Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Small Things Really Exacerbate Strange Situations.... STRESS!

Today is brought to you by the letter P, a soggy sofa and six variously stressed dogs.

So, I'll talk about stress - gotta be a bright side to something and it looks like 'work' so I get out of being the person to clean the P out of the sofa!

Here in the UK it is autumn and that means Firework season - technically it ought to just be the 5th of November - Guy Fawkes Night, where we rather inexplicably celebrate Guy Fawkes' failure to blow up Parliament.. by.... blowing up thousands of pounds worth of colourful explosives.

It is pretty obvious to most of us with dogs that some dogs will be upset by this, some mildly, some extremely.

There are lots of things about stress in dogs that are not nearly so obvious though!

Stress Affects Learning...

Some people say stress inhibits learning, and in some situations, that's true, but its very specific to certain contexts, the kind of stress and the lesson you wanted (or didn't want) to learn.

If you wanted to learn complex algebra, then trying to do so whilst abseiling off a cliff, suffering from extreme vertigo would be less than ideal. You are highly unlikely to learn any algebra.

That doesn't mean you wouldn't learn anything at ALL - it just wouldn't be algebra.

You would learn how it feels to be swinging off a cliff on a rope. You would learn how small the ground looks from up there and that looking at the ground makes you nauseous. You would learn how weird it feels to try and swallow and breath with a strong wind blowing in your face. You would learn what it feels like when your anal sphincter loosens...

All things you would learn would be extremely relevant to the situation you are in, and your existing fear. They would in fact be reinforcing that fear - even if you don't fall off the cliff - all these things would be added up in your brain and added to your pre-conceived idea that abseiling is frightening, heights are frightening...

Taking this back to dogs, if you try to teach your dog something new, when he is highly stressed by something that causes fear, you are extremely unlikely to succeed, and your dog is likely to further his learning that 'whatever it is' is cause for fear.

This is one of the times when people will say that positive reinforcement training doesn't work - because you cannot 'snap' a dog out of a reaction in an extremely stressful moment, by using food/toys/treats.

And they are right - but why is that.

I have to confess whilst I have friends who are psychologists, I am not one, so this is the laymans interpretation of why you cannot take in new information, that is not relevant or useful to your immediate, stressful situation.

Fear is a really basic thing. If you have learned that something is to be feared, then when your fear response is triggered lots of stuff happens, in the brain and the body.

Muscles tense, heart rate and respiration rate increases, the body prepares for fight or flight.

All this happens sub-consciously, it is not something you can tell someone not to do, nor easily distract them from.

The reason for that is pretty simplistic - if you can be easily distracted from something potentially life threatening, you would not stay alive for very long.

There are, basically, two options in a really extreme situation - you can either, remove the stimulus for the fear, or you can take control and make the subject so much MORE scared of you, that you become the priority rather than the original stimulus.

Obviously the former is not always possible, and the latter is not something we would want to do to a friend or an animal (or even a stranger!)

It is also worth bearing in mind that studies show that animals remember that a stimulus or trigger was associated with fear, long after the fearful thing actually stopped happening.  This is why it takes a long time with repeated positive associations, to change an animals physiological and emotional reaction to a previously frightening trigger. Even worse if that association was with you!

So,  that's the deal with extreme fear - in short, it is not a situation you want to create, nor push an animal into. The risks of making the problem worse are high, the chances of resolving the problem are low.

So What About the Small Stuff...

Ok, so the big stuff is fairly obvious. But the small things are not, the small things are what can add up to a massive event happening that you didn't see coming.

I like to use the analogy of a glass of water, the glass is your dog, the water is the stress.

The rules are, you can fill the glass up from the tap, but you can only empty it by evaporation - that's how stress works.

It is simplistic I know, but it creates a useful mental image for dog owners dealing with behavior modification programs.

Each event that a dog finds stressful is more water into the glass. Small event, a few drops, big event, the tap is turned on full.

When the glass is full, it can overflow - your dog reacts, bites someone, bolts, etc etc.

Now it is obviously not possible to remove every scrap of stress from your dogs daily life - you can't, no one can.

But it is possible to be more aware of it - for example, if you live with someone who frequently slams doors, that can add a few drops to the glass each time.

If your dog sits on the back of the couch, staring out of the window, even if he doesn't bark at stuff going by - that can add a few drops (if he does bark like a nutter its probably adding quite a lot!).

If every car journey is a barkfest, whether your dog is excited or frightened, thats more water into the glass.

If you go to flyball once a week and he spends an hour and a half in a small space with a lot of barking dogs - the glass is getting pretty full now...

Add in something like fireworks night or a visiting toddler running around the house screaming, or a hormonal adolescent boy having teenagerish rows ... that glass is going to over flow soon..

And then you open the door to go for a walk JUST as the postman is reaching for the letter box and ..... Yep, your dog has lunged and bitten the postman.

Thats the kind of sequence of events that can happen with a 'normal' dog, ie one whose owners do not consider he actually has a problem. And in the main, he doesn't really have a problem.

Now consider you have a dog who does have a problem, lets say he is reactive on leash when he sees another dog.

If you don't factor in the build up and diffusion of stress, it can seem like  you make no progress, despite the fact that you are keeping him under threshold,  you are rewarding positive experiences, you are taking him out of situations you know he cannot handle and yet you are not getting anywhere!

So what do I do??

The answer should be fairly obvious now - take the steps you CAN take, to reduce stress.

This may well mean managing your dogs environment, and life, in a way you hadn't considered before, it might even mean doing things you might not realllllly want to do, or might have thought were not appropriate!

For example, everyone knows dogs need walking twice a day for at least 30 minutes right?

But actually if that 30 minute walk each day is adding a lot of stress to the pot, its worth considering that this is not beneficial to your dog.

So think up ways to exercise his mind and brain without the stress - that means things like walking at quieter times or in quieter places, playing games at home, clicker training, puzzle solving, feeding from food dispensing toys instead of a bowl.

One really great idea is to walk your dog for much shorter durations and focus heavily on rewarding him for all the good stuff he does.

If you can give him six 10 minute walks in a day, that is six times the chances of a successful walk than if you walk him once for an hour. If he meets another dog in that 1 hour and he kicks off,  that one walk was massively stressful. If he meets one dog in one of his ten minute walks he has another five that were successful...

It is also much easier for you and your dog to remain focused and not get frustrated, in a ten minute walk - so again, six walks where you stayed calm, he stayed calm and you both enjoyed the experience is MUCH more productive than one walk that started out ok, but half an hour in he got bored, you got annoyed with him etc etc...

Another major thing is blocking views from windows - a lot of people absolutely hate the sound of this but using frosted window film really cuts down on the stress built up from watching stuff going on outside.

This pic is my living room window - my house fronts onto the end of a cul-de-sac and theres a footpath entrance/exit just past it. This means there is a lot of foot traffic, people, dogs and a TON of cats out there. Putting this film up cut out barking and relaxed my dogs within a few hours of it being done, and it doesn't cut out  much light at all.

You can get film with nice cut out details along the top edge (or wherever you want) but it costs a little more and I am a cheapskate!

Compare the sacrifice of the view from the front window (woo, a carpark, other peoples cats..) to days and days of constantly telling the dogs to get off the sill, to shuttup, to come here and do something else... its a no brainer, it really is!

For those of you who think blinds might be the answer - we had those, for approximately 2 hours the first day we lived here. Then they were 'half' blinds because someone ATE the bottom 1foot section out of them so he could see out and yell at cats. Blinds are not the answer.

Ok so I covered my windows and I walk my dog in quieter places for shorter times, what else?

Think more - just take a little time to think things through. If you get it wrong don't beat yourself up but learn from it!

So if you have a house with five dogs in it, and only one water bowl, consider that it might for some of those dogs, be stressful to compete with four others for water. Put down a couple more bowls.

If you leave food for your dog out all the time, definitely change that - dogs are really not designed to cope with food being available all the time, this can cause HUGE amounts of stress an owner never notices.
Some dogs will actually obsessively 'save' food, they never see it arriving as the bowl is always kept topped up, they do not know that this will always be what happens and so they eat the barest minimum amount, just in case.

Some dogs will constantly worry about that food being there - for dogs, if food is there, eat it, or someone else will. So they are constantly worried that someone ELSE will take their food!
I guess this is easier to understand if you ever went to work and then realised you left your purse on the wheelybin outside your house.... could YOU concentrate at work all day knowing it was there and knowing someone might take it??

Another on food - if you have more than one dog, feed them as far apart as possible, even in another room. They may never have argued or fought over food, but you never know, it MIGHT be causing each dog a little bit of unnecessary stress.

If you only have one dog, is his food bowl put in a place people will constantly walk past as he eats it, or is it tucked away somewhere secure where he can eat in peace? If it isn't, consider moving it to somewhere more relaxing for him, or, better yet - provide that food in a kong or similar food dispensing toy, in a safe location. That way he can relax and get the maximum mental and physical satisfaction out of his dinner.

I'm sure I don't need to do these things, my dog doesn't have a problem with his food bowl, its his barking at strange men thats the issue...

And you  might WELL be right, he might not be being stressed by any of those things - and of course there are a lot more but I'd be writing forever.

But if you consider them, and you change the things you can, if you think 'actually maybe me shouting loudly at my Xbox game each night MIGHT be a bit worrying' or 'I'll try not to slam doors in future'... you  might be surprised at how much better the other things get.

Training a dog is NOT just about teaching him to do this, or do that - its a holistic thing, which doesn't mean lots of bran and considering veganism, it means looking at the WHOLE of his life, rather than just the aspects that are causing you or him bother.

All the little things add up, so he may not look like he has a problem watching cats out of the window, and he may not seem to mind eating in the kitchen whilst people bustle to and fro - but you CAN change those things, and in changing them, you may well make it easier to address the specific issues!


I started writing this blog back in November, prompted by an incident where I forgot to consider the stress my dogs were under.

I was totally aware that the fireworks going off were stressful, and I was very concerned about the potential side effects that might have on my fearful, reactive Tibetan Terrier.

Then my friend wanted to come visit, and I love my friend so of course, I said yes - they came along, her, her partner and their gorgeous lurcher Charlie, who has visited here before.

What I forgot to think about, was the stress on my other dogs - so we managed Mr Tibetan Terrier, but in forgetting Ellie's needs, forgetting that actually as lovely as guests are and as much as Ellie adores them and likes their dog, it IS still stressful having people stay,  we had a situation where Ellie got in a tizz and peed on the sofa!

It just goes to show that everyone makes mistakes, and clearly for Ellie, scary sounds going on for weeks on end, plus human visitors, plus canine visitor = too much. She couldn't pee outside, she was failing to communicate with us successfully, so she went to a safe place and peed there.

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