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Ain't Misbehaving, Part III: Dog Stress and What You Can Do About It

Tips for handling dog stress that manifests in frustrating habits.

Lately it seems everywhere I go, people have dog questions and since I'm known around town as "The Dog Lady," I always try to oblige with a brief, effective answer:

Why does my Poodle pee when I come in? He’s so excited he scratched by face when I tried to pet him!

Why does my neighbor’s dog run along the invisible fence barking at me every time I go by?

What does the term "alpha-dog" mean anyway?

The puzzle for me is how to explain a “dog” in three sentences or less and to leave the questioner with a better understanding of their pet. A short explanation of a complex creature can be tricky, but usually I can help people reduce their exasperation and avoid the quick-fix temptations of or abandonment.

What do barking, peeing, jumping, nipping, growling, digging, pulling (I could go on here) and chewing have in common? Are any of these signs of dominance or obeisence? No. None of these behaviors are specific signs of either personality: these are all dog behaviors, plain and simple. A dog will do any one of these things as a reaction to boredom, pain, loneliness or frustration. Like kids, dogs want to fit in—they want to help and be recognized for their contribution. If a dog isn’t provided with a healthy way to get attention and interact, he’ll devise his own mechanisms for fitting in. 

When a dog reacts (barks at the window or jumps in greeting) they weigh their activity based on the reaction (or reactivity) of their owner. The problem between humans and dogs is one of understanding and language disconnect.  When humans react, dogs translate the reactivity as situation specific (dogs are centered in the here and now) so if you yell when your dog barks or push when he jumps, the canine translation is that you’re stressed and excited too.

So what to do? While many of these cycles could be prevented with knowledge, few people give it any thought until the dog’s behavior is upsetting their lifestyle and the blush of puppyhood has passed. Ritualized habits (greeting manners, reactions to boredom or stress) set in by 6 months of age and only grow more pronounced if left unchecked. 

Try to look at your dog's reactions as a window to his personality (is your dog sociable, fearful or defensive?) and recognize the contribution you've made in instilling the reaction. Do you repeatedly push your exuberant Lab during greetings? Do you yell (bark!) back at your noisy terrier? Don't feel bad--you've taken the first step towards modifying the behavior! Here's what to do:

Displacement activity: If your dog is hyped when people come through your door, he’s not going suddenly calm down just because you feel he should. All dogs need to have a displacement activity: a familiar bone or toy that satisfies a need for activity or fretting. A sociable dog should have a basket of toys by the door and be given one each time it opens; a fearful or protective dog will need a bone to chew while the house (his den) is “invaded” by others and your attention is diverted.

Boredom and loneliness are other mental states that lead to diversionary behaviors. Many dogs chew to displace negative feelings. While training helps the dog feel more included in your world and often the opens the door to better socialization and behavior, it doesn’t eliminate the frustration of being ignored or left behind. There are many toys on the market that serve as canine  “puzzles” and can be very effective ways to keep their minds active when feelings of isolation settle in. Other pets can serve as companions as well (see my upcoming article in the lifestyle magazine WAG). Another antidote for these quieter times is exhaustion—healthy forms of play can lead to restful pauses when you’re separated or busy.

As usual, I realize I may be leaving as many questions as answers: I welcome them as we explore the many reactions dogs have living in our midst!

caleb April 23, 2012 at 10:22 PM
my dog has a terrible habit of eating his own stool. I've tried different peppers in his diet, as well as sprinkling tumeric on the stool. Doesn't matter, he just loves it, can't get enough. He's not interested in other dogs poop, just his own. my vet says otherwise his health is fine. at this point I wonder if I should try and figure out how to break his routine, as he goes as far as hiding his poo and then months later, he'll pull some dry pieces out and chew on them like a kind of candy.
Leo Lanard April 23, 2012 at 10:22 PM
The master must know he's master, the dog must know he's the dog. A mirror can help clarify these positions.
Sarah Hodgson April 24, 2012 at 09:43 AM
Thanks for your thoughts. I love the photo. I used to feel very strongly this way...in my twenties. Life breaks you in a bit, and I've come to realize that an exercised, loved and well-socialized dog can tolerate a little "grey." My dogs eat table scraps--thanks to my kids who are just sharing or eating sloppy, come on the furniture when invited and we are oh-so-guilty of humanizing their life experience. And yet I have a calm,well mannered, crew of three. It's good food for thought though and I feel it has a lot to do with the dog's temperament and disposition--like you said some do need a firmer regimen to know their place. Many, I believe, don't and are distanced from such regime. I know I'd have a hard time living with it.
Sarah Hodgson April 24, 2012 at 09:45 AM
It's the dominance model...I hear what you are saying... I like to think of it as parent to young child (dogs are now shown to have the brain capacity of young kids) or a team captain to his/her players. It's all good- just keep them out of the shelter.
Sarah Hodgson April 24, 2012 at 09:49 AM
Gish! One of my dogs was a stool gulper...dear Whoopsie. I always think she longed to be a Mama dog (who eat their puppies stool) though we spayed her young. She outgrew the habit by a year, without my making too big a fuss over it. When I see this in my practice I always notice a direct correlation with the grand fuss being made over the situation, the dog's anxiety rising because of the way he's being handled, and...can you guess, and increase fixation on his stool. I'm not sure how you're handing the situation but i--perhaps incorrectly summarize, it's stressing you out--which is probably leading to more stool gulping. I have seen it before, and remedied it with a softer, more exercise focused and less intense approach. When all else fails...

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