I would normally have a Fit Dog Friday post for everyone today, telling you about some sort of fun adventure and exercise we've had during the week. Unfortunately, this was the 4th of July week and we've had a rough week with two very stressed out dogs and we didn't do much. We didn't go on any adventures. We stayed at home, only taking short leash walks around our complex. That way if we heard any bangs we could hussle home where the dogs feel safe. I wanted to make sure the dogs were feeling better after being traumatized for several days in a row by explosions of fireworks in the neighborhood before taking them anywhere. We finally managed a short walk at the big park last night after the girls seemed to be more calm.
It can take several days for the stress hormone "cortisol" to work it's way out of a dog's system and I know from experience that when Phoenix has been stressed out she will make poor decisions. Zoe will tend to be hyper vigilant when she's been stressed and she has a hard time following my cues. When dogs are really scared they are unable to learn so it's better to let them calm down before attempting any training. I would prefer them to both be feeling better and back to normal before we do any off leash stuff. Both dogs were completely worn out anyways from being so stressed out and on edge that they spent most of the past few days sleeping.
So let's talk about stress.
|Screen Shot take from one of the presentations at the SPARCS event|
Good Stress VS. Bad Stress
Certain levels of stress are normal and even necessary for survival. Called eustress this stress allows a dog to use energy in a positive manner and assists in the development of new skills. This kind of stress is important for normal growth.
When stress is negative or excessive, it's called distress. This kind of stress can damage a dog causing them to get sick or have behavioral problems such as anxiety and aggression. This can become a vicious cycle, with stress contributing to even more stress until a dog collapses in exhaustion or self-destructs.
Have you ever had an anxiety or panic attack before? Or maybe you were really stressed out and your stomach started to hurt? Dogs have the same sort of feelings and they can get sick from it just like we can. In this post we are going to talk about distress but it's important to note that both good stress and bad stress can look very similar.
How can we tell if our dogs are stressed?
|Ears pinned back, eyes dilated, skin around her face is tight and refusal to eat.|
Eyes Ears and Mouth:
The eyes will generally be dilated and/or you will see what's known as whale eye (or the white part of the eye showing). They will yawn, lick their lips, pant, drool in excess (sometimes you will see dogs foaming at the mouth or strings of drool hanging from the mouth at the dog park, these dogs are stressed out), dogs will sometimes chatter their teeth, puff their cheeks out and if it's really bad they might even crinkle their lips and bare their teeth. The ears will be either pinned back or fully upright and alert.
Their bodies will be tense all over, they might freeze and refuse to move, a lot of times you will see shaking or trembling. They might check their genitals (I have a friend who's dog does this when he gets nervous). Their body posture could be low with their weight being shifted back. Sometimes they will start shedding excessively (my family dog would drop tons of hair anytime he went to the vet. They always tried to sell us skin supplements but that was the only time he'd shed like crazy. Zoe also exhibited excess shedding during the fireworks and for a few days after), their paws also tend to sweat. You will also notice them shaking off, even though they are not wet.
Some dogs will vocalize when they are stressed out. Barking is a big one and it can vary. A low pitch can mean they are threatening and a high pitch usually means fear and stress. Whining, howling and growling are also signs of stress. Most of the time mine don't vocalize but occasionally Zoe will and she usually whines.
Behavior to look for:
Restlessness is a huge one. When Zoe is scared she will not settle down and she will pace the house while also trembling. Poor sleeping habits, most dogs need around 17 hours of sleep per day. Some dogs will not be able to sleep while they are stressed. Sleeping too much can also be a sign of stress. Mine have been sleeping a ton since the 4th of July. Some dogs will be jumpy or hyper-vigilant (Zoe often displays this). Dogs can be irritable when they are stressed so keep an eye out for that. They can also be destructive. Chewing can be a way to self soothe so some dogs will start destroying things when they are stressed out. Some dogs will excessively groom themselves, lick granulomas can be caused by this. Loss of Appetite is a huge one, too. Zoe did not want to eat for a few days after the fireworks so I added some extra stuff to her bowl to entice her to eat. You can also gauge how stressed a dog is by if they will take food or not. Especially if you have a chow hound, if they won't eat you know you have a problem. Inability to focus is another huge one. I can't do any training when my dogs are stressed out. They are unable to focus. Sometimes you will see hyperactivity and some other OCD behaviors like shadow chasing. Increased urination and defecation can also happen when a dog is very stressed and also vomiting and diarrhea.
(Zoe & Phoenix make a cameo in this at the end)
Another thing to consider is that after a very stressful situation has happened, the dog will be sensitized for a while after the event. Little things that did not bother the dog before could bother the dog during this time. After a very stressful event it's extremely important to allow the dog time to recover.
Reducing Stress in Dogs
To reduce stress in dogs, we first have to figure out what's causing the stress. For the 4th of July that's pretty easy, loud bangs and the unpredictability of the bangs is what caused the stress. A great way to reduce stress is by either removing the dog from the thing that's stressing them or managing the thing that's stressing them. That's a really hard deal on the 4th of July. There's no way to get away from the noise so next year I will be choosing to manage it by getting drugs from the vet. OTCs were obviously not enough for either of my dogs. Some people have had good success with OTCs, though and you can also try a Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap. I've found that the anxiety shirts do help a little bit.
You could also choose to use counter conditioning to change the dog's emotional response to the thing that's scary and stressful. Some people will choose this and it can be a good option but you have to be able to predict the scary thing and be able to keep them under threshold. With fireworks you can't really predict when it's going to happen. We know that around the 4th of July there will be loud bangs but if you can't time it perfectly with your food reward before the dog is upset it's not going to work. With my dog's noise phobia, there's no way for me to work on this with her being under threshold. We've tried the fireworks cds with the classical music (she's afraid of bangs with bass to them) and I haven't really found a way to duplicate the noise and do CC while keeping her from getting upset. The instant she hears any sort of noise that sounds like a firework (noise with bass) she will freak out.
Emily Larlham using Counter Conditioning to help her dog overcome her fears.
Another way to reduce stress in dogs is by making sure that they feel safe and by allowing them to make choices. If they don't feel safe they will not be able to calm down. Zoe tends to feel the safest in the bathroom or our bedroom when she's scared. We don't usually allow the dogs in the bathroom because that's where the main kitty box is. In this case because that's where she wanted to be we decided to make an exception and I made sure to clean the kitty box (it's done daily, anyways). I made Zoe a nice bed next to the tub so she would be comfortable. We also turned on all of our fans and turned the TV way up to help drown out the noise. Phoenix tends to feel safe behind the recliner or glued to my side. Neither of my dogs felt safe going outside so we kept those walks short and I also tried to make them positive by handing out lots of treats while we were out there (hence yesterday's post about being out of cookies) and I chose times to walk them when it was quiet.
It's very important that you never punish a dog who's stressed out or scared. It does not help the situation and can make it worse. You never want the dog to associate you with bad things.
I hope that you've found my post on stress in dogs helpful and if you have any questions please feel free to comment or email me! We'll hopefully be getting back to adventures next week!