Stress in the Performance Dog

A couple years ago – may be more now – I was asked to give a talk to a local dog club on stress in the performance dog.  I have pulled it out and tweaked a few things to make my lecture outline read a little clearer for you.  I am keeping this in part as outline form on the blog.

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Stress in Performance Dogs

Karen Peak

What is Stress? Stress is an emotional and physical response to a stressor. There is good stress and bad stress.  Eustress is good stress that is beneficial for the experiencer.  Eustress is positive stress.  Distress is bad stress.  It builds anxiety. For this we are focusing on distress.  A simple explanation and examples of the two stressors as they apply to humans can be found here.

With distress the stressor can be internal, external or both. Internal stressors include – injury, illness, poor conformation (structure) affecting working ability. External stressors include – environment, training methods (which can cause emotional stress), etc.

In order to help us identify when our dogs are under stress, we must identify stress behaviors. Many of the behaviors we were taught years ago as defiance, ignoring and dominance we now realize are stress, calming behaviors and confusion. There are many excellent resources for understanding this and entire lectures can be based on body language.  I highly recommend Barry Eaton, Dominance: Fact or Fiction, Turid Rugaas, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Rugaas also has DVDs of her work available. Dr Sophia Yin has many resources on her website for understanding body language and stress:

Most of us are taught that a dog backing away and trying to get out of a situation is stressed.  However, so is the dog we often label as dominant or aggressive who is lunging and barking – he is upset and wants the scary thing to go away. Also is the over-excited goofball who has no control – no self-control and is bouncing all over because he simply does not know what is expected may be stressed. But there are more subtle signals we need to look for.

  1. Eyes wide, panting when not hot or tired, refusing food when he should be hungry or in a food motivated dog, refusing play in a play motivated dog, ears back, tail tucked or up high, stiff body language, furrowed brow in a breed not normally furrowed, hackles up, pausing, looking sideways/averting gaze.
  2. Dogs with short tails or tails that curl up over back are harder to read than dogs with normal tails.  Look at the base of the tail or look for other signals that go along with tail carriage when a dog is under stress.
  3. Dogs with droopy ears are harder to read than erect ears. Look to the base of the ear and see which way it is going.
  4. Get to know your individual dog and what signals he gives the most and the ones he gives first.  We want to identify stress before the dog has crossed a threshold and is really stressed out.

When your dog is showing subtle signs of stress, this is when to respond. Waiting until he is in full-blown upset/panic is too late.  When your dog is showing any stress signal it is important to act appropriately:

  1. Never punish, leash check or discipline your stressed dog – you will make his stress worse.  Your dog is already letting you know he is upset – do not make it worse by how you respond.
  2. Punishment can cause a dog to mask his symptoms but not the cause. Think of a gunshot wound to the leg and placing a band-aid over it and saying it is fixed but the bullet is still in there, moving around and eventually it nicks an artery.  Forcing a dog to suppress his stress signals does not help.
  3. Stressed dogs may appear better for a bit when the behaviors are punished but we are not helping them through the stress. They will build pressure like a pressure cooker with a broken valve.
  4. Stressed dogs are less effective working, show, and performance dogs.

Let us look for a moment at what can lead to increases stress in our dogs.

  1. Training methods that include force, any level of discomfort to pain caused by training tools used (choke, prong, shock, etc.)
  2. Saturating/flooding a dog with a stressor to force him to get over it
  3. “Deal with it” attitude
  4. Poor or improper socializing. What is good for one puppy or dog may be damaging to the dog next door.
  5. You need to create an individualized socializing plan (ISP) for the needs of your individual dog.  A good trainer can help you to that.

Now addressing when your dog is beginning to show stress:

  1. If your dog starts to show stress during socializing, ease up and back off.
  2. Once you have backed off, and the dog is calmer, begin giving positive associations to the situation: play, feed, pat, etc. When the dog is fine with the situation, move a little closer.
  3. It is OK to reassure and pat your dog when he is stressed and scared. As you are doing this you must happily and calmly remove him from the situation. Do not force him to face his fears and correct out the symptoms. We have to work to change the dog’s emotional response to a situation the best we can.

There are other things that cause stress in performance dogs: Here are a few:

  1. Expecting things the dog cannot give. If the dog is not physically or behaviorally ready for the task or not able to do what we want, this stresses dogs.
    • Expecting a Bassett Hound to be always in the tops for speed in Agility and get upset when he qualifies but is not as fast as the Border Collies.
    • American Pit Bull Terrier being expected to be a herding dog. (I remember reading a piece by a trainer who taught an APBT to herd to show it could be done but she also recognized the stress – she noted she would not do it again or recommend it – just not what she, as an expert in the breed, felt was in their best interest over all).
    • Dog who was a great competitor, driven and loved to work but always breaking down and in pain after workouts because the dog’s angles (physical structures) were so off he was unable to do the sport the owner wanted him to do without injury. (Flyball). Eventually dog stopped working well and owner was unwilling to consider a different sport.
    • Expecting a dog barely ready to progress to the next level to be competition ready. Like taking a kindergartener and expecting him to pass fifth grade math.
    • When we use methods that include fear, pain and intimidation we break down the dog’s desire to work with us. If they do work, it will not be as effectively.  Here are some examples I have witnessed:
      1. Dog at an event would not lie down. Handler said in “LIE DOW!” various times in increasingly harsh tones. Dog was exhibiting a lot of stress behaviors each time she said “Lie Down!” Finally she smacked the dog on the muzzle with the lead and he began to crouch down. She repeated the demand and he got smacked a few more times until he dropped. Dog did not know the words outside his house.  I knew the dog and he was not well socialized to things out of the house – socializing is not just getting out and about but teaching appropriate behaviors in various situations – and recognizing when the dog is in over his head.  Every time she said the words he began to stress. “Lie down” was not a cue to get a response for this dog.  Instead it was a warning a smack was coming and he had no idea when it would happen.  The dog associated the cue with pain.
      2. Same dog, very excited when seeing livestock. When he acted up she punished him instead of redirecting in a meaningful way and teaching self-control. His excitement was also pocked with nervous behaviors (pacing/dancing at the end of the lead, whites of eyes showing, lip licking, paw raising, etc.) and he would be yanked, spoken harshly too, smacked with the lead every time he started dancing about.
      3. Same dog has issues understanding “team sports” (working with a handler) when he is off lead. Of course he does, as soon as he is off lead, he is free and his handler cannot do anything to stop him. Why should be work as a team – there is no partnership, just stress.
      4. Same dog is not working effectively in other sports either.
      5. Chihuahua handler – asked me to go over his dog. Dog was exhibiting behaviors that screamed he was terrified. I backed off, let the dog settle (sort of – hard to do in the environment at that moment) and slowly moved ahead, dog growled and tried to pull away. As I backed off to give more space and talk to the handler, he picked up dog, shook quickly and scolded heavily. What did the Chihuahua just learn? My presence, the handler’s hands, the show environment were even worse.
    • Getting a Human Ability Appropriate dog: one that fits your abilities and whose abilities you can meet or you need to be willing find someone to help you meet them!  I am sure any of us who have done some performance event has run into the following type of person:
      1. New Agility competitor goes through a class or few with a nice dog.  Maybe a sweet mutt or a laid back dog that is a good match and within the owner’s ability at that point. They have fun, maybe get a title. Human decides she really wants to get serious and into hard-core  competition like she sees on TV so what does she get? A Border Collie but not just any BC.  She seeks out the craziest one she can find and tries to convince the breeder she knows exactly what she is getting into.  When the breeder rethinks the placement and refuses a sale, she starts to hit social media and on-line ads.  She finally finds someone willing to sell her what she thinks she wants.  However the person with this litter mistakes out of control nut jobs for driven puppies.  He does not know proper temperament and is breeding excessively crazy dogs. This is what the owners ends up getting for a pup:
        • Sire must have been shooting caffeine and dam was on speed at the time of breeding
        • Puppy is not a BC but a hyperactive demon in a fur suit
        • Owner cannot keep up with dog
        • Owner is not solid enough in her own skills to manage such a driven dog
        • Owner mistook craziness for drive
        • Dog is confused
        • In ring dog begins to do what
          1. Spin
          2. Bark
          3. Nip at owner
          4. Run wildly about and not listen
        • If you cannot work the dog effectively for the dog’s needs, the dog will build stress.  That stress will affect performance. You have to get a dog that matches your abilities.
        • I spoke to such a competitor who claimed her dog had issues in the ring, kept disqualifying for biting her when he got confused. She was too slow and inaccurate for the dog’s needs. He was letting her know that something was missing and for some reason, biting worked to get her to focus. Her signals were slow and mixed. Her dog was fast and driven. He was also questionably bred.  The dog was on the go, constant motion from sun up to sun down.
      2. If you want a performance or working dog, work with a breeder or rescue that knows how to properly evaluate dogs/puppies for possible working ability.  Just because your chosen activity means you need an active dog, this does not mean you need an out of control one!

How do we work through stress?  Again that good foundation.  The foundation begins with genetics.  We build from there. Some times, even with the best breeding and best early work, stuff happens and the dog develops concerns.  I had a dog attacked at a show.  Other handler allowed his giant breed to lunge out of a crate and pull my dog off a grooming table.  The owner made no attempt to leash or collar his dog.  He hoped the dog would step out and wait nicely for a leash.  Ummm….  Nope…  This one incident seriously affected my young show dog.  So from here, I had to begin rehabilitation…

There are various things we must do to begin rehabilitating our performance, show, or working dogs:

  1. Rule out medical, especially in a dog that has been a solid and happy working dog in the past.  Some dogs will work through pain but this is not healthy and it is stressing.
    • Actually it is a good idea to get a physical done before entering any sport with your dog.
  2. Have someone independent of your program (class, facility) observe your dog and you.  Fresh eyes help greatly!
    • This person must understand positive motivation training and know that you can train ANY sport (even herding, Schutzhund, gundog/field work) without fear or intimidation.
    • Train positively.  Stop using leash corrections, prong collars, choke chains, shock collars.  No dog needs them to be trained.  No dog needs them to learn a sport.  Ear pinches, kneeing, smacking, etc., will negatively effect your bond with the dog and his performance.
  3. Learn how to desensitize and counter condition your dog to try to help change his emotional response to the activity along with learning how to build a stronger working bond with your dog.  And please…
  4. Change the activity if your dog is really stressed about one sport for whatever reason, there is a big possibility your dog will not recover enough to be the top competitor you want.  Just because you like the sport does not mean your dog will.  Read here for more on this.

And again, avoid trainers who insist certain methods must be used on certain breeds or in certain sports.  It is simply not true. Just because someone has titled many dogs, been on TV with his dogs, etc., does NOT mean he is a humane trainer.

Karen Peak is the owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Virginia.

All pictures property of Karen Peak

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