In this week's podcast Emily and I discussed the two models trainers use to asses stress accumulation in dogs, as well as why these models are relevant and how you can apply them in the the real world.
Stress is a necessary part of our lives. Without stress we would never change or strive to better our situation. Stress can be seen as everything from the temperature being off by a degree to a major injury or tragedy. Stress is unavoidable. When stress becomes problematic is when it is chronic or when the stressors add up and our dogs are no longer equipped to handle them and must releive the accumulated stress in some manner (shutting down, biting, scrabbling maniacally at the walls, etc...).
A common representation of the layered stress model is a volcano. As each layer accumulates we climb higher and higher until we reach the exploding apex. If we look at all stress, both avoidable and unavoidable as layers we can begin to envision the goal of creating a world that allows our dogs to spend their time in the lush jungles at the base of the volcano rather than allowing them to combust at the top. We will discuss some of the methods that we can bring to bear to help our dogs stay away from the smoke and fire at the top. First, let's examine the things that may be causing our dogs stress in the first place.
Because dogs often have little to no say in their lives (when they sleep or eat, defecate, or go for walks, etc...) they can become profoundly stressed simply by a lack of predictability in their lives.
When you put your dog in their crate they have little by way of knowing when they will be let out again, fifteen minutes, or eight hours. They cannot be told to 'go to the bathroom one last time before we get in the car'. Unpredictability coupled with lack of control is a very potent combination of stressors.
Over-tired/ stimulated, under-exercised, mentally fatigued, mentally bored, uncomfortable for whatever reason, lack of clarity, unclear windows of opportunity, and more can cause our dog's bottom layers to fill up, before we even add the car ride, strange dog, or trip to the vet.
The Trigger Stacking model as described by Grisha Stewart (as we have defined it) concerns more immediate stressors (triggers) that can appear one after another in our dog's lives, often below our notice, and cause an expression of frustration or distress in our dog that appears random or out of the blue.
These stressors are often more visible: the thunder storm, loud children, an unpleasant experience.
All of these things add additional layers. Each layer, independently ,is easily over come; however, when they arrive in waves, or are added to the top of multiple lifestyle layers then our dog simply cannot function any more and the 'out of the blue' explosion occurs.
Mitigating the factors that add stress to our dog's life will help our dogs face unforeseen challenges. By first ensuring that we integrate as much predictability into our dog's life as feasible, build resilience to every-day stressors (traffic noise, passers by, the vacuum, etc...) we are able to remove the all important lower levels of the volcano on which the other stressors stand.
Sudden, inescapable stressors (thunderstorms, or a dog attack) releases a flood of chemicals into our dog's blood, one of which, the stress hormone cortisol, remains in circulation for up to 72 hours. This means that if your dog encounters a significant stressor they cannot deescalate (climb back down the volcano) for up to 72 hours. For this reason, a quick succession of stressors can have the same effect, even if seemingly minor, than larger stressors that arrive more infrequently.
The most effective ways to ensure that your dog does not begin to scale the volcano are:
Know your dog. Every dog is different, and by studying your dog you can begin to register the little signs of stress that indicate that they are feeling uncomfortable or out of sorts.
Meet your dog's needs. Exercise, mental stimulation, a quiet place away from yelling kids or unpleasant housemates will help keep those bottom layers from accumulating.
Create consistency - unpredictability is stressful - the more your dog understands the consequences of behavior, the happier they will be.
Create resiliancy (we discuss ways in Podcast #10 and the accompanying Blog Post), but the fewer things your dog finds stressful, or the more that we work to allow de-stressing outlets for our dogs, the lower they'll live on the sides of the volcano and the less likely they will be to ever reach the top. Dogs can learn techniques to feel safe in the face of fearful situations.
Try to create choice wherever possible - dogs that find thunderstorms or fireworks stressful, if permitted to hide in a quiet room away from the noise will often do so. Dogs, just like people will avoid stress whenever possible.
Be aware that the triggering event is the top of a very large volcano, and that simply trying to fix the explosion ignores the huge underlying structure supporting it. Dogs rarely do things "out of the blue".
Stress releases a cascade of chemicals into the brain, and chronic stress can be incredibly debilitating to both mental and physical health. By ensuring that our dogs low chronic stress, have control over their ability to respond to stressors, and have been given the tools to conquer stress, and recover from stressors quickly, we can ensure that our dogs are able to lead their best lives.