Good, Tolerable, or Toxic: How Does Stress Affect Dogs?
Stress, it’s something to avoid. Right? It Depends.
As a trainer, I use the phrase “it depends” a lot. Working with humans and other species (dogs, cats, fish, chickens) I have a single goal: well-being for everyone. What works well for me may not work well for my dog (or cat or chicken or fish). Well-being in a multi-species home is a balancing act. To be fair, well-being in a single-species home is a balancing act, too. Individuals, regardless of species, have unique needs in addition to species-specific needs.
Stress is part of life. We can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid it altogether. Recognizing what stress is and how it affects our dogs (and ourselves) helps us achieve well-being.
Stress is the body’s response to change. That’s an extremely simple view of a complicated physiological response. We can see the effect of stress on the body in our dogs – increased respiration (panting/shallow breathing), stiffening of the body (muscle tension), and fidgeting (pacing). This may sound bad, but wait, stress isn’t always bad. A certain kind of stress is necessary. Bruce McEwan, Ph.D. at Rockefeller University, defines stress as good, tolerable, and toxic.
No stress – morning coffee
Right now, I’m enjoying my morning coffee. Usually, I’m reading a book or writing, or catching up on the news. I’m sitting in bed, and Ursa is curled up on my left, touching me. Roadie is curled up on my right, also touching me. Their breathing is slow and steady. Their bodies are soft and relaxed. Occasionally one or the other may nuzzle me, asking for petting. This is zero stress. No one is concerned, on alert, trying to figure anything out – we are just being. We have a similar routine at night. It’s critical for all of our health to have some time during the day when we are experiencing some time as stress-free as possible.
Good stress – the morning walk
Breakfast is over. I’ve dressed for the day. The dogs have secured the perimeter – no squirrels in sight. They’ve napped. At 10 AM, I will be alerted – a nudge, a small huff, if I’m slow about, whining and pacing. It’s time for the first big balancing act of the day - our walk. I experience the walk very differently than my dogs. Walks in the woods are peaceful and relaxing for me. For my dogs, it is a (good) stress event.
Good stress is challenging to either, or both, the mind and body. It’s not overwhelming, but it is demanding. What’s difficult to one dog may be easy (and thus not stressful) to another dog. Finding a good balance is particularly challenging in multi-dog homes. My 3-year-old healthy Great Dane can go for longer, more demanding walks than my almost 13-year-old Bully mix dog, who has arthritis, cataracts, and hearing loss.
We live on a very busy street with few neighbors. Our home sits on a heavily wooded 1-acre lot adjacent to several acres of woods (private property). We walk on dirt paths in and around the woods. During our walk, the dogs learn (good stress) about their world – who’s been in the woods and what path they’ve taken. It’s fun for me when we walk after a snow. Then I can see who’s been there, too.
The dogs also play on the walk (good stress). Some favorite games are “find it” (treat toss), “hide and seek” (find my human), and chase (yes, we do chase each other). Generally, we do some Parkour (over, under, around, in, thru, on, off, stay) and recall. When we have snow on the ground, we practice “slow” – a great skill for impulse control and safety!
Tolerable stress – the vet visit
Most dogs don’t go to the vet often enough to get used to it once they’ve finished with puppy visits. So, once or twice a year, dogs experience the (tolerable) stress associated with the vet office. Tolerable stress is just that – tolerable. It’s short-lived, either in duration or frequency. The outcome is generally positive. In many cases, we can prepare our dogs for tolerable stress events, like a vet or groomer visit or having guests visit.
We can make those short-lived stress events more tolerable for our dogs. First, be engaged with our dog when possible. For vet visits, whether annual well-check or a surprise health concern, I take the dog’s mat and treats with us. We play games (“find it), settle on a mat, hand target, and do puppy push-ups while waiting. Those are skills we’ve practiced enough to become a habit. It gives the dogs (and me) something to do while waiting. When the vet comes in, the dogs are a little more relaxed, which makes it easier for the vet to do the exam. The vet visit is stressful but manageable. Then we go home, and the dogs rest for the day. On any day when I know they will have a stressful event, I make sure to give them time to recover.
Toxic stress – noisy neighborhoods
Toxic stress comes in different forms. It can be a one-time traumatic event, like being attacked by another dog (or human). It can be a longer-lasting event, like being placed on a transport vehicle and moving from place to place over several days or weeks. It can be the result of living with ongoing daily stressors like noise. One commonality in these examples is a lack of choice or an inability to change the circumstance. Choice is a critical component for managing stress.
Neighborhood living can be a source of toxic stress for dogs. Pet dogs live most of their lives in some form of confinement. Stop and consider this for a moment. Dogs are confined by crates, rooms, houses, garages, fenced yards, leashes, and cars all of their life. This is neither good nor bad, it is a necessary part of modern life for companion pets. But it has consequences. Confinement limits choices and possibly the ability to perform species-specific behavior, like getting to safety. Keep in mind that safety is defined by the individual. What seems safe to me may not seem safe to my dog.
Here’s an extreme but real example of neighborhood life being a toxic form of stress for an adolescent dog. (WARNING: instances of animal neglect and abuse are described below)
Odin is an adolescent dog (11 mos. old). He lives in a densely populated urban neighborhood. At one house next door to Odin, the residents scream at the dogs and the kids. Domestic violence is suspected in the home. The three dogs living in that house frequently fight with each other. The neighbor’s dogs bark at Odin when he’s in the backyard. Once, Odin was near the fence, and one of the neighbor dogs managed to stick her head through part of the fence and rip his collar off!
The neighbor on the other side of Odin’s house has a lot of animals in the backyard – 9 large dogs, a pig, and 2 cages with foxes living in them. That neighbor wanders outside, yelling at the animals. The typical lot size in this neighborhood is 6,000 square feet. A quarter-acre lot has just under 11,000 square feet.
Even though Odin’s family uses positive reinforcement for training, provides enrichment, fun field trips to parks, and the basics, like medical care, nutritious food, shelter, and water, Odin is seriously stressed by his environment. Neither he nor his family can control the neighbors.
On top of this, the neighborhood is densely populated. Traffic is steady -school buses, trash trucks, and family cars create a steady stream of noise and visual stimulation throughout the day.
Why do we suspect the level of stress Odin is experiencing is toxic? Observable behavior.
One of the characteristics of adolescent dogs is energy. They are a busy bunch! Adolescents play hard and rest hard. Odin is unable to rest enough. Inadequate rest is a contributing factor to stress. The sounds of the neighborhood keep him on high alert. Rather than settling into a long, lazy afternoon nap, Odin jumps up frequently in response to noises he hears. He’s unable to settle; there’s too much activity outside. That prevents him from feeling safe enough to settle. Dogs are only able to settle/relax when they feel secure in their environment. This prevents him from having quality sleep/rest cycles.
Adolescent dogs who are active eat more than sedentary dogs. That makes sense. Odin’s activity level is high enough that he is unable to consume enough calories in a day. He’s underweight (defined by his vet). This isn’t from lack of available quality food, it’s from being on constant alert. He doesn’t slow down long enough to eat an entire meal. Odin typically paces from the front to the back of the house for a significant amount of the day. The almost constant movement means Odin needs a significant number of calories to meet his nutritional needs (he’s still growing) and the energy he uses pacing.
Another behavior that suggests high stress and anxiety is Odin’s toilet habits. When a dog eliminates, he is vulnerable. If a dog thinks the environment is not safe, he may not toilet outside. When Odin goes into the backyard, he may witness a dog fight, a neighbor screaming or hitting a dog, or the sound of wild animals in distress (the caged foxes). He could also hear horns honking and other traffic noises that he cannot see or identify. Odin often eliminates in the house rather than outside. It’s understandable, though undesirable.
As an individual, Odin is a high-energy, curious, ready-for-adventure boy. He is keenly aware of the environment. He’s one of those delightful adolescent dogs that makes you laugh and cringe (usually at the same time). From a breed perspective (Odin is a Doberman pinscher), we expect him to be alert to environmental change and quick to sound the alarm when things are amiss.
In a different environment, Odin displays different behavior. This is normal. When Odin visits my home, he eats his entire meal, plays hard, and rests with the other dogs. He annoys the adult dogs. He alerts appropriately to changes in the environment (deer, turkey, UPS), but settles quickly. He toilets outside only. The environment can significantly affect behavior and stress levels in dogs.
Stress is a normal part of life; think back to that walk in the woods I described. Limiting tolerable and toxic stress is critical for health and well-being. Good stress improves the quality of life. It develops resiliency (the ability to cope with change). It’s necessary for acquiring new skills. Tolerable stress is unavoidable, but it should be short-lived. Dogs should recover quickly and be back to their normal selves. Ongoing stress (toxic) decreases the quality of life, increases the risk of developing behavior and health problems, and shortens life span.
Well, my coffee cup is empty. The dogs are staring at me. We’ve had breakfast. They’ve had a nap. I bet it’s 10 AM. Time for a good stress event!