There is no doubt that the biggest challenge our dogs have to face nowadays is stress and that the most common dog is the stressed dog.
We try to give it other names and we are desperately looking for other reasons, but what really kills our dogs is stress. The companion dog is not accompanied. He spends the vast majority of his time being alone and when we give him a little bit of our time, we are in a hurry. Well, we are stressed as well.
We take them out for a walk around the neighbourhood to pee and leave the heap. When they dare to put their nose to the ground, they smell a lot of things that have passed. 20 dogs, seven cats, three squirrels, a couple of rats and even quite a lot of bugs. The question is that we don’t give them no time to process absolutely anything. It is like taking our kids to the cinema and when we arrive we tell him to go to the toilet and when they come back out we go home. Honestly, it would have been better not going at all.
Furthermore, the vast majority do not have their basic instincts covered, nor do they have a social life in the slightest way fulfilled.
So, what stressors are there and what makes our dog the stressed dog?
There have been different studies made on the importance of the breed in the dog’s ability to manage different stressors. A fairly extensive study conducted in Finland1 on 13,700 domestic dogs, published the 5th of March, 2020, showed (with some reservations) that distinct breeds react in various ways to different stressors.
To give some examples, it was shown that the Spanish Water Dog tends to have difficulties managing strange people and can show aggressive behaviour towards them. On the other hand, one of the breeds that work this out the best is the Staffordshire Bullterrier (A breed that in Spain is considered a Potentially Dangerous Dog. A/N). The Rough Collie does not like slippery surfaces while the Border Collie handles that in an excellent way. In turn, the Border has a hard time standing still when a fly passes by, while the Miniature Schnautzer could not care less.
We know that females suffering a high level of stress during the gestation are known to influence the offspring’s entire life. Early life or prenatal programming of the neuroendocrine systems and behaviour by stress and exogenous or endogenous glucocorticoids appears to have a fundamental effect on common disorders2. Psychological effects can be learning and socialisation problems and elevated levels of anxiety. Physiological effects such as obesity problems due to insulin resistance, a weak immune system and altered pain sensitivity can also occur.
There have not been many studies on dogs publicised on this subject, but Dr. Franklin D. McMillan (Best Friends Animal Society) published one3 in 2017 on puppies sold at pet stores and/or born on puppy farms.
The First Few Weeks
The puppy’s first few weeks is another essential part. The incredible role that the mother plays during this period cannot be exaggerated. For the first six to eight weeks the mother teaches him everything. The puppy is not prepared to be separated from its mother before the seventh week either physically or in terms of social behaviour. Although there are small differences between breeds, we know that, for example, the puppy’s brain is not even fully developed until the fifth week4.
We hear that in order to make a good imprint, the puppy should not be left with its mother for more than 12 weeks. This meaning puppies that are going to be used to make a dog for a specific type of work. Personally I believe that if a puppy bred for company is socialised, adapted and prepared for a life in our society with his mother by his side, we can prolong that time many weeks.
It is during this stage we start with socialising and adapting to different environments and settings. Puppies must be exposed to as many different environmental stimuli as possible, observing at all times their ability to manage and resolve these stimuli. Puppies that grow up with little or no stimulation will have huge difficulties in managing strange situations and environments in their adult life5.
A poor diet can cause stress, either through excess or insufficiency. If it is unbalanced or does not meet nutritional needs. In this tryptophan has an important role. A diet low on tryptophan6 and/or B vitamins directly influence the production of serotonin7. Though there are not yet enough studies to conclude on the importance of this in dogs, we do know that in humans the serotonin level has a direct influence on the capability to manage stress.
However, a study8 published in 2018 confirmed differences in canine behaviour on numerous parameters. It does state though, that more studies should be carried out with higher tryptophan level diets, in order to reach more solid conclusions.
We should also take into account that tyrosine9 competes directly with tryptophan and can cause a disproportion in stressed dogs. If a dog is anxious, excited, or in general difficult to control, we may have to check the cereal content in the dog’s food.
We should not ignore our importance on the dog’s stress level. Last year there was a study10 showing that long-term stress hormone levels were synchronised between dogs and humans. Two different species sharing a daily life. Furthermore, since the owners’ personality was significantly related to the dogs HHC (Hair Cortisol11 Concentration) level, it concludes that it is the dogs are reflecting their owners stress level and not the other way around.
The dog has a past of physical and mental activity for survival and is also a social animal that coordinates its behaviour through its social environment.
We are active while we are away from home and when we get back home, we rest. For the dog it is the other way around. They rest, or at least it is what we want them to do, while we are away and are activated when we get back. Well, it simply does not add up and the dog does not receive the stimuli it needs and gets bored.
Boredom is often associated with cortisol that creates stress. Even a seemingly relaxed sleeping dog can actually be a volcano about to erupt.
We are living in a society where doing nothing is frowned upon and it is said that a tired dog is a happy dog. These two things lead us to overstimulate our dog with unsuitable games.
The most typical game in this case is undoubtedly ball chasing. Games of this type give the dog a shot of endorphins and adrenaline that can, if prolonged, become addictive. If it is repeated chronically (daily or several times a week for a long time), testosterone and cortisol levels will generally increase, rising the reactivity, irritability and nervousness in your dog.
It can also cause obsessive compulsive disorders similar to those of humans. The equivalent of having to close the door three times in a row behind you would be chasing a ball and returning it for hours on without rest. And we are not getting into the physical problems that this type of game could cause12.
The Day to Day
Our environment is surrounded by unnatural things for a dog. We have to take into account that the dog does not perceive the environment the same way we do.
A dog can perceive smells that we do not even notice as something tremendously stressful. Noise is also something that we perceive differently. Sounds we don’t even notice. One example is a metal identification we put on the dog’s collar. At a distance of ten centimetres, it transmits a sound that can reach a level of 84.5 decibels. There are dogs that live with that 24/7 their whole life. Karen Webb from Let Your Animal Lead13 talks about this on a really interesting podcast14.
The only way to handle this is to observe our dog and when we notice that he is stressed we have to look for the stressor’s origin.
What Can We Do?
For us, the stress in our dog shows up as a behaviour problem and most often we try to fix it with patches. We teach him to sit and lie down. He does a perfect heel and he has a fantastic impulse control. He can walk beside me on a short leash, head high, and at a fast pace. No problem.
What we probably have done though, is we have added even more stress and taken away any form of self-control and management on part of our dog. This taken to an extreme can lead to learned helplessness or a passive resignation which in the end could reach a deep depression.
My view is that we should, first of all, get to know our dog and cut away as many stressors as much as possible in the dog’s life. Then give him more freedom to choose and make decisions for himself. The dog, like us, needs to have a feeling of control over the situation he finds himself in. It is important to give the dog time to process new situations and environments.
The more you frustrate, dominate and control a dog, the more passive and submissive it becomes. Constraints like constant “no,” “go,” and “lie down” just tells him nothing is allowed.
As I see it, it is better to have a confident and active dog than a too obedient and passive one. Dogs that live in a generous environment that allows them to do things take more initiatives. They communicate better and are more sociable.
Exercise is important, but let it be a free and loose exercise. Let the dog decide how much (it is probably less than you think). Keep an eye on him and if he gets tired or tells you he has had enough, stop. In addition, mental exercise is fundamental. Enriched environments and sniffing games increases self-confidence and also makes him able to control his energy. That way he does not overreact to sudden situations that could give him a stress boost.
Finally, the dog must have a sound socialisation with companions of his species.
*Note: When the gender of the dog is unknown it is taken as masculin. I do not like to treat the dog as an “it” and I am just lazy – nothing else.