This poster from Dr. Sophia Yin illustrates how a dog may use it’s body to signal they are afraid. You can download your own copy of the poster from Dr. Yin’s website at http://info.drsophiayin.com/free-poster-on-body-language-in-dogs
Like us, our dogs can and do experience stress. Just as stress can make us feel afraid or hyper or edgy or irritable, it can do the same to our dogs. It is a well-established fact that the “wrong kind” of stress or chronic stress can have a detrimental effect on our behavior, health, and overall well-being. Whether “good stress” or “bad stress”, physiologically, the manifestation of stress in dogs is similar as to that in humans, with the same negative and positive effects. Stress has the potential to make one ill, suppress the immune system, cause behaviors that damage relationships with others, and increase arousal. This increase in arousal greatly increases the probability of aggressive behavior.
As a pet behavior consultant, I have observed that most behavior problems with pets, especially the more serious such as aggression and separation anxiety, are the result of stress. Therefore, as responsible guardians for our dogs, we have an obligation to understand stress and its impact so we can do what is necessary to minimize stress in the lives of our canine friends.
Definition of Stress
“Stress is the response of an organism to a demand placed upon it to change or adapt.*”
*Canine Neuropsychology, third edition, by James O’Heare, Ph.D., DogPsych, 2005, page 3
“Good” Stress versus “Bad” Stress
Certain levels of stress are normal and even necessary for survival and the increase of gray matter in the brain. Good stress is called eustress. This “positive” stress allows an organism to utilize energy in a positive manner and assists in the development of new capabilities. This type of stress, in appropriate quantities, is essential to normal growth.
When stress is negative or becomes excessive, it is called distress. Stress of this manner can damage an organism, resulting in illness and behavioral problems such as anxiety and aggression. This may become a vicious cycle, with stress contributing to even more stress until an organism collapses in exhaustion or self-destructs.
The susceptibility to distress varies with each individual organism. How an individual responds to distress is often affected by a combination of inherited genes and events within the organism’s environment.
It is important to understand that eustress and distress occur over a continuum. Eustress can range from contentment to extreme excitement and distress can range from worry to extreme fear or minor irritability to severe aggression.
What Does Stress Feel Like?
Stress affects us both physiologically and emotionally, and the two are always interconnected. Whether experiencing eustress or distress, the physiology and the effects on the body are essentially the same. Therefore, the biggest difference between the two types of stress is a matter of our perception of how we feel.
|Good Stress (eustress) Always Acute||Bad Stress (distress) Acute or Chronic|
|Heightened Sense of Awareness||Increased Reactivity/Jumpy|
|Learning a new task (confident)||Inability to learn (doubtful)|
We have all experienced both eustress and distress at some point in our lives, but fortunately not all of us have experienced extreme distress. Some medications can cause the same physiological effect as distress so if you have ever been on prednisone, or known someone who has, you may have a better idea of how severe distress feels.
Prednisone is a man-made corticosteroid that is used to suppress the immune system. It is often used to treat autoimmune disease, asthma, lupus, colitis, Bell’s palsy, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Prednisone mimics cortisol, a major stress hormone, so the side-effects of prednisone can be similar to those of an organism in extreme distress. These side effects include; insomnia, euphoria, depression, mania, mood swings, irritability and even psychotic behavior. (As an asthmatic I have been on prednisone numerous times and know how it makes me feel. While it eventually makes me physically healthier, the side effects are not pleasant for me, or those around me. I have also observed animals on prednisone, and sometimes they can react negatively and experience significant behavioral changes, which do not always resolve long after the drug is no longer being used.)
Physiological Effects of Stress
When something stressful happens; we are frightened or startled or experience physical or emotional pain, our body falls under the control of the Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (SANS). The SANS is part of the body responsible for controlling the flight or fight response. Our body goes on auto-pilot to protect us from the perceived threat.
The SANS is closely associated with the limbic system, which is the section of the brain that deals with the expression and experience of emotions, storage of memories and expression of aggression. It is the most primitive part of the brain and is very involved with instinctual survival mechanisms. It is separate from the cerebral cortex, which is thought to be the “thinking” part of the brain and the site of conscious thought and intelligence. Note that the brain is hard-wired to ALWAYS remember negative emotional responses to help ensure our future safety.
When the limbic system (emotional auto-pilot) is activated, the cerebral cortex is suppressed. This is why one does not typically behave rationally when in a highly charged emotional state. This can also help us to understand why expecting our dogs to respond to a well-trained cue when they are in distress is usually a futile effort. Likewise, the parts of the brain responsible for learning something new are shut-down at this time. Conversely, when the cerebral cortex is highly active, the limbic system is suppressed.
The release of various neurotransmitters and stress hormones triggers a plethora of reactions within our body that shuts down all of our bodily systems not necessary for defense. Levels of adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, become elevated which in turn increase pulse rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and the dilation of bronchial tubes and pupils, preparing the body for the surge of energy necessary for a flight or fight response. Cortisol production increases which turns off the immune system and other non-essential systems. The above is a gross oversimplification. For a more in-depth understanding, please refer to the books listed in the resources section of this article.
After the stressful situation has passed, the body’s stress response is supposed to turn-off and levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones should return to normal levels. However, these changes do not “turn-off” instantly but can, in fact, take 24 to 72 hours to return to their normal (non-stress) levels. As a result, if an organism is exposed to frequent stress events (daily or multiple times per day) those levels may never return to normal, leaving the individual in a constant/chronic state of stress. Think of the dog that aggressively reacts to the mail carrier Monday through Saturday of every week. That dogs stress levels may never get a chance to return to normal. The same can happen with the dog that demands to play fetch each and every day. Sometimes when an individual is subjected to chronic stress, the mechanisms that are supposed to turn off stress no longer work and levels continue to build and can reach four times normal levels. Normal now becomes a much higher level.
Causes of Stress in Dogs
Brambell’s Five Freedoms
A significant cause of stress for an animal occurs when its most basic needs are not being met. One of the first and most comprehensive efforts to define an animal’s most basic welfare needs started in Great Britain in 1965 with the establishment of the Brambell Commission. This commission, created by Parliament, was charged with reviewing the treatment of farm animals and developing a minimum standard for meeting their needs. They created what is known as “The Five Freedoms,” which is an excellent starting point for evaluating the welfare of any animal, including companion dogs. The five freedoms are:
- Ensure your pet is free from hunger, thirst and malnutrition.
This sounds relatively simple — provide your dog with food and water and the need is met. However, I encourage you to give this more thought. Is the food you feed your dog wholesome and a type that would be in their natural diet? Are they allowed to consume this food in a manner that is natural for their species? We also must consider that too much food is equally bad, as evidenced by the significant number of obese dogs we see today.
- Ensure your pet is free from discomfort.
Again this freedom seems relatively straight forward — make sure your pet always has adequate shelter from temperature and weather extremes. However, there is much more to comfort than hot versus cold and dry versus damp.
Your dog also needs a quiet, comfortable resting place where they can be undisturbed and where they will feel safe. You need to make sure that their environment is free from things that may cause them harm.
Your dog’s breed also affects what they need to be comfortable. If they have long hair, they may be unable to properly groom themselves. If that is the case, you must groom them on a regular basis, so that their hair does not become tangled and matted, causing them discomfort.
Obesity puts a strain on the joints and may cause pain and discomfort, so it is important not to allow our dogs to become obese.
Lastly, dogs, like humans, are social animals and may depend on interactions with others, particularly of their own species, to be comfortable. However, if they do not feel safe around another dog, being compelled to live with another dog may cause discomfort. Knowing and responding properly to your dog’s social needs is critical
- Ensure your pet is free from pain, injury and disease.
One of the easiest ways to meet this freedom is to make sure your dog gets an initial series of vaccinations to ensure that they are protected against diseases, followed up by annual and as-needed visits to your veterinarian. At home, a weekly body check can alert you to any changes in your pet’s physical condition.
Being free from pain is very similar to being free from discomfort so the dog’s grooming needs must also be considered. Remember, dogs are designed by nature not to show pain and thus weakness, so often they will attempt to hide their pain. Obesity and matted coats may cause pain.
- Ensure your pet is free to express normal behaviors.
If you are going to allow your pet to express normal behaviors you first need to know and understand what constitutes both “normal” canine behavior and “abnormal” canine behavior. This is not easy because there is so much incorrect information about canine behavior circulating as myth and being perpetuated in out-dated books and inaccurate websites.
What we know about canine behavior today has changed greatly since the 1970’s. Many of the old “truths” are in fact not true. Statements such as; “…you need to be dominant or “alpha” over your dog, dogs are like wolves and should be treated as such, dogs are pack animals, and dogs should be trained with choke collars, shock collars, and alpha-wolf rollovers and other types of intimidation” are NOT true and in fact cause far more problems than they resolve. In fact, all of those methods and techniques are a perfect recipe for causing fear, stress, and aggression. That is one reason the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) specifically recommends that the dominance construct or any tools and methods which cause discomfort, pain or intimidation should NEVER be used.*
*2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines
The freedom to express normal behaviors is the one that is most often overlooked, as many dog guardians are either unaware of the huge repertoire of normal dog behaviors or because they do not approve of some of these normal behaviors such as “butt sniffing.” It is imperative you take the time to learn what constitutes normal behavior. The best way to do this is to enroll you and your dog in a dog training class taught by an individual who has been certified by either the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG) or the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT. They should also comply with the PPG philosophy of training that is Pain Free, Force Free and Fear Free.
Minimally, to express normal behaviors your dog needs adequate space in which to run and an enriched environment to stimulate their minds and bodies. The ability to sniff and explore the world is key to a dog’s life.
Toys enrich your pet’s environment by giving them something to play with; however your dog also needs appropriate interaction with living things as well. That can come from us as well as other dogs.
Playing with your dog is good for establishing and maintaining a lifelong bond. It is also a great outlet for mental and physical activity and can be just plain fun! However, it is essential to understand that play, especially very active play, is stressful in itself and increases your dog’s arousal level. Play should be frequently interrupted and as soon as the dog has calmly settled that behavior can be rewarded with more play. If the dog does not or cannot settle, then play stops. Overly rough play between a person and a dog, especially play where the dog exhibits mouthing and nipping behavior, is inappropriate and for the safety of others, as well as yourself, should ALWAYS be discouraged. The best way to discourage such play is to immediately stop playing when it occurs. You should also learn to recognize the signs that tell you that your dog’s level is arousal is increasing so that you can stop play before the mouthing occurs.
While our dogs hopefully enjoy our companionship most also need adequate opportunities to interrelate with others of their own kind in a positive situation. That does not mean you need to have more than one dog, but it does mean your dog may need to have some suitable doggie friends in the neighborhood or at doggie daycare. However, these friends must be of a similar temperament, age, size and play-style and the interactions must be enjoyable for all. Lastly, not all dogs enjoy the company of other dogs, just as many people do not enjoy others. In this case, it is important to understand that you cannot make a dog like another dog or a person.
- Ensure your pet is free from fear and distress.
I truly believe that no psychologically healthy human would ever intentionally cause their dog fear or distress. However, lack of knowledge, or incorrect perceptions and beliefs about canine behavior, certainly causes a great deal of fear and distress in our canine companions. As a behavior consultant, I see a great number of dogs for “aggression” that is almost always based in stress related fear.
Far too many people are still not aware of how critical a well thought out socialization plan is for a puppy when they are between 8 and 16 weeks of age. During this time, most puppies are very accepting of new environments, people, and situations — as long as they are setup to ensure it is a positive experience. Socialization does not end after the critical socialization period; rather it should continue throughout a pet’s life. A dog can be socialized after 16 weeks of age, but I recommend that you work with a certified dog behavior consultant to help you develop a remedial socialization program that will be beneficial and not cause more harm.
A lack of adequate physical and mental stimulation can also cause a dog to become anxious and fearful. A dog needs a moderate amount of both physical and mental exercise on a daily basis. A pet that does not get adequate exercise may become bored and frustrated, and start exhibiting behaviors that you will find undesirable. On the other hand, too much stimulation and exercise can also be detrimental, causing a state of chronic stress. Daily visits to the dog park or a doggie daycare are often counter-productive and unhealthy. Activities need to be well balanced with ample opportunities for rest. A dog normally sleeps 17 hours per day.
When we add a dog to our family we are bringing them into a very foreign environment and culture with very different rules. On top of that we are expecting them to understand a foreign language while we often make no effort to learn their language. We need to educate our dog to live in our world and educate ourselves about the dog world if we are to keep them free from fear and distress.
We also need to actively protect our dog by avoiding stressful situations until they have had adequate socialization and training. You are their guardian and as such must take responsibility for managing their interactions with the environment and other living things.
What Does An Animal Do When They Are Afraid?
Animals, humans included, have four typical responses when they are afraid; Flee, Fight, Freeze, and Fidget About.
Flee is self-explanatory and is all about the normal fight or flight response. It is important to understand that when a dog is on a leash they know that they cannot run away from what is scaring them. That is one reason a dog may be more reactive when they are on a leash; they are desperately trying to scare what they are afraid of away. This is NOT an excuse to have a reactive dog off-leash; in fact a known reactive dog should ALWAYS be on a regular six-foot leash or inside a secure fenced area when they are outside of your home. It is essential to keep a reactive dog out of situations where they react like this because every time such a reaction it occurs it becomes more likely to occur again.
To Fight or become aggressive is also part of the normal fight or flight response. To allow your dog to react in this manner is a liability risk for you and a safety risk for yourself and others. Dogs can do in an incredible amount of very serious damage in a very short amount of time. As your dog’s guardian, it is your responsibility to prevent this type of behavior. As explained with fleeing, a dog on leash comprehends that the leash will restrain them from fighting effectively. It also can make the situation worse if two dogs are fighting and they are both on leashes that become entangled. Separating dogs in this scenario becomes even more difficult and risky. This is NOT an excuse to have a reactive dog off-leash; in fact a known reactive dog should ALWAYS be on a regular six-foot leash or inside a secure fenced area when they are outside of your home. It is essential to keep an aggressive dog out of situations and environments where they could attack another person or animal because there is ALWAYS a risk of serious injury or death. Every time such a reaction it occurs it becomes more likely to occur again. Dogs that have attacked other dogs should NEVER be taken to a dog park.
To Fidget About is essential the dog exhibiting a normal behavior in an abnormal context. It may be as simple as looking away, sniffing, or playing with a toy. It is the dog’s way of ignoring what they perceive as being threatening with the hope that the threat will ignore them and go away.
Freezing is becoming totally rigid and immobile. It is essentially the absence of any behavior that the dog feels could be provocative. This often occurs when the dog’s emotional state has moved from being afraid to being terrified. Freezing is often misunderstood by dog guardians who because they see that their dog is non-reactive they assume the dog is “fine.” While the dog is not barking, lunging or running away in this situation, it is not doing so because it is terrified. This is a tremendous emotional response that will not be forgotten easily.
The key thing you need to remember with any of the four F’s (Flee, Fight, Fidget About, or Freeze) is that you want to minimize putting your dogs in these situations once you know this behavior is a likely possibility. The brain is designed to remember scary things after the very first event. Subsequent exposures will just make reduce the probability of ever being able to move beyond this fear.
Common Causes of Stress in Dogs
- Any change in environment (schedule, people, animals, increased noise)
- Arguments among family members
- Combination training (rewards and punishment)
- Excessive play that becomes borderline “obsessive/”
- Excessive stimulation (too much play, doggie daycare, dog sports, )
- Grief due to the loss of a companion (human or animal)
- Humans ignorant of needs and ways of communicating
- Inappropriate play partners, human or animal
- Insufficient stimulation
- Not being taught how to be alone
- Punitive training (shock, choke and prong collars)
- Scary events
- Too many dogs per available space
- Unreasonable expectations (expected to like all people and all other animals in all situations, expected to be 100% on all the time)
- Insufficient social time/family time
Identifying Stress in Canines
Dogs express themselves and communicate with body language, vocalizations, and behavior. By getting familiar with our dogs’ bodies, we can tell when they start to feel stressed. It is imperative to look at the entire body and not just isolated parts to get the best understanding of what your dog is feeling.
Calming signals, as described by Norwegian ethologist and dog behaviorist Turid Rugaas, are very subtle changes in the body of a dog that suggest building stress and are used to diffuse conflict before it happens. A calming signal is a polite request to another dog to change their behavior and, therefore, prevent any dispute from occurring. Dogs use calming signals to communicate with us as well.
Two of the calming signals people see most frequently are “licking of the nose” and “yawning.” The dog in the picture is demonstrating both “averting of the eyes” and a “nose lick,” probably because the camera is staring at her. Other signs that can be calming signals are; turn away, softening of the eyes (squinting), freezing, play bow, sitting down, lying down, sniffing, scratching and splitting up.
For more information on calming signals read the article Introduction to Canine Communication http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/04/05/dog-training-introduction-to-canine-communication/.
Some key indications of stress, by body part, are noted below.
- Avoiding Eye Contact
- Blinking or squinting
- Dilated pupils
- Furrowed Brows
- Hardened Eyes (direct stare with pupils dilated)
- Tightness around eyes
- Whale eye/ Half-moon eye
- Cheek puffing
- Excessive salivation or drooling
- Lip Curling
- Lip/Nose licking
- Mouth closed tightly or lips pulled back
- Showing teeth
- Teeth chattering
- Wrinkled muzzle
- Flattened or lowered
- Pinned back
- Upright and alert
- Dribbling or submissive urination
- Excessive shedding
- Freezing – little or no movement
- High body posture, rigid forward stance
- Groveling posture
- Low body posture, weight shifted back
- Penis crowning
- Piloerection (Hackles)
- Shake off
- Sweaty paws
- Tail up and flagging
- Tail Tucked
- Tense all over
- Tight brow
- Urogenital “check-out.”
Dogs may also indicate they are stressed through vocalizations. Some of the more common stress related vocalizations are:
- Barking – low pitch = threatening, high pitch = fear/stress
When stressed a dogs behavior will often change. Common behaviors that are often stress induced are:
- Clinging to or hiding behind guardian
- Destructive behaviors, chewing, ripping, shredding, clawing
- Excessive self-grooming
- Excessive sleeping, often due to exhaustion
- Freezing or walking slowly
- Inability to focus
- Inappropriate urination and defecation
- Increased urination and defecation
- Jumping up on guardian
- Jumpy/Easy to startle
- Loss of appetite
- Obsessive/Compulsive behaviors – (e.g. shadow chasing)
- Poor sleeping habits, less than 17 hours sleep per day
- Refusing food or treats
- Restless, inability to relax
- Running off
- Sniffing, out of context
- Unable to settle
- Vomiting and diarrhea
The Stress Escalation Ladder
Stress and the dog’s arousal happen on a continuum. Some of the signs of stress start appearing at very low levels of arousal. As the arousal level continues to rise it may result in growling, showing of teeth, lunging and biting at the most extreme levels. It is important to remember that arousal levels increase with positive stress (eustress) just as they increase with negative stress (distress). A dog that is ramped up and highly aroused in play is also more likely to bite and lose their bite inhibition. The chart below, created by Rugaas, illustrates the signs seen at various levels of arousal. It should always be our goal to keep the dog out of the yellow and red zones.
Reducing Stress in Dogs
In order to reduce our dogs’ stress we first need to understand it. Once we have identified the cause, there are many approaches to eliminating the stress.
The easiest way to deal with a dog under stress is usually management — removing the dog from the situation/context where the stress occurs. While this does not solve the problem, it is a temporary fix that will make the dog feel better. If this is a context/situation the dog will need to be exposed to in the future, it is advisable to work with a qualified behavior consultant to help get the dog over this fear. Few dog guardians are successful resolving this type of issue by reading books or watching programs on TV. In our experience, they usually make the problem worse.
A qualified, professional behavior consultant will ALWAYS first recommend that you discuss your dog’s behavioral issues with your veterinarian. Pain and other medical conditions can cause behavioral problems, and they need to be addressed first.
A behavior consultant will consider a number of methods to help your dog deal with their stress. They will almost always recommend a behavior modification protocol, which is a specialized program for your dog’s situation. A dog training class is seldom recommended for a dog with stress-based issues such as anxiety and aggression, as it often puts a dog in an environment where they will be stressed. Any organism must be free from fear if they are going to be able to learn.
Teaching your dog to sit, down, stay, etc. will not change the way your dog feels. In fact, asking your dog to sit in the presence of something that causes them to react may make them more fearful. For example, let’s say that you are afraid of bees and wasps. Now imagine sitting in a room full of bees and wasps and imagine trying to learn. You will not be learning but will be focusing on keeping yourself safe from getting stung.
A behavior modification program is all about changing your dog’s emotions and the way they feel about what is making them fearful or angry. Additionally, a behavior consultant may also recommend changes in diets, and treatment with complementary therapies; Bach Flower Remedies, Herbs, Homeopathy, T-Touch, if they are so qualified. They may also suggest that you ask your veterinarian to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist so that the veterinary behaviorist can determine if drug therapy is necessary. A behavior consultant should always be working with your veterinarian.
Stress can make us feel miserable, and it does the same for our dogs. If you have a dog living in stress — take steps to help them as soon as possible!
Articles on Don’s Blog
Understanding Behavior; Why It Matters – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/category/dogs/canine-behavior/
What Should I Do When My Dog Growls? – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/category/dogs/canine-behavior/problem-behavior/aggression/
Your Pet’s Behavioral Health Is As Important As Their Physical Well-Being: The New AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/08/01/pet-health-and-wellness-your-pets-behavioral-health-is-as-important-as-their-physical-well-being/
Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/06/20/dog-behavior-dominance-reality-or-myth/
Puppy Socialization and Habituation – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/06/27/dog-behavior-puppy-socialization-and-habituation/
Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on Pet-Friendly, Force-Free Pet Care – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/boarding/what-is-pet-friendly
Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/training/position-on-the-use-of-dominance-and-punishment-for-the-training-and-behavior-modification-of-dogs
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2013/08/05/dogs-the-unintended-consequences-of-shock-collar/
Introduction to Canine Communication – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/04/05/dog-training-introduction-to-canine-communication/
Can You Trust What You Read on the Internet? – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/09/03/can-you-trust-what-you-read-on-the-internet/
Animal Welfare – Assessing Pets’ Welfare Using Brambell’s Five Freedoms – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2014/10/01/animal-welfare-assessing-pets-welfare-using-brambells-five-freedoms/
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – Green Acres Kennel Shop’s “Pet Friendly” Philosophy – Part 1 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/04/02/yes-a-trend-towards-kinder-and-gentler-professional-pet-care-green-acres-kennel-shops-pet-friendly-philosophy-part-1/
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – The PPG – Part 2 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/05/02/selecting-a-pet-care-provider-yes-a-trend-towards-kinder-and-gentler-professional-pet-care-the-ppg-part-2/
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – A Veterinary Perspective – Part 3 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/06/30/selecting-a-pet-care-provider-yes-a-trend-towards-kinder-and-gentler-professional-pet-care-a-veterinary-perspective-part-3/
Dogs-Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2) – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/02/01/dogs-dog-training-a-holistic-approach-to-dog-training-parts-1-2/
Trends in Training – The Evolution of a Pet Care Professional – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2008/04/19/professional-development-trends-in-training-the-evolution-of-a-pet-care-professional/
An Overview of the Bach Flower Remedies – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/06/22/bach-flower-remedies-an-overview-of-the-bach-flower-remedies/
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/07/12/podcast-dog-training-questions-for-don-and-kate-with-special-guest-host-dr-mark-hanks-part-1/
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/07/19/podcast-dog-training-questions-for-don-and-kate-with-special-guest-host-dr-mark-hanks-part-2/
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3 – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/07/27/blog-post-27jul15-podcast-dog-training-questions-for-don-and-kate-with-special-guest-host-dr-mark-hanks-part-3/
PODCAST – Pet Behavior Counseling and Don and Kate – with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – http://www.greenacreskennel.com/blog/2015/01/10/podcast-pet-behavior-counseling-and-don-and-kate-with-special-guest-host-dr-mark-hanks/
Stress in Dogs, Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, Dogwise Publishing, 2007
Canine Neuropsychology, 3rd edition, James O’Heare, Ph.D., DogPsych, 2005
The dog’s brain — a simple guide, Val Strong, Alpha Publishing, 1999
©2015, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>
A dog that growls is not a bad dog.
<This article was also published in the July 14, 2015 edition of The Maine Edge>
While a dog’s growl can be frightening and disheartening, it also serves the very useful purpose of alerting us or another being that the dog is feeling threatened, uncomfortable or angry. It is the dog’s way of saying “If something in this situation does not change, I may have no other choice except to bite.” Growling is a communication tool that is designed to increase the distance between the dog and that which the dog perceives as a threat.
While a growl is usually associated with “aggression”, it is important to understand that there are many causes of aggression. Pain or other medical issues can cause an aggressive response, as can fear. Fear arises for many reasons; a reminder of a previous negative experience, a perceived loss of a resource or space, expectations of punishment and associated pain, and maternal protective instincts can all cause a dog to react “aggressively”. Sexual competition, barrier frustration, low tolerance for frustration, differences in personalities between dogs, and genetics may also cause or contribute to aggressive behavior.
As a certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC) I deal with a greater number of aggressive dogs than the average person. I appreciate it when a client’s dog growls thus giving me a warning and an opportunity to change my behavior so I do not get bitten. For this reason, I advise all my clients and students that it is NEVER wise to punish a dog for growling; even saying “No” or looking at the dog crossly can constitute punishment. Dogs that are repeatedly punished for growling eventually may not give warning and immediately escalate to biting. A dog that has learned not to growl due to punishment is far more dangerous than a dog that will give a warning growl before escalating to biting. These dogs will also be much more difficult to rehabilitate.
If your dog is in a situation where they growl; as calmly as possible step back and assess the circumstances surrounding the growling. If possible, ask whatever is causing your dog to remain still and to increase the distance away from your dog. Keeping safety foremost in your mind, and with as little fanfare and emotion as possible, call your dog back to you or if they are on leash get them to follow you as you back away from the situation to a place where they will feel safe and secure. Your dog will pick-up on your emotions and if they sense you are upset, angry or afraid your dog is likely to become more reactive. Do not keep your dog in a stressful situation and try to reassure them or yell at them for growling, neither is likely to be helpful. Once you have ensured the safety of all parties, you need to try to determine what caused your dog to feel threatened and defensive in the first place. To keep you and your dog safe, you should make sure that they are on a short leash, nothing longer than 6 feet, in any similar situations in the future.
If your dog is growling frequently, or growling is very out of character for your dog, you should schedule a veterinary exam to rule out any physical causes such as pain or illness. If the growling and aggression are not due to medical reasons it is time to seek a consultation with a credentialed and experienced dog behavior consultant to work with you in resolving your dog’s behavior. The sooner you seek guidance the better. Aggression rarely improves without intervention and the more times it occurs, the more likely it is to reoccur and the longer it will take to resolve.
It is important to understand that obedience training alone is extremely unlikely to resolve an aggression issue. Training certain behaviors like “Look” and “Leave It” may be useful in managing your dog when they are reactive, but will not change the way your dog is feeling. Aggression is an emotional response, sometimes due to a feeling of having no control over a situation. Sitting and staying for you on cue does not afford the dog a sense of control and may actually increase their fear and the accompanying response. Imagine how you would feel if you were afraid of bees and someone forced you to sit in a room full of bees until you “got over it.” I think you’d agree that would only make you more reactive and afraid.
In order to resolve aggression, we need to change the dog’s emotions. This is most commonly accomplished through a program of behavior modification and may include the use of medications prescribed by your veterinarian as well as complementary remedies, such as Bach Flower remedies, selected by a qualified practitioner. Aggression will seldom go away on its own and the longer you wait, the harder it is to resolve. Dogs grow into aggression, not out of it. If you are having concerns, the time to seek help is now.
To find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant – <click here>
To find a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner <click here>
©2015, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>
<A version of this article was published in The Maine Edge on 25FEB15>
I do not know how many times a year we are asked “is it okay if our dog sleeps in our bed?” or someone with a very apologetic look on their face states, “I know I’m not supposed to, but I let the dog sleep in my bed.” The reality is there is nothing inherently wrong with your dog sleeping in your bed and contrary to popular belief, sleeping in your bed does not make a dog dominant (see Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth). If you do allow your dog to sleep in your bed, you’re in the majority. In an informal survey I conducted via FaceBook, 75 respondents (77.32%) indicated that their dog is allowed to sleep in bed with them, whereas only 22 respondents (22.68%) indicated that their dog was not allowed to sleep with them.
However, sharing a bed with a dog is not for everyone and not all dogs are fans of sharing sleeping space either. Therefore, before inviting Sparky into bed, please ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your partner comfortable with your dog sharing the bed? If not or if you are unsure, a discussion with your partner is in order.
- Is your dog housetrained? Until a dog is has gone at least 6 weeks without an accident inside, I wouldn’t think of allowing the dog to sleep anywhere other than a crate.
- Is the dog going to enjoy sleeping in bed with you or are they perhaps happier sleeping in their own crate or bed? Sleep habits vary widely between people and pets. If anyone of you is a restless sleeper, the others may be miserable. Many dogs are just as content to sleep beside your bed in their own bed or crate.
- Is your pet going to be safe? A small dog could easily get hurt if someone accidently rolls over on them and they may even bite in that situation.
- Is there room enough for everyone? A six month old Golden Retriever puppy is still growing for another 7 to 8 months. As space shrinks, allowing the dog in bed may no longer be as popular.
- How will you feel about sharing the bed if you, your partner or the dog are sick? Some people desire closeness when ill while others cannot stand being touched.
- Do you have other pets and how many in bed is too many? Always keep in mind that the bed may become a valued space that one dog may choose to resource guard.
My wife and I have had ten dogs in our life together and only two have had bed privileges. Gus, our Cairn Terrier, had privileges for a short time, but lost them because he would grumble every time we moved. He was simply of the temperament that he did not want to be disturbed when he was sleeping (I am sure we all know people like that). Gus really was more comfortable and well rested when he slept in his kennel in our bedroom rather than on the bed. Tikken, our Golden, was allowed in our bed once she was completely housetrained. During the winter months a better foot warmer could not be found however, in the heat of the summer, she would often choose to sleep on the floor. If one of us was restless, she would simply hop off and sleep elsewhere. While there were times when I described Tikken as the “great immovable object” because she would not move when I tried to stretch out, allowing her to share our bed worked well for all of us.
So ultimately, the decision is up to you. There is simply no right or wrong answer about whether or not you choose to allow your dog to sleep in your bed. If it works for you, never apologize for letting your dog in your bed. If you would rather not share your sleeping space, that is okay too. Just remember, once you start letting your dog sleep with you, they will expect it. If you change the rules months or years down the road because you now have a child, a new partner, or some other life change, it will take time and work to help your dog adjust to new sleeping arrangements.
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.
©2015, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>