Stress is the body’s response to any physical or mental demand. The response prepares the body to either fight or flee. It increases blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and metabolism, and there is a marked increase in the blood supply to the arms and legs. It is a physiological, genetically predetermined reaction over which the individual, whether a dog or a person, has no control.
When your dog is stressed, his body becomes chemically unbalanced. To deal with this imbalance, the body releases chemicals into the bloodstream in an attempt to rebalance itself. The reserve of these chemicals is limited. You can dip into it only so many times before it runs dry and the body loses its ability to rebalance. Prolonged periods of imbalance result in neurotic behavior and the inability to function.
Your dog experiences stress during training, whether you are teaching him a new exercise or practicing a familiar one. You should be able to recognize the signs of stress and what you can do to manage the stress your dog may experience. Only then can you prevent stress from adversely affecting your dog’s performance during training.
Stress is characterized as “positive” (manifesting itself in increased activity) and “negative” (manifesting itself in decreased activity). Picture yourself returning home after a hard day at work. You are welcomed by a mess on your new, white rug. What is your response? Do you explode, scream at your dog, your children and then storm through the house slamming doors? Or, do you look at the mess in horror, shake your head in resignation, feel drained of energy, ignore the dog and the children and then go to your room? In the first example, your body was energized by the chemicals released into the bloodstream. In the second example, your body was debilitated.
Dogs react in a similar manner, and stress triggers either the fight or flight response. Positive stress manifests itself in hyperactivity, such as running around, bouncing up and down or jumping on you, whining, barking, mouthing, getting in front of you or anticipating commands. You may think your dog is just being silly and tiresome, but for the dog, those are coping behaviors. Negative stress manifests itself by lethargy, such as freezing, slinking behind you, running away or responding slowly to a command. In new situations, he seems tired and wants to lie down, or sluggish and disinterested. These are not signs of relaxation, but are the coping behaviors for negative stress.
Signs of either form of stress in dogs are muscle tremors, excessive panting or drooling, sweaty feet that leave tracks on dry, hard surfaces, dilated pupils and, in extreme cases, urination or defecation, usually in the form of diarrhea and self-mutilation. Behaviors such as pushing into you or going in front of or behind you during distraction training are stress related.