Stress in working dogs

Stress isn’t a state of mind so much as the physiological fallout from a state of mind.

A little bit of stress increases adrenaline amongst other things and helps dogs mobilise their bodies to the task in hand. The body is quite well adapted for dealing with a little stress. The same is true of us. When responsible for training and working dogs it helps to be able to monitor our dogs in case of unhealthy levels of stress.

What constitutes a little and how much is too much? What are the effects of too much stress and are there things we can do to prevent, prepare for, limit or recover from too much stress? What are the signs to look out for when our dog is under too much stress and are some dogs more prone to stress than others.

In this article I will look at some of the more common causes of stress in dogs and some of the effects. Simply looking at the way your dog lives and works, and questioning what affect it may play on the overall levels of your dogs stress may highlight some key areas that can be addressed.

What is stress?
We tend to refer to stress as a negative emotion now, to describe a persons sense of being overwhelmed by the goings on in their life. Hans Selye first coined the expression in 1956 to describe an organisms response to environmental pressures. In that respect stress is a good thing as it mobilises the organism for action and prepares it to deal with environmental factors which could prove harmful to the organism. The release of adrenaline is a classic stress reaction to an incoming threat and prepares the body for flight or fight.

Stress can be caused by physical or psychological factors and both will involve processes within the central nervous system. Physical stress being the rigours and pressures on the biological body of the organism as it goes about its business. Psychological stress can be thought of as the mental processes that occur whilst the organism goes about its business. Many of these processes have physiological effects on the body and indeed physical stresses can have an affect on the psychological state of the organism and so the two, if looked at as separate entities must also be considered to be inextricably linked. One eye should always be kept on the bigger picture of not just how the organism is physically made up, or how it works, but also of the way in which it operates within and upon its environment and vice versa. After all, no organism stands alone on this earth, we are all part of an Eco system that is affected by everything living in and forming part of that system.

What are the effects of stress?
If you want to know the science behind my statements then you can click on the links, however my aim is to point out the effects in order that you can recognize them and start to see how they are constantly present. Under most circumstances stress poses no real problem. It is only when the stress becomes overwhelmingly high or the ability to recuperate is compromised that problems arise. 
Physical stress
Gravity itself is placing a stress on the body of a dog. The act of standing requires tension in muscles which places a stress on the fibres that make them and those muscles require energy to power them. The process of assimilating and utilising that power places stresses on the internal systems of the body but perhaps not as much stress as the act of catching that energy which for the dogs ancestor the wolf is contained within the body of of an elk or a buffalo. These creatures will not willingly give up their bodies to the wolfs cause and so the stress levels upon the wolf in order to get that energy have just become enormous. The searching and tracking phase may take hours or days of roaming through the wilderness. The eventual stalk and chase requires massive amount of energy and the tension within the muscles to produce such speed places enormous strain on bones, tendons and the heart. The risk of trips and falls not to mention kicks or crushing injuries are high and being exposed to such a real threat of danger may well place stresses on the mental functioning as adrenaline and other chemicals are released and in turn have to be dealt with by the body.

Ultimately though, that is what thousands of years of evolution has prepared the wolf to do. A wild wolf is at the top of his evolutionary game. They are better now than they have ever been because nature is the harshest advocate of natural selection. Weakness is penalised with death.

Domestic dogs however are far from being at the top of their evolutionary game. Humans have been interfering and breeding for reasons other than health and effectiveness for far too long. Many dogs suffer hereditary diseases that affect everything from their hearts to the very blood that circulates within them. Some have bodies so crippled that they can barely walk or breath let alone bring down an elk.

Choosing a good working dog is not as easy as it may seem. Choosing a breed that fulfils your role profile, but that doesn’t have too many inherent problems is only half the battle. Then trying to find an individual dog within that breed that isn’t suffering or likely to develop a hereditary disease and has the right temperament and drives only serves to add to the difficulty of the task.

Dogs with physical problems are going to suffer the effects of working with their inadequate bodies and may well be more susceptible to physical injury or illness which clearly is not advantageous. Careful breeding and selection of dogs is clearly important but for many of us that is out of our control. For us it is about making the best of what we’ve got.

Avoiding injuries or dealing appropriately with injuries your dog gets may sound obvious but there are things that can be done to help prevent injuries. Keeping your dog at a good weight and physically fit is an obvious but often overlooked way to prevent injury. A dog with well conditioned muscles that are warmed up sufficiently prior to vigorous exercise is far less likely to strain, pull or tear muscles or tendons. A fit dog is less susceptible to over exertion and the knock on effects of that, and can utilise his prey drive to the max whereas an overweight, unfit dog is limited by his physical ability and will clearly take longer to recover. Over exertion is far more likely in an unfit dog that will take longer to recover and is more susceptible to long term health problems through a lowered immune system.

Over heating may be less of a problem in the Uk than in other countries but with the climate changing and becoming less predictable, care should be taken to ensure that hyperthermia does not pose a risk. The use of body armour for dogs is an obvious risk factor but the popularity of very high prey driven European dogs presents a less obvious risk. These dogs can become almost obsessive about their work and the desire to hunt and chase seems to override all other mechanisms that in other dogs would perhaps see them start to slow up or show signs of distress. These dogs are so easily stimulated that heat stroke or even heart attack become real possibilities if care is not taken with them. Because they are so quick, lactic acid build up in their muscles can easily present the body with an oxygen debt that, combined with the heat of exertion and ambient temperature can see a failure in the dogs ability to cool its self resulting in heat stroke or collapse.

On the flip side, extreme cold can also present the dog with problems. Whilst out working the body is generating heat but once locked in a kennel this is not an option for a dog. Being overly cold when the dog should be relaxing can see the dog using excessive energy by shivering, pacing and by the body trying to generate heat that sufficient rest from the rigours of work are denied to the dog. This again leaves the dog in a position of long term over exertion and susceptible to disease by lowered immunity.

Physical stress is often obvious by the sight of an open wound, the limp as the animal tries to limit further damage, or by excessive panting, lying down etc in the case of over exertion. Medical treatment, rest, massage and water and the chance to cool down are often all that is required for the animal to make a full recovery but as already stated, a lack of rest between bouts of stressful activity may lead to an insidious, cumulative affect on the dogs health and behavioural changes may provide a clue if this is the case.

Psychological stress
The workings of a dogs mind will never be known for sure but it is safe to assume that they are conscious beings, aware of themselves and the world around them. They have enough senses and the ability to interpret those senses to know when things are right (in a physical and emotional sense not a moral one) and when things are not. Being cold is what motivates them to seek shelter and experiencing fear is what motivates them to respond to the threat with aggression or retreat (or displacement behaviour).

In terms of the dog as an organism responding to its environment, many of these responses will be as a result of percieved stimulus from the environment as well as just physical responses. For example, responding to things it can hear or see. These perceptions are interpreted, and their respective responses controlled by the brain. The expression “its all in the mind” is misleading because even emotions and feelings which are interpretations by the brain can lead to physiological responses that aim to enable the physical body to respond to the emotional stimulus.

Such is the case with stress. Having interpreted a sound or a particular sight as being a potential threat it would be pointless then for the body not to prepare to deal with that threat. What use is an acute sense of hearing that can warn of danger if that warning is to be ignored?

The bodies physiological responses to threats and other external stimuli are many and very complicated. One of these responses is the release of a hormone called adrenaline. This is what prepares the body to deal with an incoming threat by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, driving the blood to the muscles ready for action. The animal reaches a heightened state of alertness and the supression of unneccessary bodily functions. Having fought off the threat or fled, adrenaline production will cease and the body will return to normal functioning. Being in this state of preparedness for any period of time though can deplete an animal of energy. If you have ever been nervous before a sporting event or important interview you will know the efffects I am talking about.

Cortisol is another hormone affected by the cerebral cortex of the brain and is often even referred to as the stress hormone. Like adrenaline it serves to help raise the blood pressure amongst other things and a side affect is urination. It is thought that territory marking, rather than being a learned or fixed pattern action is a stress reaction to being at the periphery of the territory where the risks are greatest. Two adjoining pack territories will be heavily marked as the scent of the other animal serves to raise stress levels even higher, thereby increasing the rate of urination. The act of urinating is thought to bring stress relief by the excretion of cortisol. It is common to see working dogs urinating immediately after being released to search and this may serve as a sign that the dog is feeling a degree of stress. Picture a submissive dog on his back with the dominant dog snarling as he stands over him. Urination in response to such immediate and overwhelming stress is not uncommon. [submission/social fear being a response to dominance/social aggression and fear being a response to a threat which is clearly a stress. A dog who could be described as being submissive in character is often in a state of social fear and therefore stress.]

Being subjected to stress and the physiological effects of it for an extended period of time will eventually take its toll on the dogs ability to function correctly. The dog will go into a state known as decompensation and a lowered immunity will leave it vulnerable to illness and disease. An unhealthy dog will clearly not work as well as a healthy dog and work will take more of a toll on the dogs body and affect recovery times, as well as performance.

Signs of stress are varied but may include excessive urination, dry mouth, panting, raised heart rate and blood pressure, stomach upset, loss of appetite and tight muscles. Behaviours may include whining, pacing, excessive licking or self harming, trembling, spinning or other stereotypic behaviours. Over exuberant, puppy like behaviour or even avoidance behaviours are not uncommon. Any behaviour outside the dogs normal behaviour may indicate a problem.

Often, removal from a situation is enough for the stress to subside but continual signs of stress in a given circumstance should be taken as a sign that too much is being asked of the dog. Mild stress followed by recovery is the way to becoming stronger and more resilliant such as in physical exursion. Mild stress causes the breakdown of muscle fibres which are then rebuilt to cope with the stronger level of stress. Progressive resistance training would be a better way to describe weight training at the gym. Equally, resistance to mental stimuli can be increased by the same mild stress and recovery approach. This is the essence of learning and adapting through training.

No amount of rest and recovery will spare a dog from stress if your very interactions with it are based on punitive methods of training and handling. Your very presence will be a stressor even if the dog is pleased to see you or looks to be happy and playful. Because punishment is such an ineffective tool for training it often leaves the subject confused. Confusion in itself is stressful, as is being subjected to painful or fearful events. If you are the creator of such events then it stands to reason that you yourself will be viewed with a degree of fear and confusion by the dog. The best way to reduce your dogs stress is to adopt a training and handling approach based on positive reinforcement. Your relationship with your dog is perhaps the single most important factor in how content your dog is and how well he can learn and work.

There has been a move of late to source high prey drive dogs for police work. These dogs are great and respond well to positive reinforcement training and gentle, consistent handling. They suffer badly with stress and cope very badly with harsh, punitive methods. High prey drive is effectively a low stimulation threshold meaning these dogs are very responsive and reactive to the slightest stimuli. Just like highly sensitive people identified by Carl Jung, these dogs are therefore more susceptible to over stimulation or distress. Maintaining suitably low stress levels for these dogs is essential if they are to function correctly within their role.

A little stress is normal and indeed healthy. It helps our dogs cope with the trials of life and as long as we are not asking them to perform tasks beyond the scope of their training, or pushing them too far, then we should not experience any problems should our dogs encounter a little stress.

Too much stress or prolonged exposure to stress however, whether it be physical or psychological can be harmful. The dog will then find its self in a state of distress. Too much stress on a muscle will result in a tear, too much stress on a mind will result in displacement activity. Mental distress is easy to recognise in extreme cases. Think of polar bears pacing in a zoo or the parrot that plucks out all his feathers. Apart from stereotypic behaviours, the distressed animal will have many physiological effects connected with his stress, some of which may cause harmful and long term effects.

Less extreme cases of prolonged stress and distress may result in other behaviours which can easily be misinterpreted as defiance, lack of concentration, lack of motivation or over exuberance to mention just a few.

With dogs being highly social animals and being highly atuned to our mood and behaviour, the effects of a punitive approach to training and handling cannot be over emphasised. Punishment is a cause of stress and often distress in itself but add to that the bad timing of its use and the ineffectiveness and ultimately innapropriateness of it, combined with the long time period over which it is used, and its easy to see that punishment is a major cause of stress in a working dog trained using punitive methods. By adopting a positive reinforcement approach to training which aims to strip out all innapropriate use of punishment and negative reinforcement you can be sure that any stress in your dogs life is due to something other than your training. By ensuring that you train the dog to have the tools to do the job he is required to do and not just expect him to do it, you will also lower the stress burden. If you are sensitive to his physical capabilities and requirements and ensure these are met, you are well on your way to eliminating all the unnecessary stress that is within your control.

Of all the working dogs I see who are encountering problems, the main causes, apart from (and often as well as) bad foundation training, are stress related. So, eliminate stress and get yourself a positive police dog.


3 Responses to “Stress in working dogs”

  1. Lee Fairman Says:

    Finally found your site. Very good young Guy, even if a little taxing for my Bristolian brain !!!

  2. […] will have side effects. Pain, punishment, fear and distress all take an emotional toil on the dog. Stress causes chemical changes in the brain, just one of which is an increase in cortisol. Too much stress […]

  3. This is a very well researched article that as a dog walker I really appreciate. In particular it gives a great perspective on what service dogs go through to earn their keep, and hopefully what police organisations around the world can do to lower stress of all their dogs. thanks

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