You may have heard that there are good stressors and bad stressors in the world, but what does that mean for our dogs? Dogs obviously feel what we consider to be bad stress. If you have ever had a dog scared of thunderstorms or the mailman, you have seen what a stressed out dog can look like. Some less obvious signs of stress include tongue flicking (where they seem to just barely lick their lips), eye contact avoidance (where a dog will look away from a stressor), yawning, panting, sneezing, and scratching as a way to do something other than confront the stressor. You might also see more obvious signs such as cowering or physical avoidance (when a dog moves away from a stressful stimulus). Keeping the more subtle body language cues in mind can help you as you work with your dog either to modify a behavior or teach new behaviors. Even just going new places can be somewhat stressful for routine-loving pooches.
We have all seen these negative signs of stress. But what about the so-called “good stress,” or eustress, as it is technically referred to? Let’s start back with what stress is. Stress is really just pressure that leads to a biological or emotional response. For example, going on a first date can lead to increased heart rate, sweating, etc. However, it is not really what we would call a bad stressor. For your dog, the analogy might be working on a particularly fun puzzle toy or entering a dog park. These are clearly exciting events but not necessarily negative. This type of stress can actually be healthy as a form of mental and physical stimulation.
So, why am I focusing on stress today? Training is very beneficial for you and your dog, but it can also be stressful. It’s always important to keep that in mind when working with your dog, especially if your dog becomes over-stressed in new or exciting situations. One good example of this pressure we put on dogs is in heel work. Heeling is a very controlled and regimented form of walking that is often used in competition where the dog must walk very close to their handlers left side with close attention to their handler. This is far less fun than wandering and sniffing and exploring. While heeling should never be more than 10% of any given walk, it’s also important to teach your dog to blow off some steam and relax between exercises then immediately returning to work.
One way to do this is to teach your dog a really strong release word to let them know they are finished. Then highly reward their return to work. You can even put a send out or send around type of behavior on command. For example, you can teach your dog to run out ahead of you, around a cone and then return to heel position. This allows your dog the chance to move quickly and freely before returning to their more controlled behavior. There is a reason we recommend short frequent training sessions rather than prolonged intense sessions. They are more fun and less-stressful which leads to great learning and quick progress.
Another good stressor for many dogs comes in the form of puzzle toys. Puzzle toys make your dog work for their food, which is obviously more stressful than a free bowl of food hand delivered twice day. This type of stress is similar to studying. It can be exhausting and hard work, but leads to brain stimulation and learning, which is way more rewarding in the long term than access to a full bowl. Stress can come in all different forms, but knowing how to use good stressors and how to monitor your dog for signs of stress, you can have a better understanding of their behavior and how to work with them.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator