Stress and Its Importance to Dog Behavior

Do you think your dog is being “stubborn” when they do not respond to a known cue or signal you give them? Are you frustrated when they act like a whirling dervish that is uncontrollable, zooming here and there, jumping on you, and mouthing your arm? Do you wonder why they shut down at times, appearing to try to get as small as possible or panic and try to run away? Learning about stress and how it affects your dog’s behavior leads to a better understanding of these situations and others like them.

Stress is a part of everyday life. It is necessary for an animal’s survival, the ability to adapt to changing situations, and the ability to cope in the moment. Stress affects your dog physically, neurologically, psychologically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Understanding stress and these effects is vital to your dog’s wellbeing, and a happy, healthy life with you.

The three types of stress, which are defined by how your dog perceives the experience:

  1. Eustress or good stress. This is an experience your dog may find challenging but rewarding at the same time, such as an agility trial. At the trial, your dog may initially appear stressed due to the number of dogs present, the sounds of dogs barking, or the sight of a dog running the course, but they end up enjoying the run, finding it exhilarating, and their speed and ability to follow your signals as they run the course improve.
  2. Tolerable stress. Your dog has a negative experience at the time. For example, think of the first day of a basic manners class. Your dog is distressed and initially unable to settle. With time, they are able to handle the situation, maybe even participating with you and beginning to learn a new behavior during the first class. They effectively cope with the stressful situation and their behavior is improved at the second class.
  3. Toxic Stress. Your dog has a negative experience and is unable to cope with the situation. Think of taking your dog to the vet, or a dog park. The presence of other people, dogs, smells at the clinic, intensity of play at the park may all be too much for your dog to handle. Maybe the previous visit to the dog park resulted in several dogs rushing your dog, making them feel threatened and uncomfortable. Unable to cope, they shut down or act in an overly aroused and excited manner, not listening to anything you say to them and not responding to any known behavior signals. Subsequent vet visits or trips to the dog park do not show any improvement in their behavior.

Stress effects on the body:

  1. Immediate effects include increased heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure preparing the body for fight or flight. Certain types of memories are enhanced, particularly those that are associated with negative experiences. The perception of pain is decreased.
  2. Signs of stress in your dog can be any of or a combination of the following:
    • Increased arousal, zoomies, jumpy/mouthy behavior.
    • Withdrawal, avoidance or shut down behavior.
    • Inability to focus.
    • Inability to control their impulses.
    • Disruption in their ability to effectively learn.
  3. Chronic stress, which occurs over a period of time, is detrimental to the wellbeing of your dog and is physically pervasive. A few examples of the negative impacts of chronic stress seen in dogs are:
    • Gastrointestinal problems.
    • Decreased behavioral health.
    • Skin issues.
    • Early death.

Stress has a stronger impact during puppy and adolescent development.

  1. Effects can be seen throughout the remainder of the dog’s life.
  2. Stress that occurred during puppy development becomes evident during adolescence and is seen in the dog’s behavior.
  3. Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable age. The brain continues developing during this period, possibly at a more rapid rate, increasing its susceptibility to the effects of stress, including:
    • Changing the brain itself.
    • Impairing the function of areas of the brain that affect the body’s reaction to stress leading to either increased or decreased reactivity. Your dog may become more aroused and overly excited, or they may shut down.
    • Increasing the strength of memories associated with fear. Your dog may generalize a fearful event to other contexts more easily.
  4. In adolescence, repeated exposure to a stressful event is more likely to lead to a stronger reaction to the event. Your dog’s reaction escalates rather than decreases with repeated exposure to the stressful event.

Why is this important?

Understanding the impacts and effects of stress on your dog’s behavior helps prevent you from jumping to a wrong conclusion when your dog behaves in a way you view as undesirable or inappropriate. When they do not respond to your signals, they may be stressed in the moment, unable to focus on what you are asking of them or learn the behavior you are trying to teach them. Your whirling dervish might be acting that way to avoid a stressful situation, leading to an increase in their arousal and excitement, and they are unable to control their impulsive behavior. When your dog shuts down or tries to run away, look around. Your dog may feel the environment is scary and they do not feel safe.

Knowing that stress affects your dog’s behavior, their ability to learn and adapt to change in their environment, and to cope in the moment, you are better equipped to see that your dog needs help rather than taking a short-sighted view that they are “stubborn” or becoming frustrated with your dog and possibly responding in a way that harms the relationship you have with them.

Your relationship with your dog and your dog’s well-being are made better when you accept what someone wisely said: “Your dog is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time”.