Let’s talk about stress. In these blog posts, I tend to over simplify many concepts to make the information more accessible to more people. Also, this blog is not designed to be a study of the science, but more of a general guide to help others not make all the same mistakes that I did when I didn’t know what I know now. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that the term stress refers to any extreme emotional state felt by the dog. We can’t read our dogs’ minds (despite how hard we try) so there’s no way to know if the dog is feeling “frustrated” or “bored”, but we can recognize the behaviors associated with stress. Studies have been done on dog body language, brain activity, hormone production, etc., that have given us a much better road map to interpreting how dogs attempt to communicate with us every day.
There are tons of resources out there on reading dog body language, from ispeakdogs.org to Lili Chin’s creative cartoons to textbooks like Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman. I strongly encourage every dog owner to do their due diligence when bringing a member of another species into their homes, and research the way that species communicates. You wouldn’t bring someone who spoke a different language into your home, then ignore their attempts to communicate because they did not speak English. Yes, you may help them to learn your language through various teaching techniques, but you would also watch their body language and expressions in an effort to find some common ground.
I often break down signs of stress into 5 categories. Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fidget, and Fool Around. Fight and Flight signals are distance increasing behaviors, intended to add space between the dog and the perceived trigger. Fight mode includes aggressive behavior. This could be biting, snapping, snarling, growling, mouthing, hackles up, or any other offensive behavior that is designed to get the scary thing to go further away from the dog. Flight mode includes avoidance behavior. Often the dog will try to get further away from the scary thing by fleeing, pulling away, turning away, or cowering. When dogs exhibit fight or flight behaviors, they are feeling very high levels of stress. These dogs don’t have any other tools at this point and have resorted to extreme measures to get their point across. If any dog is feeling this level of discomfort, abort mission! There is no reason to practice reacting to people or other external stimuli in this way, and it is important for handlers to recognize their dog’s discomfort prior to reaching this stress level.
Freeze behavior is when the dog suddenly becomes rigid or tense in the presence of a trigger. This could be throughout the entire body, or may be displayed in certain body parts like a clenched jaw or stiff posture. This category is often the most overlooked because the dog is ceasing behavior, rather than the more dramatic displays from the other categories. Dogs may hold their breath when they are in freeze mode, and you can often see the muscles tighten in smoother coated dogs. I typically look at freezing as a decision-making point; the dog is likely going to escalate into fight or flight. In my experience, a freeze always precedes a bite. Even if only for a second, dogs will pause to evaluate before deciding to take things to the next level. I encourage the dogs to choose flight when I notice freezing behavior. I may toss a treat away from the trigger or call the dog back to me. Anything to help the dog loosen their body and remove themselves from the situation rather than deciding that they need to defend their space.
Fidget behavior, or displacement behavior, is a way for the dog to relieve pent up mental or physical energy through an alternate activity. Displacement behaviors are often urgent and extreme, and they may seem out of place. Cairo, our older pit bull mix, will displacement chew when I come home. I walk in the door and he wiggles enthusiastically, then immediately rushes off to find a toy and chews so intensely that you can feel the vibration through the floor. This type of chewing is very different than his normal chewing behavior and appears to be more of a random urge than an actual interest in his chewie. Also, keep in mind that we described stress earlier as an extreme emotional state. I don’t believe that Cairo has any negative association with me coming home; in fact, I believe this displacement is a way to relieve pent up excitement. Therefore, fidgeting isn’t necessarily a bad thing – humans fidget all the time – but it is still a signal that the dog needs to get their energy out somehow. Attempting to do a low energy, highly focused behavior, like a down stay, may not work well if the dog is in a fidgety state. Instead, give your dog productive opportunities to displace their energy through activities like chewing or sniffing.
Finally, the Fool Around behavior category usually encompasses appeasement gestures intended to diffuse tension. Puppies offer many appeasement behaviors, like going belly up, face licking, groveling, jumping up, or peeing, to convince older dogs that they are non-threatening. Behaviors like whale eye (showing whites of the eyes, often referred to as the guilty look, even though dogs theoretically don’t feel the emotion of guilt), lip licking, ears back, head lowering, or smiling with the corners of their mouth pulled back can also register at this level of stress. These are all ways to say “hey, I am not really comfortable, but I am trying to be polite”. Although, sometimes these “polite” gestures seem anything but polite. Annoying behaviors, like the previously mentioned face licking, or jumping up, pawing, or mounting, can also represent the same stress state.
Unfortunately, when the dog offers these types of fool around gestures, others often get irritated which then causes a negative response from the recipient. This then creates a chain reaction of creating more fool around behaviors, in an attempt to be more obtrusively “polite”. A classic example is the dog that excitedly jumps up on the owner when the owner walks in the door. The owner then yells “off” in a stern, corrective tone. The dog immediately jumps back up on the owner with even more intensity, and possibly more height to include a face lick for good measure. The more frustrated the owner, the more the dog’s behavior escalates. Threatening the dog with a correction in this scenario is increasing the dog’s need to prove through appeasement behaviors that they are non-threatening. This is a simple miscommunication between species that speak different languages, not a dog being stubbornly disobedient. I highly recommend reading Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson for a more comprehensive view on the differences in communication and understanding between the species.
Question #2: Is the dog comfortable?
When I am working on body handling with a dog, I am constantly checking for stress signals to make sure the dog is truly comfortable with what I am doing. Some dogs will offer clear, dramatic signals that the educated eye can easily see, like Bindi who would tremble, hide, and cower, or Cairo who would pull his paw away and very deliberately and forcefully grab my arm with his mouth. However, other dogs are quite subtle and will tolerate most handling procedures. Until they don’t. There is a very fine line between tolerating and not tolerating, but there is a large gap between enjoying and not tolerating. Focus on creating enjoyment. If the dog is offering any type of stress signal, they are not enjoying the exercise and are not feeling comfortable.
So, ask the question. Is the dog comfortable? Yes? Great! Move on to Question #3 (future blog post).
No? Time to reevaluate. Look through some of the exercise set up tips from the Question #1 blog post, but also consider the reinforcers that make training enjoyable for your dog. Is your dog motivated by food? Toys? Sniffy time? Play? Use things your dog finds reinforcing to encourage participation. As I mentioned back in a Want To vs Have To blog post, making the choice between getting a nail trim or playing fetch might be a no brainer for your pup, and may not result in the nail trim. However, we can look at a technique referred to as the Premack Principle to help us out a little. The idea here is that IF you participate in what I want to do THEN we get to do what you want to do. So, if I can touch your paw, then you get to chase the ball. If I can clip a nail, then you get a jackpot of treats. Finding ways to motivate your dog to WANT to participate in the exercise is a great way to eliminate stress and help your pup feel more comfortable.