is your brain. You can’t control the level of stress, it’s a physiological mechanism. Similarly, this happens when a dog sees another dog and gets excited.
We need more stress hormones when:
- We do physical activities
- There is a danger, the body needs to react (fight or flight)
- We get excited
- There is pain
Stress is not always bad. If it occurs only when there is a danger or real threat it’s called adaptive, it’s a necessary response for the survival. The problem comes when it happens frequently or the threatening situation continues over time, making stress responses disproportionate. There are thousand of situations that create stress on the dog and if every day he has a little too much it will accumulate and you’ll have a dog with chronic stress.
There are many biochemical processes that produce symptoms of stress in dogs, some are seen immediately, indicating that he starts to get stressed out (shaking off, scratching, barking, jumping, grabbing something with his mouth, biting the leash, drinking excessive water, doing pee right away or more often than usual, sucking or chewing the blanket…) others are seen later (pursuing their tail in circles, biting their tail, excessive licking their paws, chasing shadows, nervousness, irritability, aggressiveness, overreactions, problems of skin, dandruff, body odour, digestive problems and diarrea, eating with anxiety, avoidance behaviours, fixation for objects, lack of concentration…) indicating that there is chronic stress.
Dogs have the same physiology than us: the senses capture stimuli that send the message to the brain so the gland produces the hormones of stress and these increase sugar levels in blood to send to the muscles, preparing the body to react (fight or flight). In other words, stress makes all the sugar go to muscles and none to the brain (to prioritize energy allowing the flight or fight reaction), reducing brain capacity, concentration, learning, memory, resolution of conflicts, etc.
That’s why mental stimulation, exercise and availability of options/alternatives is often recommended to reduce stress, there is a need to channel this energy that has accumulated in the muscles.
You have to know what causes the stress and how it’s released (tail biting, scratching, destroying objects…) in order to be able to decrease it.
CAUSES THAT GENERATE STRESS (stressors):
- Environmental factors: temperature (being cold or hot), moving of place, a change in the environment (constructions, excessive noise)…
- Physiological factors: illness, injury, pain, organic needs (having to pee, thirst, hunger, lack of sleep…)
- Social factors: arrival of a new member to the family, departure of a member of the family, arrival of another dog or animal…
- Everyday situations: fatigue, overstimulation and excessive exercise/ excitable games (like going to run with your dog half an hour, playing too long, running after objects or throwing the ball several times), staying alone many hours, shouts and angry environment, aggression of its surroundings, corrections on the leash, that someone/something is always bothering him, sudden changes, to get frightened/fear, lack of exercise, lack of mental stimulation, direct or sudden threats, having expectations/frustrations, excessive demands (in sports or at home), not being able to manage the situation or not having options to do so, not having control over the situation, etc.
To know if your dog has stress you don’t need to go to the vet, just identifying some of the symptoms mentioned above you already know that your dog is stressed. Almost all behavioural problems that have no organic cause are related to stress (fear, aggressiveness, repetitive behaviours…) But if your dog has developed a behaviour problem it’s recommendable that you do tests at the vet to rule out organic cause possibility.
IF YOUR DOG IS STRESSED:
- Remove the stressors of their environment
- Make sure that bare needs are covered (lack of pain or discomfort, sleeping well, eating well, access to pee when he needs to, having social contact…)
- Short, calm activities and options for the dog (peaceful walks, nose work, mental games…)
- Routines to make life predictable (same meal schedules, same walk schedules...) will give him security.
- In some cases a nutritional or pharmacological intervention will be necessary, but the vet or the trainer will recommend it.
Yet it will take a while to lower stress levels:
Adrenaline levels get low fast but the effects disappear within 2-6 days if there is nothing else that will stress the dog.
Cortisol remains longer in the body and therefore the effects also. It can take up to 6 weeks once ceased stress.
TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT:
- There are no breeds more stressed than others. Simply some breeds are much faster than others in their reactions, that is not stress, but it’s true that reacting more quickly they could get stressed out more easily.
- There is no hyperactive dogs. You have a stressed dog, not hyper. Find what stressed him.
- There are dogs that are stressed more easily than others (perhaps because they react more quickly).
- Learning to recognise the symptoms of stress will allow you to change things before the dog reaches a level of chronic stress.
My initial idea with this post was also to help you to better understand that your dog needs you to give him time when adapting to any new situation, when reducing stress, if he’s been adopted recently or if you are working a behavioural problem. You may be in a rush but it won’t get faster, you only will see small progresses until achieving the ultimate goal if you are consistent.
I hope to have succeeded.
A furry friendly hug,