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Stress in Dogs

Stress is one of the most important factors to consider when dealing with a dog. Early recognition and understand of stress within the dog and identifying the stress indicators early on can help prevent injury and suffering to you and/or the dog.  

The strangest thing about unpredictable behaviour in a dog is that it is totally predictable, if you learn to recognise the early signs of stress in a dog you can prevent escalation of aggression and unpredictable behaviour.

For example: If when the tumble dryer is going, your dog sits quietly in its bed yawning and licking its nose, you may well have thought that he was perfectly relaxed. Then the neighbour pops in, goes to stroke him and gets a nip! “He’s never done that before”, you cry! This is due to the two stressors probably not coming together at the same time before, and that individually the two stressors did not cause an obvious stress response.

There are 3 types of stress that can effect a dog, eustress, distress and cumulative stress.

Eustress

Eustress is good stress, it is the positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy, or gives the dog a feeling of fulfilment or other positive feelings. Eustress is not defined by the stressor type, but rather how one perceives that stressor (e.g. a negative threat versus a positive challenge) Eustress refers to a positive response the dog has to a stressor, which can depend on the dog’s current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor. Potential indicators of eustress may include responding to a stressor with a sense of meaninghope, or vigour. Eustress has also been positively correlated with life satisfaction and well-being., 

Eustress occurs when the gap between what the dog has and what the dog wants is slightly pushed, but not overwhelmed. The goal is not too far out of reach but is still slightly more than the dog can handle. This fosters challenge and motivation since the goal is in sight.

Within a human the function of challenge is to motivate a person toward improvement and a goal. Challenge is an opportunity-related emotion that allows people to achieve unmet goals. Eustress is indicated by hope and active engagement. Eustress has a significantly positive correlation with life satisfaction and hope. It is typically assumed that experiencing chronic stress, either in the form of distress or eustress, is negative. However, eustress can instead fuel physiological thriving by positively influencing the underlying biological processes implicated in physical recovery and immunity

I would witness a good example of eustress each morning when I would go to my kennels to collect my working dog and take him to work. Prior to leaving for work he would show numerous stress indicators. Anticipating the enjoyment of working  

Distress

Distress is bad stress, it is the most commonly referred to type of stress, having negative implications, whereas eustress is usually related to desirable events in a dog’s life. Distress can lead to withdrawal, and depressive behaviour. Both eustress and distress can be equally taxing on the dog, and are cumulative in nature, depending on the dog’s way of adapting to the stressor that caused it. The dog itself cannot physically discern between distress or eustress. Differentiation between the two is dependent on one’s perception of the stress, but it is believed that the same stressor may cause both eustress and distress.

The dog suffering from eustress and distress could display the same stressors.

Cumulative Stress

Cumulative stress is the culmination of individual stress blocks occurring around the same time resulting in an unpredictable reaction by the dog. Each individual stress block occurring at separate times would not achieve the same reaction.

Once a bite incident has occurred and you are able to rewind the build up prior to the bite, the chances are that the stress indicators were screaming out at you and it was just a matter of time before the dog reaches his bite threshold and the incident could have been averted if you had identified the signs.    

If we say that the dog exhibits aggressive behaviours when his stress levels reach 90 of the “stressometer”, you will see on the graph below that individually his stress pertaining to children, thunder, and traffic, will never have appeared to have been a problem.

Subsequently when that day comes when he is approached by a child during a storm, next to a busy road, and he bites the child you think, “Where did that come from?” Whereas in fact, it was always there!! It merely required his stress levels to be increased by a culmination of the stressors to drive his stress past his bite threshold.

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