For over 25 years I worked setting up and leading outdoor and cultural adventures for students and women’s groups. Since I became obsessed with thinking about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges, I’ve steadily begun to do less traveling. That and along with the fact that spring is in the air, I decided to empty out a filing cabinet of old paperwork. I managed to toss out two folders, one was already empty, but then opened a folder that had resources for training leaders to deal with ‘critical incidents’.
One of the first pieces of paper I looked at included information about ‘common signs of a stress reaction’. As I read the information, which was written about stress responses in people I of course began to think about how they related to similar responses in dogs. Since dogs and people have a mammalian brain structure in common, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that some reactions to stress in people will be similar to some reactions to stress in dogs.
The responses were broken down into four categories: Physical, Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral. Let me share a few with you. Under ‘Physical’ were; fatigue, nausea, muscle tremors, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, visual difficulties, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, headaches, chills, symptoms of shock. We know that fearful dogs will exhibit signs of many of these responses. We can see them shake, notice sweaty paw prints, and if we are monitoring their heart rate find that it is elevated. What struck me most were the signs that were not easily noticed by us, or impossible for us to see.
Imagine a fearful dog suffering from nausea, weakness and a headache having a collar and leash around their neck and being dragged up a flight of stairs, or out a door, or into a room full of people. Imagine feeling that way yourself and being forced to do something. How well do you think you’ll be able to perform or comply? How helpful are threats, pain or intimidation likely to be to improve your performance?
In the ‘Cognitive’ category were; poor attention, poor decisions, poor concentration, hypervigilance, poor problem solving, heightened or lowered awareness, confusion. So there’s a dog, scared almost literally ‘out of their head’ and someone is expecting them to learn a new skill, perform a behavior or make a good choice. How realistic are our expectations that a dog will do well in any of those events given a level of stress which induces those responses?
The list of ‘Emotional’ responses to stress are; anxiety, severe panic, emotional shock, uncertainty, loss of emotional control, depression, inappropriate emotional responses, apprehension, feeling overwhelmed, intense anger, irritability, agitation. ‘Nuff said.
‘Behavioral’ responses include; change in activity, withdrawal, emotional outbursts, suspiciousness, loss or increase in appetite, anti-social acts, nonspecific bodily complaints, hyper-alert to environment, intensified startle reflex, pacing, erratic movement.
The paper went on to explain that, “Reactions to traumatic events might be immediate or delayed by months, while the signs and symptoms might last for hours, days, months or longer. With the understanding and support of loved ones stress reactions usually pass more quickly. Occasionally the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance may be necessary.”
Never underestimate the impact stress, anxiety and dread have on a dog’s behavior and health.