Stressed Out
First Published Gundog Magazine 1994 - Ed Bailey

Today everyone is under stress. While an inclusive definition of stress does not exist, your average hunter would agree that stress results from an inability-on the part of a dog or his master-to maintain adequate internal equilibrium, and that a stressor is anything capable of producing stress, such as missing an easy shot at a pheasant.

The concept of stress was popularised via the work of Hans Selye and his colleagues at McGill University. From 1936 through the Forties and into the Fifties, Selye conducted research primarily in human disease. While studying ovarian hormone effects on spayed rats, Selye more or less stumbled on the general idea of stress and the body’s adaptation to stress factors.

Selye hypothesized that certain responses to non-specific stressors may derail the economy of the body. He considered the health problems that could result, such as hypertension, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, and gastrointestinal ulcers, as diseases of adaptation. According to Selye, there are two types of stressors: topical stressors, which cause mild irritation or inflammation to localized areas and require no or only local adaptation; and systemic stressors, which evoke generalized adaptive patterns affecting the whole body. The generalized adaptive response to systemic stress is called General Adaptation Syndrome, or G-A-S.

G-A-S has three stages. The first is Alarm Recreation, which itself has two steps: shock, followed by counter shock. Shock is characterized by decreases in temperature, blood pressure, metabolic rate, blood salts and an increase in tissue catabolism.
The counter shock is characterized by an increase in the activity of the adrenal cortex with an increase in the production of both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cortical steroids.

However, if a stressor starts mild and is gradually increased, the counter shock, with the adrenal gland involvement, is then followed by shock as the stressor increases. This situation can eventually lead to death.

The second stage is Resistance. If the stressor is not severe enough for a long enough time to kill the animal, the counter shock stage can reverse the shock symptoms and all symptoms return to normal.

In Exhaustion, the third stage, counter shock can no longer cope with continued stress. The pituitary-adrenal system exhausts, the symptoms become very similar to the initial shock symptoms in the alarm stage, and, if the stress is not removed, lowered, or somehow controlled, death ensues.

This is a thumbnail sketch of what stress is and how the body might function to overcome it. But it doesn’t tell you what constitutes a stressor. In the real world, a stressor can be anything or everything-cold, heat, forced exercise, exercise deprivation, fasting, engorging, solar radiation, infection, intoxication, haemorrhage, anoxia, water deprivation, burns, trauma of any kind, and too much or too little of anything else. Even overindulging in something that’s good for you is a stressor.

During all the years that Selye studied stress, only its physical and physiological aspects were considered-not the emotional component. That is understandable. The study of animal behaviour, in its infancy, wasn’t acknowledged to influence anything. Not until the mid-Sixties were things like instability in social ordering or number of strangers encountered or other social disruptions associated with the same symptoms caused by physical stressors. Concepts like frustration, emotional upheaval, and personal unstable environments became associated with stress. Behaviour was linked with stress. Only then were many of the odd behaviour patterns of dogs, other domesticated animals, and people treated as something different from a physically or physiologically induced problem.

Domestic dogs have many more psychological stress problems than wild canids. The wild canid closest to our hunting dogs is probably the North American timber wolf or grey wolf and the larger version of the same species, the arctic wolf. They have lots of physical stress problems (food, habitat, temperature, disease, parasites, and so on), but their behaviour patterns are quite stable with few disruptions or surprises. The social order is established; everyone knows his or her place and feels content with it. Not so our dogs, or us either, vis a vis our dogs.

Coping with behaviourally induced stress has some additional requirements not covered in the G-A-S. The physiological conditions symptomatic of systemic stressors can be modified by physiological adaptations such as stimulation of the adrenal cortex to increase hormone production. But behaviourally induced physiological symptoms must additionally be altered by behavioural changes in order to modify the physiology. To be sure, the adrenal works overtime in behaviourally induced stress, but, in addition to the physiological adaptations, behaviourally induced stress results in aberrant behaviour as the animal attempts to cope. Therefore, suddenly occurring, weird behaviour usually means some sort of emotional stress. These patterns in dogs could be excessive barking, pacing, whirling, licking one spot (usually a front leg), chewing on itself and so on-or depression, cowering, apparent confusion, fear, urination or defecation, being off-feed to the point where anorexia might occur, or a dog could become suddenly aggressive toward other dogs, other people, or the owner.

We know well the cause of physical stress. If we keep a dog wet in freezing weather, we induce stress through hypothermia. But ascribing cause and effect to emotional stress is not so simplistic. We have lots of ways to drive a dog crazy, and dogs that are close to the edge have lots of ways of trying to cope. Usually stress is directly or indirectly related to training techniques or a lack of them. But, because the dog might react in diverse ways to any given stimulus, we might not see an obvious cause and effect relationship.

In general there are three ways to stress your dog:

Extinction: A dog is said to be conditioned when he has been trained to understand that a reward will follow a certain behaviour. But, if a conditioned behaviour is no longer rewarded, it increases at first, then gradually decreases and finally disappears, i.e., it is extinguished. This frustrates the dog because he feels he has lost control over the rewarder (the reinforcer). Formerly, the dog could make the reward appear by doing the required behaviour; now he can’t, so stress ensues.

Motivation Strength: Some highly trained dogs (e.g., police dogs, drug dogs, dogs trained to detect bombs or to perform advanced hunting or obedience tests) are so strongly motivated to work that they show signs of severe stress in response to cues liked to the training situation For example, some dogs will circle or bark incessantly while being driven to work or to the field (in the case of a hunting dog). The circling, barking, and whining are indicative of stress as the result of frustration.

Lack of Consistency: This is the most common cause of stress in hunting dogs and dogs in general. It is our most-used technique for driving dogs crazy. Training a dog involves giving a command and then consistently rewarding (reinforcing) the dog for correct responses to that command. The dog is able to predict what the consequence of his response will be- being correct will earn a reward; being incorrect will lead to a mild punishment or being ignored. The dog has a great deal of control over what is happening.

But if training is inconsistent-what is correct and rewarded one time is incorrect and punished at another time-the dog loses the ability to predict and to control what gets the reward. He is confused, frustrated and, thus, stressed. The commands Come and Down and the dogs name are generally used inconsistently. They mean one thing during training and another when training is over. The dog standing up on his master, who is wearing old clothes, will receive a pat on the head. But if the master is wearing a suit, the same behaviour will result in some sort of punishment, such as the dog being whacked on the heat or kneed.

How debilitating is stress from these causes? The most severe case I ever saw was a Shepherd police dog trained to “arrest” people. The dog’s training called for him to attack until the bad guy put his hands above his head-the absolute signal to stop. The officer (handler) and the dog were called in to break up a bar-room brawl. Someone holding a chair above his head ran toward the cop. The dog saw hands held high over the attacker’s head, the signal for the dog to stop. The officer commanded the dog to “arrest” the attacking drunk, confusing the dog. The cop was brained and the dog went crazy, running around in a figure-eight. He still does, despite therapy and retraining attempts. The dog’s outside run is worn into a figure-eight trail. The poor pooch is totally non-functional for police duty.

Here’s an example of the stress of frustration associated with extinction.
A dog used to sniff out drugs and explosives smells baggage by the tens of thousands, however, the dog’s only reward is finding a bag loaded with drugs or a bomb, which is rare indeed. That’s fortunate for society, but the dog gets no reward for doing the right thing, becomes frustrated, and suffers burnout, which is stress from unrewarded work. In order to keep the dogs happy, a suitcase with drugs is slipped in among every fifty or hundred pieces of luggage.

The most common inconsistency in training (and I am guilty of it too, even though I now better) is in use of the dog’s name. All through puppy training we say, “Sport, come” and then reward the dog for obeying. But then Sport messes on the floor or chews the top off an L.L. Bean boot. You yell “Sport” and a few appropriate epithets. In other words, you punish the dog. One time “Sport” means a reward, the next time it means punishment. But far worse is commanding “Sport Come!” when you’re angry and then punishing the dog. Sport doesn’t know any longer what will result if he obeys that command.

We now, or should know, when we are being inconsistent in our commands or at least in our expectations for the result of our commands. The stress the dog experiences is because of our stupidity or lack of though about what we are doing. But we also do lots of other things in normal training that cause stress because what we want the dog to learn is counter to the dog’s innate behaviour.

Steadiness to wing and shot is required in all pointing dog trials. A dog is simply not finished unless he is rock steady. But pointing is the pause before the pounce. In wild canids, the chase is the only way to catch prey. Steadiness is a learned response to thwart the instinct to pounce and chase. The stronger the inborn tendency to pounce, the greater the pressure necessary to overcome it and the greater the stress. Similarly, backing is counter to normal dominance ordering-and a powerful stressor.

Retrieving on command is giving up prey. The stress that can result may cause violent rebellion in an effort to handle the stress. In its full blown form, this becomes aggressive dominance-not exactly what we want from man’s best friend. More often we see a dog eat a bird or buy it rather than retrieve. Some cases of chewing game is ambivalence in the dog; to bring it or to eat it is the question.

Indications that the dog is under stress are as varied as the stressors involved. They can be a subtle as loose stool or as blatant as the most bizarre stereotypy. Stereotypies are normal behaviours carried to excess. An example is fly snapping. Every dog snaps at an annoying fly, but a stressed-out neurotic snaps at non-existent flies hundreds of times an hour. The snapping helps to lower the dog’s anxiety level but doesn’t cure the problem, but by then the dog may be a habitual fly snapper, i.e., an addict.

From constantly licking one spot, usually on a front leg, a dog can wear right through its skin and as deep as the bone. Called a lick granuloma, this used to be thought of as a localized nerve or skin disorder causing an itch or even an ectoparasite infection. We know now this is stress induced behaviour dysfunction, a stereotypic pattern that initially started with frustration of some sort. Repetitive patterns of pacing, usually figure-eight or circular, arise from the conflict frustration of being prevented from performing a normal behaviour or sequence of behaviours such as the appetitive aspect of prey capture- the search, pounce and chase.

Like us, some dogs are easily stressed, others seem to be able to cope with almost anything. Fortunately, most dogs fall between these extremes. We put stress on a dog from the day we take it home from its littermates. Housetraining, yard training, and field training each has its inherent stressors. It’s the normal sequence of events.

Our job as dog owners is to recognize and avoid psychological stressors before they bring about behavioural aberrations in our dogs. Failing avoidance, a dog’s behaviour must tell us something is wrong. Usually, it is of our doing. We push too hard, move too fast for the dog’s capability, present the dog with too difficult or impossible situation, set up the inconsistencies and the frustrations that result in a stressed-out dog or one apparently driven crazy.

But stress can be helpful to a dog. In small doses it provides an edge. Debilitation sets in only when too much stress is meted out. A good trainer, handler, or owner will use the dog’s behaviour to diagnose when the stress is too much and will take the necessary steps to limit it or quickly correct the situation that is causing the stress. Failure to recognize stress in the early stages can create, in the extreme, a nut case that can only be turned around with difficulty-perhaps even requiring drug-assisted therapy.

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Updated 29th December 2004