Stress can best be understood as the physical and psychological wear and tear on an animal as it goes about its business. All animals have evolved to cope with the stress they will encounter during their lives.
Domesticated animals are, however, at our mercy and live artificial lives. They can often find themselves facing stresses they have not evolved to cope with or facing more stress than they can comfortably cope with. In these situations the animal can be described as being in a state of distress. Distress can be mild or severe, physical or emotional.
Physical distress can be caused by extremes of temperature or over exertion. This can be easily remedied by ensuring the animal is neither too hot nor too cold or in the case of over exertion, rest and a reduction of physical activity until fitness increases.
Psychological distress can be harder to spot. Hyperactivity, fidgeting, vocalising, repetitive behaviours and excessive urination are just a few of the classic signs of distress. Repetitive behaviours such as polar bears pacing in a zoo are easier to spot for what they are, but hyperactivity and fidgeting can easily be mistaken for disobedience. Excessive and inappropriate urination is a good sign to look out for as the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) are well documented to cause an increase in urination.
So what can we do to limit our dogs stress? At home and at work we can ensure that they are comfortable and have adequate food and water. Frequently check temperatures to avoid distress caused by our frequently changing climate and find ways such as chews and toys to reduce boredom on rest days.
One of the major stresses in our dogs comes from us. Learning new skills and acceptable behaviour are well within the dogs capabilities but over use of punishment and inconsistent handling can be a major stress factor for dogs. Positive reinforcement training gets the dog to want to perform the task we require of it. It has no negative side effects and is the strongest tool in changing behaviour. Punishment merely stops a behaviour (albeit temporarily) and nobody can learn anything using punishment alone. Because punishment is fear based it has a detrimental affect on the cortisol levels of the dog and too much can have many physical and psychological affects. It is best saved for stopping behaviours in an emergency and not thought of as a training tool.
By reducing punishment and concentrating on positive reinforcement, you can reduce your dogs stress levels and may even see an improvement in many areas. When you do feel the need to punish, use only one verbal command and save that command purely for the act of punishing. Then when you shout at criminals your dog will hopefully back you up instead of cringing in anticipation of being punished. It just might make the difference between getting a prisoner and getting a kicking!!