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Learning to recognise and live with stress

We can not give our dogs a totally stress free life, nor would we want to. Stress in moderation is not harmful. However, problems with dogs arise when they are subjected to many forms of stress in their every day life, and they are not allowed to recover from it. You may think that you are the only only stressed out on the agility course, but your dog feels to pressure too. Dog behaviourist Aileen Clarke investigates the causes of stress and how to relieve it.

The effects of stress are cumulative. Imagine a glass into which water is being poured. When it is full, we stop pouring or it would overflow. If our dog is continually being subjected to stress, and not allowed to recover from its effects then like the glass full of water, the dog become full of stress and this stress will overflow. We will then have a dog that is displaying a multitude of problems such as constant barking, health problems, aggression, chewing, and restlessness etc.

What are the causes of stress in dogs?
Your dog can become stressed for many reasons. This list is not exhaustive - and you may be able to add others that apply to your own circumstances - but it gives a good idea of what causes our dogs to be stressed, and some of these things have a greater effect on some dogs than on others.

Here are just a few examples:


  • Queuing by the agility ring
  • Meeting other dogs, and handlers
  • Travelling including trips in the car
  • Exciting ball games in the exercise area
  • Too much training
  • Too many commands
  • Lack of consistency in training
  • Training classes

At home

  • Being left alone
  • Being hungry or thirsty
  • Not being able to go to the toilet when desperate
  • Being left alone in the garden, to attend to toilet matters
  • Violence, anger or aggression in environment including family arguments
  • Children!
  • The postman, dustman, milkman or other regular visitors
  • Too much or too little exercise
  • Change of routine
  • Pain and illness


  • On lead including meeting other dogs, pulling or jerking, pushing dog down etc.
  • Weather - i.e. windy days, thunder, too hot, too cold
  • Loud or sudden noise including fireworks
  • Too many exciting walks including lots of free running
  • Bitches in season
  • Never being able to relax in peace, always being disturbed
  • Canine conflict

Special occasions

  • Christmas and other holidays
  • A new 'baby' - human or dog

Fight or flight
When faced with a dangerous situation the dog has four choices - either

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Freeze
  4. Faint

It will depend on his character or the situation which one of these it opts for.

How stress affects the dog
Five to fifteen minutes after a 'situation' occurs, the production of adrenaline is at its peak. At the same time, stomach acids increase, causing upset stomachs, and sexual hormones rise. Defense mechanisms such as Endorphins flood the body, making the dog can react more aggressively and ADH (anti-diuretic hormones) will be produced.

After about a quarter of an hour, hormones and acids start to decrease. Depending on the severity of the situation it can take from two to six days - or longer - for the adrenaline levels to return to normal. However, if the dog is subject to continual stress then the level of adrenaline may NEVER return to normal.

Adrenaline to the rescue
Adrenaline is the stress hormone. It is important for both animals and humans if they find themselves in dangerous situations. It works like this.

The rise in adrenaline triggers the defense mechanisms – the survival hormones. The dog will become more aggressive as endorphins will flood his body, these endorphins will also block pain and give him the ability to run faster and fight harder if he needs to. So it is not wise to try to separate two fighting dogs by hitting or kicking them, it actually makes the dogs fight more aggressively.

The stimulation of ADH ensures the water balance in the dog’s body is maintained, and stress causes these hormones to work overtime. Dogs only sweat through their pads, and they regulate their body temperature by panting, so sweaty pads and excessive panting can be a good indication that the dog is stressed. It is the production of this hormone that ensures that the handler will be desperate for a wee the minute she reaches the start line, too!!

A dog with a constantly high stress level will be more prone to medical problems such as stomach, allergy and heart trouble. They will be faster and more violent in their defense, and their reaction to outside influences will be a lot faster and more aggressive.

How to recognise signs of stress in our dog?

Physical Behaviour
  • Dandruff – caused by muscular tension
  • Whites of eye become very red
  • Fur that is hard, breakable and standing on end
  • Looking unhealthy
  • Shivering
  • Scratching
  • Loss of appetite
  • Looking nervous
  • Allergies
  • Diarrhea
  • Total shut down of systems
  • He smells bad – both mouth and/or body
  • Panting
  • More frequent need for the toilet
  • Restlessness
  • Over reaction to things happening e.g. doorbell
  • Barking, howling, whining
  • Shaking
  • Biting himself
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inappropriate biting or chewing e.g. furniture
  • Licking at himself
  • Chasing his tail
  • Fixation on things
  • Behaving aggressively
  • Displacement behaviours - doing something other than what you have asked him to do
  • Use of calming signals

Chewing and barking releases endorphins which make the dog feel better. Then we get stressed and behave differently towards our dog.

Stress and performance
If we take a very exaggerated hypothetical situation, it is easy to see how the cumulative effects of stress affect the performance of the agility dog, or any dog. George and Percy are fictitious. They are not based on one particular person or dog, but over the years I have seen many different dogs and handlers who remind me of George and Percy!

How can we relieve our dogs’ stress?
Poor Percy. The future is looking very bleak for him, but how could this have been avoided?

When we realise that it is possible that stress is causing a problem in our dogs, then we need to identify those things that are causing the stress. We will not be able to eliminate all stress from our dogs’ lives, and even if we could this would not necessarily be a good thing to do.

When we have identified the causes of stress, then we ensure that our dog is not being subjected to an overdose of stressful situations.

Some simple ideas are:

  • Change the environment and routines.
  • Stop using harsh methods of training, there is no place for violence and pain in dog training, and there is no excuse for it. It is totally valueless.
  • We can teach ourselves to see, identify and use calming signals
  • We can avoid putting the dog in a situation of hunger, thirst, heat, extreme cold, and lack of toilet opportunities.
  • Find a balance of exercise and activity, too much and too little can both cause problems.
  • Let the dog be part of the family as much as possible. Dogs cannot thrive on their own for long periods of time. They are social animals and need to be part of a pack.
  • Closeness, touching, and massage will all release stress. (For people as well as dogs!!)

Observe and understand your dog.
Learn to identify the times when he is finding life stressful, then intervene, and remove him from the situation if you can, or give him the opportunity to regain his serenity when the situation is over.

The best way to do this is to limit hyper activity times, such as agility, chasing balls or rushing around, to just two or three times a week. Then let him have plenty of sleep for the next couple of days before he does anything else exciting.

With particular regard to agility...
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that flying round the exercise area after a ball will calm him down before you take him into the ring, in fact it will have the opposite effect. It will raise his adrenaline levels and make him more hyper-reactive to any situation he finds himself in.

Be a role model to your dog. If you react calmly to situations then your dog will follow suit. If you scream and shout in stressful situations, your dog will decide you are out of control and take over the leadership role, usually with disastrous results.

Be aware that when he is on the lead your dog has lost the flight option.

  • Don’t join an agility queue if this causes him anxiety, give him the space he needs to feel comfortable with the situation.
  • Give your dog plenty of space when meeting other dogs and people at all times.
  • If you jerk his lead and tell him in a cross voice to 'leave it,' you are telling him that meeting other dogs and people is going to be a painful experience that makes you cross.

Can you blame him if he then tries to prevent this painful experience from happening by barking or lunging aggressively at other people and their dogs in order to get rid of them?

Never leave your dog alone with children. They will not recognise the calming signals that he uses, and children can be very unpredictable.

For most dog owners their relationship with their dog has been a one-way communication – they demand and the dog has to respond – or else. For those of us that really want to know and understand our dogs this is not enough. Given the chance dogs have an amazing ability for conflict solving, helping each other and helping us. Think of the hundreds of dogs that go to agility shows, with no problems at all, and ask yourself if this is thanks to them or thanks to us. Dogs are born to a life of unselfish communication and co-operation, and will try to resolve conflict situations whenever they are allowed to. We need to help them achieve this every way we can.

And Percy...
Even though he is a fictitious dog I could not leave him to that dreadful fate. He was given another chance. He went to live with a family who treated him with respect, love and understanding. His leg healed and in time he overcame his stress problems. He still does agility, and loves it. Who knows, perhaps he will be next years winner at Olympia.

The Tale of George & Percy
How to Ruin a Good Dog!

George works throughout the week, while Percy, his three year old Collie, stays at home. While George is working, it is Percy’s job to guard the house against the postman, the dustman, the old biddy and her cat next door and everyone who walks past.

So by the time George gets in exhausted from work, Percy is exhausted from his day’s work too, and the nosy old biddy next door has complained about Percy barking all day again. Now George is cross with Percy again. George is even more cross with Percy when he finds out that he has been chewing the carpet again. Then George steps in the deposit that Percy has left by the kitchen door. George shouts at Percy, then he cleans up the mess and stomps off to get changed for agility practice.

The car ride to the agility field is really exciting. Percy barks all the way there. George spends the journey screaming at Percy again. He tries out the water pistol that someone suggested, and he nearly runs the car off the road while he is aiming it. This frightens Percy, and at least he is quiet for a moment. Then he starts barking again, but he keeps a wary eye on George’s hands.

George takes Percy to watch the class before his. Percy starts lunging on his lead every time someone else’s dog goes round the course, so George decides to take Percy for a quick walk before his class. George throws a ball for him to try to run some of his energy off. After ten minutes playing with a ball, Ethel and Munchkin, the little Papillon, come into the exercise field. Percy rushes up to Munchkin and grabs him without any warning. George rushes over to the dogs and screams at Percy. He thumps and kicks his dog, but that doesn’t work as the endorphins flooding Percy’s body ensure he can’t feel a thing, so George grabs hold of Percy, and tries to pull him off poor little Munchkin. Ethel rushes up and screams at George telling him how stupid he is.

Too late
Munchkin has been bitten, so Ethel rushes him to the vets threatening George with legal action as she goes. George is cross with Percy again. He smacks Percy round the head. That will teach him not to attack little dogs thinks George. He tries to put Percy on the lead but Percy remembers the smacking, the water pistol and stays well back, walking slowly up to George to try to calm him down. George screams at Percy for being so slow, grabs him by the scruff, which frightens Percy so he turns round and air snaps at George. Don’t you get aggressive with me says George and gives him another wallop round his head. That’ll teach him not to bite me thinks George.

Time to do agility
Percy is high as a kite, contacts - what contacts - says Percy. He knocks pole after pole, and demolishes everything he meets. He doesn’t even attempt to slow down when he goes through the rigid tunnel, and wallops his shoulder on the bend, but again the endorphins prevent him feeling anything.

George has a quick look at him but he isn’t limping so they carry on. Time for more contact practice. George is determined that Percy is going to get his contacts this time, so he grabs him as he comes down the Dog Walk and screams at him to stay on it. Percy is frightened so he air snaps at George again, jumping off sideways. He rushes to the side of the field and has an explosive bout of diarrhea. George is cross again, and tells the instructor that he has been for a walk – honestly. Everyone smirks. George is really cross now as he puts Percy on the lead and drags him across the field so he can clear up the mess.

He take Percy home, feeds him and packs the caravan ready for the show at the weekend. It’s a long journey to the show, and Friday night is always a rush. Saturday morning sees George in the exercise area with Percy, throwing a ball to take the edge off his enthusiasm. He is really not listening to what George says, and luckily George manages to prevent him attacking another dog that comes too close.

'The first class for Percy is Open Agility. Pity thinks George as Percy does better with a Jumping round first. Queuing is a nightmare. Percy leaps about, barking his head off. He growls at any dog that comes near him.

George brings out the water pistol again. He misses Percy and squirts a poor little mongrel that was cowering next to them in the queue. George shouts at Percy and fires the water pistol again, hitting Percy as he is looking at the little mongrel. Percy associates the little mongrel with George getting cross and firing the water pistol at him, so he thinks George wants help in sorting this pesky little critter out. Percy lunges at her. The owner of the mongrel screams at George and leaves the queue. She will never be able to queue with her dog again. George is cross so he yanks at Percy’s lead, pulling the check chain tight, and tells him off again. He forces him into the down and puts his foot on the lead to keep him there. It is very painful for Percy and he can hardly breathe.

On the start line George says wait, but Percy goes. He knocks the first three poles down, flies the see-saw and goes the wrong way through the tunnel. He hits the A frame so fast that he damages a tendon, but the endorphins flooding through his body ensure that he can’t feel the pain. Another jumping combination and Percy goes the wrong way again. The rest of the course is a nightmare and when they reach the final straight Percy goes flying out of the ring and attacks a German Shepherd that is going past.

Trouble & strife
George takes Percy home in disgrace and when he gets home he opens his post to find a letter from Ethel’s Solicitor. She is suing him. The owner of the German Shepherd complained to the Show Secretary and the case is forwarded to the Kennel Club. After the Kennel Club hearing George is banned from competing in Kennel Club events for five years. George has had enough. He sends Percy to the rescue kennels for rehoming, and takes up golf.

Poor Percy
Being in the rescue kennels causes him a lot of stress. The centre manager knows that Percy is really a lovely dog, but his recurring stomach problems and damaged tendon mean that finding a new home for him will be very difficult. So reluctantly she calls in the assessor to make the decision whether or not Percy should be put to sleep.

Animated Xmas corgi

- The end -
(Or is it?)

About the Author
Aileen Clarke has five dogs and has competed successfully in Agility, Breed and Flyball.

She has recently started her own business, Fellandale Dog Training. At present she has over 70 people registered with her and the major part of her work is helping families deal with problems they are having with their dogs. She also does pet obedience classes, fun training, training walks and gives talks to clubs and groups about canine understanding and communication. All the training is done through kindness and positive association, and she has many associates including a Tellington Touch practitioner. Her long-term aim is to set up a Canine Education Centre in County Durham.

Credits: Cartoon graphics thanks to Fuzzy Faces, Pedigree Masterfoods, Peter Lewis, Charles Schultz and Kim Blundell.


From Yvonne East...
Really enjoyed Aileen Clarkes article Stressed Out. Got me thinking about all the situations that my dogs could feel stressed in, and what we can do to reduce this stress.  I realise that when competing I get very wound up myself which communicates itself to my dogs. The article certainly brought it home to me, that the behavior my dogs display in the ring is all down to myself, so I must calm down!

From Julie Botl
I thought this was an excellent article. I was pleased to find I am already doing many of the things she suggests e.g. my nervous rescue dog is far less stressed if she does not queue. I was interested to see the author is a Tellington Touch practitioner because by far the best stress reduction technique I have found for my dog is Tellington Touch! (04/11/02)

From Claire White
After reading Aileen Clarke's excellent Stressed Out article, it got me to thinking... Do my dogs get too much or too little exercise. Do I put them under too much stress??

I have two terriers (Penny and Archie) and a hound cross (Be-bop). Penny and Be-bop do agility and flyball and Archie does agility when it suits him!! They also get on average two hours a day of free running in the Forest - some days they get maybe more. As we train at class twice a week and then some at home, am I training them too much.

I also work full time so could it be guilt from leaving them all day that I do so much, when a lot of my friends who don't work, don't give their dogs as much exercise and attention?

As I said - great article, and very thought provoking. (21/04/02)

From Diane Price
Excellent article! Very thought provoking. (21/04/02)


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