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  • Courteous K9

Stress... Is it always bad?

Updated: Feb 27

Stress is a normal part of life:

Whether it is going to the vet, getting groomed, or simply not being able to do what they want to do, your dog is going to experience stress during their lifetime. It is important to teach your dog proper coping skills. By doing so, stressful situations will be less stressful in the future. This will create a much more resilient dog so life in general becomes less stressful- they learn to take everything in stride! In addition, it is important to realize that stress does not always equal distress.

A dog sitting happily

Learning a new skill is mildly stressful for a dog, but again, it isn't a bad kind of stress. But if we don't teach proper coping skills, we have found many dogs will shut down when learning a new behavior. Think about yourself when you are preparing for a big presentation or competition. It is often stressful, but once you give the presentation or compete in that competition, you may often feel a sense of euphoria and accomplishment. We want to teach our dogs that even if they are a little stressed by a situation, that if they push through it, the end result is worth it. Again, by doing this, we create a more resilient dog and we find that our dogs will become less and less stressed by similar situations.

There has been a trend in the dog world for awhile called Cooperative Care. This is generally a Positive Reinforcement only method of getting your dog comfortable with things like nail trims and vet exams. Basically, this method is teaching our dogs to give consent to what we are doing and then there won't be a need to restrain the dog. Which is good in theory, but what is going to happen if the dog decides it no longer consents? For some, they may just move away, for others they may launch for a bite.

We have used cooperative care methods with a variety of dogs and found that for some dogs we ultimately were prolonging the amount of time that the dog was stressed. For instance, some dogs are highly stressed by nail trims would have an extreme stress response even before any nails were trimmed. So you may work on that being less stressful and not even get any nail trims complete, or only 1 or 2 nails in that session, and would need to do this many times before getting a full set of nails trimmed.

We have found a more balanced approach to this kind of training helps most dogs overcome that stress much more quickly. Their first session may be more stressful than a pure positive reinforcement method, however, the dog is less stressed in future sessions. For example, a dog that normally has to be sedated at the vet to get their nails trimmed as they are extremely stressed with the process will usually tolerate us trimming their nails with minimal stress within 2-3 sessions of working on it. Also, by teaching proper coping skills we tend to see a reduction in the likelihood of aggression since the dog is in a better state of mind and has learned how to relax during something they don't want to do.

A dog sitting pretty

Utilizing Stress to Build Confidence: You can build confidence by utilizing small victories of overcoming mild stress. This should be done thoughtfully and strategically. But I am a big believer in teaching dogs various methods to learn (See our online class: Learning how to Learn) as every technique is teaching the dog different things. One technique, leash pressure, can be used to teach a dog to get on/in an object. I often will use this method for things like getting into a bath tub or jumping into a car (if physically safe). Is this my preferred method for teaching a dog to interact with objects? Of course not. I will generally use other methods like luring or shaping instead. However, for some instances, such as getting into a bath tub (without taking a bath) or jumping into the car. I can use leash pressure/guidance to expose the dog to a mild stressor and teach them how to overcome that stress. For the bath tub, they can learn that the act of getting in the bath tub and staying there until released isn't as scary or stressful as they thought. And for the car, they learn that they can in fact jump into a car, something they may have thought wasn't possible before. This builds confidence. In these scenarios I am not harming the dog by using leash pressure/guidance to get them to do something they may not want to do. Again, I could do this with a food motivated dog via luring or shaping for instance. However, then they wouldn't benefit from learning how to respond appropriately with some pressure/force while in a mildly stressed state. Learning that they will be okay & the faster they cooperate, the faster the pressure goes away and they get a reward. This concept comes in handy for grooming, vet visits/exams, etc. Far too often, we are seeing the disadvantages of people not teaching dogs how to handle stress and keeping them in this bubble that is not real life. At some point they are going to experience stress and instead of having a dog who display extreme reactions and need to be sedated at the vet for a simple nail trim, we can teach our dogs how to respond to stress, build coping skills and confidence so they can navigate through life more calmly and confidently.

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