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Why doesn't your dog act like it does at home?

In the world of performance dogs, stress and it's effects on learning and behaviour are key issues which cannot be ignored. Because of this we, as keepers of dogs, are concerned with their well-being, which is defined as the absence of stress. Since we assume our dogs are fine if they are not in pain, signs of stress and discomfort can be difficult to recognise. Audrey Ferrel shares a paper she did for school with us.

According to veterinary behaviourist Karen Overall, anxiety-related disorders are probably the most common class of disorders in dogs. Furthermore, it is my view that we as simple dog owners are not properly educated in this matter of stress and, therefore, are not helping our canine companions reach their full potential. 

The intent here is not to attribute human characteristics to our dogs. Skinner said simply, 'It is impossible to know what an animal or another person is thinking.  All we have to go on are the visible physical signs of what we call 'stress' and how the dog performs with these symptoms present. At this point in science, we cannot say what the animal is 'thinking.'

Rather it is my objective to come up with a comprehensive list of signs and causes of stress in the dog. I will discuss the effects stress has on behaviour and explore a variety of methods to treat and prevent the stress response, thus improving performance in our canine athletes and companions.

Signs of stress
Based upon past observation of dogs at agility competitions, I venture to say well over half exhibited various signs of stress. The severe cases involved dogs leaving the ring without their handlers. Many of these handlers thought their dog was 'just being bad,' but in fact, the dog was reacting as he would to any negative re-inforcer. Escape the pressure and find something else more positively reinforcing to do.

Recognising the signs of stress is the first step in understanding a dogís behaviour.  All too often, dogs can be found in a class or a dog park who are, unbeknownst to their owners, totally stressed out.  While it is impossible to measure actual canine thoughts, it is possible to measure visible external stressors such as a change in environment. This, in turn, makes it possible to measure the effects of these external stressors by noting the dogís response to them.  In a laboratory environment, we could go much further and record heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, brain waves etc., but that is beyond the scope of this essay.

Some of the signs of stress are as follows: panting, yawning, scratching, licking, staring, dilated pupils, blinking, avoiding eye contact, tucked tail, low and slow wagging tail, shaking, salivating, whining, barking, diarrhea, sniffing, sudden onset of dandruff, shedding, muscle tension, hypersensitivity, increased reactivity, zooming around the ring, general restlessness, or avoidance of handler. Most of these signs could be observed any given day at an agility trial.

Stress, anxiety and excitement can increase a humanís body temperature causing the need to engage the cooling mechanisms. The result is sweating. Dogs are also susceptible to this phenomenon, but they sweat through the pads of their feet and their mouths. Hence, the wet paw prints on the floor.

Yet another great window to emotions is the tail. A tucked tail can mean mental discomfort, while a slow wagging tail can be translated as insecurity, uncertainty, or indecision. Licking is a complex signal that can sometimes be interpreted as a sign of tension. Some stressed dogs appear to be licking the air and do not seem to be 'aiming' at any person or thing. This dog may lick his lips or even begin licking his own body (Coren, 2000)

Yet another important sign of stress, which I am personally very painfully aware of, is avoidance. Avoidance of eye contact is a real problem when trying to gain a dogs attention or otherwise communicate with him. A stressed out dog will have difficulty in focusing on you and the task at hand. This lack of focus can cause a delayed response, which can mean the difference between a clean run and elimination. In agility this dog will be slower off the mark and slower in completing the obstacles for an overall slower time. If the dog is avoiding you and eye contact with you, these delays are inevitable. The breaking of eye contact is a sign of submission and perhaps fear and anxiety in this case.

Some dogs become over-aroused when under performance pressure. Their pupils will become dilated and they appear to be 'out of it.' This could be an example of Pavlovís 'excitable' animal vs. the 'inhibited' animal.  Scott and Fuller expounded upon Pavlovís theory and identified the passive dog and the dog that tries to escape.  Within this class they found enormous variability.  The 'excitable' dog may bark and whine constantly or race about wildly which in turn lead to inconsistent performance and a loss of control. On the other hand, the 'inhibited' dog will shut down, leave the ring, stress sniff or find some other way to avoid the pressure. Both types of dogs, though displaying their stress in different ways, are equally counterproductive (Steinker, 2000).  This results in a large problem in the agility dog where speed, accuracy and timing are the name of the game. 

Causes and effects
It is my belief that the underlying primary cause of stress is lack of socialisation. Jean Donaldson defines socialisation as 'a term which means habituation or getting used to environmental elements through exposure.
' (CC p 60) Without proper socialisation a dog may display all of the aforementioned signs of stress when thrown into a new environment. We should not, therefore, expect an improperly socialised dog to perform at his peak in the face of new stimuli.

A lack of socialisation can lead to many excuses as to why the dog performs poorly. Some say that the dog is 'unforgiving' or 'soft'.  This implies that the dog does not forget, recover from or move on from unpleasant experiences (Jones 2001). Another excuse might describe a dog as having an over-active 'fight or flight' response. While this may be true to a certain extent, it is still a product of lack of socialisation. 

Another common comment is 'Why canít my dog just act like he does at home?'  To answer this, when everything in the trial environment, including the handler, is vastly different from the friendlier training environment, there is suddenly a breakdown in performance. This breakdown is due to stress, which is caused by lack of socialisation to these stimuli. This level of stimulation was probably never experienced prior to the dogsí debut. Good indicators of an unfinished training/socialisation process are all of the aforementioned signs of stress.

While lack of socialisation may be the primary cause of stress, it is not the only one. Other causes might include:

  1. Poor training or training style
  2. Handler pressure
  3. Fatigue
  4. Genetics

Poor training is related to lack of socialisation, much of which is accomplished unbeknownst to the trainer. Since dogs are innocent subjects of learning laws, and since behaviour is under the control of its consequences, we can manipulate consequences to control behaviour in training.  For example, we inadvertently train our dogs to behave a certain way under these circumstances:  start line, show ring, obedience class, etc.  We are quite proficient at unintentionally classically conditioning a ring-wise dog. 

Stress can be attributed to another training problem, which is lack of feedback from the handler. This decreases motivation and helps the behaviour along the road to extinction rather than fluency (Duford, 2001). Poor trainers often expect too much from their dogs too soon by asking them to perform under pressure prematurely.  Since training is not allowed in the competition ring, behaviour goes unreinforced, which equates to a lack of feedback from the handler. As a result, the dog quickly learns that in a trial environment, there are no consequences for his behaviours and the stress level increases as a result of confusion. Performance often deteriorates immediately or over a series of successive trials.  

Fatigue should also be avoided, as this is another cause of stress.  It is important to stop training while the dog is still enjoying the behaviour and the rate of response is high. (Donaldson, 1998)

Social pressure is yet another influence on dog behaviour.  Our dogs are classically conditioned to understand what our complicated body language means.  Our body language and attitude have a colossal effect on our dogís stress level.  When we suddenly transform into yelling, tense, and waving monsters while under our own pressures, the effects on our dogs are painfully obvious (Duford 2001).  We must fix our own behaviour before we can change the dogs.

Training style is a likely cause of increased stress in dogs. In a study on training tests by Scott and Fuller, results indicate that the expression of any one ability is highly dependent on the training method used (1965). Suzanne Clothier puts it well 'Öany method which incorporates fear, confusion, or aggression from the handler is not conducive to learning, curiosity, enjoyment, trust and cooperation (1996)'.

In a pioneer study on genetics and the social behaviour of dogs, researchers found that different breed groups responded to training pressure in different ways.  A link was also found between emotional, or stressed, behaviour and heredity.   Furthermore, different emotional behaviours were discovered to form a prominent part of the characteristic behaviour of breeds and individuals. (Scott & Fuller, 1965)

About the author...
Audrey Ferrel has been training animals since she was a child. She grew up around horses and dogs and began teaching riding and horsemanship at a very early age through the United States Pony Club.

Audrey attended Virginia Tech where she earned a B.S. degree in Animal Science in 1997. (Go Hokies!) While still in school, she accepted a job training explosives detection dogs through Galaxy Scientific Corporation. This marked the beginning of my dog-training career, and ever since she has been schooled in the art of reinforcement training. She found herself, and her passion, in the world of animal behaviour

Her behaviour studies include attending multiple seminars and workshops as well as furthering my education in psychology at the University of South Carolina. In 1998 she became a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), which is an organisation that promotes continuing the education of trainers in humane and positive training techniques. 1998 also marks the inception of BBDT in Beaufort, SC. While there she treated many behaviour problems referred by veterinarians including many types of aggression, anxiety issues, house training problems and various other general behavioural issues. She worked with Cloma Calm in co-operation with several local vets. On most weekdays and some weekends, you could find her conducting phone and email consultations, private and group sessions, or travelling all over the Lowcountry seeing dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Salsa is her demo dog and her current competition agility dog. She has earned her Canine Good Citizen (CGC), Therapy Dog International (TDI) as well as the agility titles Master Agility Dog (MAD), Agility Excellent (AX), Open Agility Jumpers (OAJ) , and Novice Agility (NAC, NADAC). She also qualified in Steeplechase, Grand Prix, and DAM team for 2001 (USDAA). If you are in The States, watch out for her in the Animal Planet.Super Star Challenge which should air sometime this year!



From Janet McKenna...
I enjoyed reading the article on the causes and effects of stress on our dogs and agreed on all that was said. I, too, have seen many dogs totally stressed out at agility shows and have come to realize that my dog suffers from stress or did. I have done my best to calm and reassure her and make it fun and not expect too much if she's not happy at the venue. Dogs are very perceptive - more so than us humans. We can watch and learn so much.


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