Stress is a term that most people these days are familiar with. It is quite easy to recognise when we are feeling stressed – we get less patient, less tolerant, irritable, overwhelmed, and more reactive. What few us of realise is that the same thing happens to our dogs.
On an almost daily basis, many dogs are experiencing stress. Stress occurs when basic needs are not being met giving rise to frustration, or when a situation feels beyond the individual’s coping skills. Dogs are a social pack animal who seek to be curious about their environment, explore the world around them, and hunt and scavenge for food. And yet living without canine company, being left for long periods, eating an incorrect diet, and having little freedom to explore the world around them is the lot of many dogs.
Stress can be good and bad. Good stress, or eustress, is essential to growth and development and is associated with stimulation, moderate exercise, excitement and learning, whereas negative stress, or distress, occurs when an individual cannot cope with their circumstances and they respond with worry, irritation, frustration, anger, fear or failing health. In the case of our dogs, this can manifest as difficulty learning or focussing, noise sensitivity, hypervigiliance, irritability, reactivity, and ‘aggression’.
The susceptibility to stress and how it manifests varies with each individual. A well-adjusted, social dog would experience a visit to the dog beach as eustress, whereas a fearful, anxious or timid dog would experience that same situation as distress.
Most behaviour problems with pets, especially the more serious ones such as aggression and separation anxiety, are the result of stress. If you have a dog with a behaviour ‘problem’ (which is really just a form of communication), I suggest you look to identify stress factors in your dog’s life, and examine whether their basic needs are truly being met. Meeting your dog’s needs, eliminating stress, and building confidence and coping skills will go a long way to solving most behaviour issues.
When we choose to share our lives with a dog, we have an obligation to meet their needs and do what is necessary to minimise stress in the lives of our canine friends.