I've been thinking lots about stress. I talked a while ago about dog owners being shamed for appearing to be anxious.
There is another thing that causes people – dog trainers and owners alike – to be routinely shamed. Signs of stress in their dogs. I'm really happy that so many people now are aware enough about dog body language to spot stress signs in dogs.
Still, it is not uncommon for me to read through discussions on Facebook where people are being shamed – and sometimes I'm sure made guilty or even frightened – because they put a video up that showed their dog yawning or licking their lips or disengaging and sniffing the ground. The sorts of comments I see tend to be along the lines of.
“Look at this graphic – lip licking is the start of the ladder of aggression.”
“Your dog is stressed, you needed to take them out of that situation.”
“Stress is really unhealthy and your dog looked stressed to me.”
Stress is an interesting thing.
Unavoidable and ongoing stress for sure is bad for all of us. It causes so many physical and mental health problems. That does not mean, however that no stress is optimal. Too little stress in anybody's life isn't good either. To never experience stress means living life in a little bit of a bubble – it also means that that individual is more likely to fall apart under the pressure if they do experience something stressful.
Going to new places, learning new things and having experiences that are out of the norm are all stressful events for people and for dogs. Few of us would think that going through life without ever doing anything new is a good thing for ourselves or our dogs.
I believe that there is a middle ground to find with stress where it is extremely helpful in life. This is something that we can all do with our dogs – and ourselves. Especially now when so much about stress in dogs is understood.
Noticing that something is stressful for a dog is a really good starting point. Repeated, gentle exposure to the stressful thing should reduce the amount of concern the dog has about it. Then, it is possible to increase the intensity of the stressful experience a little bit so that the dog's stress level rises a little again.
Taking time to rest and recover after a stressful event is so important – and allowing our dogs to have that time is important. Activities that are just nice to do helps also. A run in a peaceful forest does loads for the mental wellbeing of my dogs – as well as causing their bodies to produce all of the happy chemicals that go along with physical exercise.
By balancing facing stressful situations with periods of rest and relaxation, it is possible to increase tolerance to stress in both people and dogs. The bubble that they live in can become increased a little over time.
I know that lots of people will disagree – some of you might even stop reading in disgust – with my suggestion of not avoiding stress. There are two reasons that I choose to work at increasing both my own and my dog's tolerance for stress.
The first is that dogs and people who can tolerate some stress tend to have fuller lives. They can go to more places, have more experiences, learn more and have fun doing so.
The second is that going through a stressful experience and getting out the other side without any kind of a disaster is a great feeling. It feels good in the moment and it increases confidence and self belief that other, similar situations can be dealt with.
When I worked as a programmer on a much larger system than that Best Dog Learning and Stuff one, I was one of a small group of people who provided out of hours cover for failures or problems in any of the critical programs that needed to run through the night in order for people to be able to do their jobs the following day.
I hated being on call with a passion but I stayed on the out of hours rota because getting called in the night almost always meant dealing with something new to me. I got to test my ability to quickly figure out a problem and come up with a solution. I enjoyed the challenge of it. At first, I experienced this strongly as a stressful event. If called, I would jolt awake, immediately filled with adrenaline and start anxiously looking at the problem.
Over time I dealt with enough incidents for that effect to wear off. I started having to drink coffee while I looked at the problem to wake me up enough to figure out what to do. I still enjoyed the challenge of it and I still felt good every time we reach a successful resolution but I no longer felt stressed and anxious. My bubble for that kind of stress had expanded.
The benefit doesn't end there. The expansion of my stress bubble carried over into other areas of my life. When I started to create the Best Dog Learning and Stuff website, I decided to write it myself. That's why it looks quite unique – it's home made. I had a great deal of confidence in my ability to learn a couple of completely new programming languages – and in my ability to resolve the issues I would find along the way. In large part, I got that confidence from repeatedly experiencing the stress of trying to figure out problems at work.
I want my dogs to be able to have the same sorts of level of confidence at dealing with stress so that it isn't overwhelming for them. That's why I work to find a middle ground in stress rather than figuring out how to avoid altogether.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.