Stress Free: Helping Your Dog See The World In a Better Way

You don’t have to look very far to see what stress can do in a dog.  I walk a mile around my neighborhood and I will face at least three dogs who bark and scream at me and my dogs with amazing intensity.  I often wonder how long it will be before they are in for a hernia. There are a few more who bark incessantly, but are not necessarily blowing a gasket to do so.  Then, in that same mile, there is the rare dog who barks a few times, or for a short while  and before we pass, there is silence, even if my dogs pause along the way.

Over the years I have developed a pretty good understanding of the negative impact of stress, anxiety and fear.  I work to avoid the impact of stress with the people I interact with and I do so with the dogs I meet as well.  Although I would never say my dogs are perfect either; as they are always, like me, in a state of learning to be better.  My Dog Dylan is 10 as of this writing and she is a dog who I rescued when she was 6 months old after having been wild for two months.  She is a great dog, but there is always room to improve.  Most circumstances do not cause her to become distressed, or fearful any more and she now has a true love of people, where only fear existed in the beginning.  When circumstances do cause fear and distress in her, there is real stress present that needs to be dealt with. I have learned to trust the behavior of my dogs.

There is always a reason for their changes in behavior and they cannot lie, or intentionally mislead you. Often the cause is an undetected health issue such as hypothyroidism.  Poor responses to stress are amplified by poor thyroid function.  This is often accompanied by aggressive behavior.  It is important to note, that most thyroid testing is done inadequately.  Thyroid function also needs to be tested for autoimmune forms of the disease, which impact the profile of changes to the thyroid hormones.  These forms often do not show up wit the standard T4 tests. Poor health is often a cause of poor behavior and specifically a poor stress response.  Constant stress is also a factor, since the chemical balance in the body is constantly negative.

In the beginning, any stress in Dylan’s world would cause extreme fear.  Many real circumstances, although not dangerous, still can cause fear in her.  A poo hanging from a hair will likely still cause some concern still.  But unlike the early days, where it caused her to scream, she now squirms over to my side and waits for me to help.  I still need to remember her fear is there, but I also know she won’t hurt me.  Calm and with eye contact and reassurance, she will allow me to help. When she was rescued, just being inside our house was stressful.  The TV, the fridge, dishwasher were all scary things to her.  She had never been inside it seems.  All dogs and all people brought stress to Dylan in the beginning.

Desensitizing Dylan has been a major project as a result of the fact her first response to stress is with extreme fear.  It has taken years of work to get the majority of circumstances to be of no stress and no consequence due to the fact that her first response to new things is with fear. She has progressed throughout her life, becoming more confident in the world in general, but I have always seen some level of concern she learned before coming into my home.  In the last few years she has begun to handle new things without fear including new people.  The process I use is the same for a rescue who has been abused, ore neglected as the one I describe below for an average dog, it just has to be done repeatedly for many similar circumstances, as they don’t generalize well and it also usually has to be much more controlled, with smaller incremental steps, in order to prevent fear from occurring while shaping the desired response.

When she was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia, I had to face one of my hidden fears.  My fear that pain and discomfort would bring out her anxiety and her fear once again and make it impossible for me to care for her. And to some degree it did, but she was always clear.  And when she was afraid it was with good reason.  She was really a great dog and I am so happy and proud of what she has become.

Teaching dogs how to respond to new and intense stimuli is done best early on as they form their early cognitive skills, unlike with Dylan. It can be done at any time, as with Dylan, but the more their default response to new stimuli is with anxiety and fear, the more likely every new stimulus will always cause this reaction. All new things will have to be desensitized carefully.  There may be very little generalization between circumstances. I am happy Dylan has progressed to where new people, new places, new things and strange dogs do not provoke fear in her.  Not all dogs can get to this level once traumatized.

On the other hand, I always teach dogs to get over stress using desensitization and managed exposure to stress of all kinds; sounds, places, things, etc, as early as possible and continuously throughout their lives.  They get stressed by getting closer and I teach them they can reduce the stress by moving away and helping them move away form the cause.  I manage the level of exposure to the stress to provoke a little anxiety, but not outright fear, then we move a way a bit.  Most often we are working on something they really like while I am exposing them to the stress so we can condition a positive response, keep their brain working, keep excitement involved and stay connected with them.

Once stressed I reassure them and help them calm and then expose them again, slightly closer, letting them also choose to get closer to what it is that they are now curious about as a result of their more calm state. By repeated exposure and without inducing trauma, I can teach them to move away to reduce stress, that I will always be there to reassure them and never give them trouble, that together they can become calm, then investigate the source of their fear to reduce it themselves.

Teaching these skills early can change their default response to one of caution and allow them to truly know what response is appropriate in most circumstances. They will learn to respond to most new circumstances or even all new circumstances, without fear or any anxiety.  I clearly remember how concerned I was when Stevie Ray and I packed up and left for Helsinki Finland, via the Toronto/Hamilton area in 2008, on our way to the FCI World Dog Agility Championships.  Everything we did and every where we went was like she was in my back yard.

To this day I am amazed at how well rounded a dog can become. Traveling half way around the world and competing in an event in front of more than 10,000 screaming and cheering people, with strange cameras in their face, flashes and people everywhere; all of the equipment is different, the turf is new.  Staying in hotels and eating strange food. Riding on new trains and on strange buses and playing in strange neighborhoods.  Despite all that was unique and beautiful about Helsinki, to Stevie Ray, it was no different.  Not once did I notice her behavior change, aside from burning more calories on a constant basis. It did not matter how long she spent on the plane either, she was only slightly stressed getting on the plane, but really only from the need to be separated.  She got off the plane each and every time excited and ready to play (and to pee of course).  Getting her ball was her sole focus.  She was not stressed at all and I am still amazed to this day.

This was not by accident.  This was the result of the effort I had put into taking her places and doing things with her.  Always making sure she is safe and able to respond to events without fear.  Progressing from places close by and with friends to places farther and farther away and even just the two of us traveling to strange places with strange people.  Traveling initially on short plane rides too.  Having success and creating confidence at each new place, no matter what time of day, no matter what the weather.  She has performed dog agility next to train tracks with trains passing by and rivers, which she loves to swim in.  In hail storms and thunders storms. I have no doubt I could fly her anywhere now and compete the next day if we wanted.

After Purolator put the sperm I was intending to use to breed her on a truck instead of in the air in May of 2009, I did not hesitate to change my plans and we immediately jumped on a plane together (sort of) to Ottawa to breed her directly there.  The sperm on the truck would die and she would be finished before it got here, so it was my only chance and I wanted more of such a perfect dog.  I was completely confident she would not be stressed and could be bred without excess stress.  This is important, as  I preferred fertilization to occur without the negative chemical influence of stress. Once again she was amazing.  We had fun in Ottawa (other than the fact we were criminals in hiding due to BSL, my “perfect” to me dog), she “tied” in Ottawa and gave me Joey and Jimmi later that summer.  Her ability to deal with life and not be stressed and to respond with control is something I seek in all my dogs.  Becoming a Mom at 5 years of age was more stress than some dogs can handle, but as always, she was great at it and still is to this day.

The process of desensitizing dogs to stimuli in the environment begins right away.  With Jimmi and Joey, who I have had since they dropped into my hands, they have benefited from this from the very beginning.  Controlling the level of stimulus and slowly increasing the intensity along with something they truly enjoy and is overwhelming in some way.  The greater the pleasure they take in what you  are doing, the easier it is to introduce a negative, or stressful stimulus.  The rate of change, how fast they get closer to their fear, or whatever you are shaping increases dramatically with greater pleasure in the task they are to focus on (not the stressful stimulus).  As well, the more a dog becomes accustomed to this as a way of life, the more they have a good and/or controlled response to new stimuli and thus the world no longer provokes fear and distress.

Circumstances in the  last year have made it difficult to stick to a plan, but that is the beauty of dogs.  If you have not yet broken it, then it is  just a matter of training and the right experience.  Jimmi and Joey have had experience and been to many places, but not like Stevie Ray, who was the traveler.  This does not matter though; all that matters is that we continue to experience new things in a positive way.  What has been done from the beginning is presenting new sounds, new sights and new things into their world on a regular basis for them to learn that it is okay, that they do have control and that there is no need to be afraid.  There are certainly critical times early on and throughout early development where desensitization to their environment matters more.  And there will be unexpected circumstances that will have to be handled.  Prtecting them from serious fear stimulating situations in any of there early experiences is certainly desired, but not completely preventable.  The more well rounded they are at the time, the easier it will be on hem and you in the long run.

Jimmi, once so afraid of the garbage trucks that come down the back alley by our house, now runs to them to look underneath and see the people that might be there.  Even with the big bins lifting up right next to her and dropping suddenly beside her, and then the sound of the diesel engine roaring as they jump to my neighbor’s house no longer bothers her.  Joey has never been bothered.  He is always more focused on enjoying his primary task, running for his ball.  But this is also how I got Jimmi so close to the garbage trucks and to anything else for that matter.  She is now the investigator and is always investigating new things.  Again, the transition from being fearful to the confident investigator is a remarkable thing to see.  She still can be stimulated into fear, but it is much harder and she deals with it much better too.

I perform desensitization either with food and doing things I ask such as sits, downs, or tricks I have worked on without stress, or some form of play in most cases to generate excitement (Jimmi and Joey get so excited just to train anything) so we can use that happiness and excitement in the presence of a new stimulus to desensitize any potential fear. The games we play have to be fun and exciting.  I use a reward they are really driven for, which may be easy, or hard to find, but the more drive they have for he reward and the games we play to get it, the easier it is and the better the result.  This may be a particular food, or toy, or praise of some sort.  I have a great relationship with my dogs and praise has real meaning and they seek it often. This is not always the case, or may take longer to create in a dog that has had to be rescued, or re-homed.

Stronger is a toy, or food so I start with them and then fade to praise, which I am always capable of giving no matter where we are.  Some dogs don’t get very excited, but it is my view that if a dog can get excited for stress there is something they like that can excite them as well.  I have heard many times that dogs don’t play or like food and yes some are tough, but if they get excited for stress they can get excited for something they like.  The trick is to look, be creative and find whatever it is.  In some cases it takes effort and others it is easy.  All my dogs eat healthy and are not overfed, so finding food they like is really easy.  A little hunger is a pretty motivating tool.  They also love to play with me in particular, which is also something I work on early with dogs, but this may not work as well for older dogs or rescued and re-homed dogs.  Most dogs in my experience like play, although they may not have any experience with it, or be afraid from previous experience.  Usually it is people who don’t play.

Allowing and excited Jimmi to be rewarded for good feelings associated with whatever game we are playing and not to have the stressful stimulus (eg. sound of the trucks) cause fear in the presence of the reward is my goal.  Slowly we can get closer to the source of concern, taking each step slowly to make sure she is aware of the stimuli, but not fearful of it. Fear is easy to see in a dog, fight or flight are easy to spot, as they back away and crouch, or hide behind you, maybe curl their tail to start progressing to much more obvious signs.  Or maybe they attack in order to scare a person or a dog they fear, bar their teeth and growl and even lunge and pretend to bite.  Some will eventually bite in fear, but usually there are plenty of sins leading up to this.  Many behaviors indicate fear from moving away and barking, to aggressively lunging in attempts to scare away what makes them afraid. I saw all of these and more in Dylan.

You don’t even really have to know how exactly your dog responds with fear.  You can learn it easily and in circumstances that are only mildly fearful.  Intense fear is very obvious, but it is the initial goal to be able to work with small increments in stress and fear.  A little stress creates a situation that can be handled and overcome.  Extreme stress cannot be controlled and overcome at the outset, learning how to cope with fear is required first.  Once you recognize a response has occurred, it can be really easy to tell fear from happiness and excitement, the trick is to be looking for it.  When the fear they respond with is heightened and amplified in the response, new behaviors begin to be added to their repertoire in an attempt to get rid of the stress.  Fight or flight becomes more urgent as the stress increases and the fear becomes more intense.

Seeing the fear behavior occur allows you to watch for that response to start again.  If you can, you simply watch for the earliest signs of the series of events that occur in your dog and catch the earliest one you recognize.  The pattern repeats itself so you can look earlier into their responses as more occur.  By learning their behavior in such a way, I can always see things occur before they become a problem.  I specifically work my young male Joey with his hackles down when he deals with the world.  He does not get treated when they are up for any reason.  This does not mean he is afraid either, but it is more than I want to see in him.  His hackles come up just a bit before his posture changes, so I am certain I want t ob be rewarding him before tI see his hackles.  If I can do that consistently, he will increase the frequency of the behavior I am looking for and not his default response.  Each dog may exhibit slightly different signs. so it is important to learn your dog, or the dog you are working with.

My youngest both had the advantage of desensitization from birth, but the critical phases were later, as with the others.  If you raise young dogs you will know they go through phases of confidence and fear with the odd bit of overconfidence thrown in.  Having desensitized them early with sounds in my kitchen and things in my house before getting into the yard and with little things in the yard prior to seeing the garbage trucks allowed Stevie Ray and her pups to develop the feelings they needed to be confident could use to overcome whatever anxiety they might feel.  Jimmi especially is so durable and is no longer the fearful puppy, much like her Mom.  She might show momentary concern, but all of a sudden she will be off investigating new things carefully and confidently.  But it is a constant process that is never really complete.  Unless of course they live a very simple life style, in which case the world is a much smaller place which they become very accustomed to.  This is a desired situation for many rescues, although not always easy to find.

Even dogs that appear confident can benefit from this early training. Although a dog may appear confident, it may just be they have not faced their fears until the stimulus reaches a certain threshold of excitement. In this case they will respond with fear instead of being calm and controlled and it will appear to be a surprise, when it is simply the lack of well rounded experience and desensitization.  If you have taken the time to shape their responses to new stimuli early on they will respond  to all new stimuli with alertness, but not fight or flight. This is my goal with all my dogs.  A well rounded dog can deal with new things in their world.

With owners of bully breeds, this training and process is most important. It leads to confidence in both the dog and the owner.  But all dogs should be trained for stress responses and they should learn early the best way to deal with stress is calmly. They have found this true of people too, dealing with stress is learned in the first two years of age.  Little dogs are most often the most fearful because they are always protected rather than trained. Hiding and protecting them does not help them.  I have seen this done with many dogs of many breeds and is always the wrong thing to do.  Hiding them rather than teaching them.  It is just easier for you. Your dog will always suffer the detrimental consequences of stress and that will impact their health, both physical and mental. Your dog deserves more. Your dog can be less fearful and calm.

Stress, especially constant and repeated stress, has serious detrimental effects on health.  It impacts all physiological and biochemical systems in the body.  It shaves time off their lives like it does to us.  We owe it to our companions that we care for to provide a stress free life as best we can.

Fearful dogs such as dogs rescued from neglect, or abuse have to go through this process more carefully.  Their fear is more intense.  Lack of experience and lack of skills to deal with it mean your having to start very basic, go very slow,watch very carefully and the better you can be at working a their threshold of fear, before the stress brings on their full response, the more success you will have.  Patience is required as moving too quickly brings on fear, then you either reward fear, or they stop taking rewards for fight or flight instead.  If you see fight or flight, you have  to back off and start again, as it cannot be undone.  They have to calm again and may not depending on the circumstances. This process has to be repeated and circumstances changed slightly and hopefully as you progress, you can increase the rate of introducing change without causing fear.  Again this is unique to every dog so careful observation is absolutely required.  A dog responds however they respond, only you can control the level of stress presented to them.  This is critical for more fearful dogs and quite frankly for success in any dog training.

Fear flooding (the process of immersing them in their fear and allowing the body to reduce the stress response over time while fully in the presence of the fearful stimulus) in no way achieves this.  All you end up with is a subdued dog and potentially split personality.  Always on the edge of fear, unable to be happy. They may appear calm on the outside, but this rarely if ever translates to other new fearful circumstances.  This may work for minor fears, but still just adds more stress when there is no need to.  The quick pill if it works, and a subdued, lost the excitement for life dog can result instead.

I personally prefer a happy dog.  In the case of severe fear issues, I have seen people claim the dogs are recovered after fear flooding, when I can clearly see they are in a daze and exhausted state.  Subdued? Yes!  Afraid? Yes! Over it?  Not at all!  Just exhausted and afraid of even showing fear. Never to try anything, or do anything and enjoy it again.  This is not how I want my dogs to be, even if they are afraid when they come to me.  Dog Dylan is how I want them to be.  Immersed in getting affection and cookies from my friends and strangers.

Desensitization to the stimuli of the world allows your dog to respond appropriately with confidence, reducing stress and increasing health throughout their life.  Most healthy dogs, not initially treated this way, but who begin to be treated this way, will learn to trust and will develop a reduced sensitivity to stress and therefore reduced fear.

Which do you prefer?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *