Stress – How it relates to anxiety, aggression, fear, and reactivity: Stress overload or stressor stacking is usually one of the primary reasons for reactivity, aggression, and increased anxiety in dogs. Here is a great article that outlines how the perfect storm can culminate in a dog bite: Yale Town Trigger Stacking Article.
Cortisol: This is the stress hormone that gets released into the body with each triggering event. Note that it can stay in the body for several days, thereby impacting behavior days later. Always be aware of events that might be contributing to Fido’s behavior. Make sure you are not putting him in one stressful situation after another. Such stacking of stressors will cause him to climb further up on the bar graph illustrated in the article, potentially leading to a snap or a bite.
Body Language and Common Stress Signals: Now that you understand that stress is a major factor in his anxiety, reactivity, and/or aggression, you now need to understand when your dog is displaying low level stress signals. Most body language cues that indicate discomfort in a dog go unnoticed by the general population. That includes most pet parents. Because their low level stress signals are often ignored, dogs are frequently forced to escalate their warnings in order to get their points across. Once you can tell that your dog is uncomfortable at an early stage, you can become an advocate for them by intervening before they decide it’s necessary to growl, bark, lunge, or bite.
Here are some great online resources that illustrate important body language signals, including stress. Familiarize yourself with them:
Living With Kids and Dogs Guide (These are not stress signals exclusive to dog/kid interactions.)
While we are on the subject of body language, it is really important to note that we do not want to punish Fido when he growls. Growling is important communication and it’s an important warning, one that we want to preserve. If we punish the growl, he’ll learn not to use it at which point he could very well learn that the most effective means of getting a perceived threat to move away is to bite. To address your dog’s growling, it’s important to address the underlying cause. Are men in hats causing Fido to growl? Then we have to address his feelings about men in hats, not simply suppress the growling while he’s around them.
Pat Miller talks about the “gift” of the growl in this article: “Understand Why Dogs Growl”
Stress Reduction: Help is available at the store when it comes to overall stress reduction for your dog. Here are some products we recommend:
- Adaptil / Comfort Zone collar – a pheromone collar that you renew every 30 days. It also comes in a diffuser format as well as a spray.
- L-theanine (Sun-theanine) or Zylekene – both are nutraceuticals that can affect mood. You can also check out these calming chews: Composure and Solliquin. Nutraceuticals can sometimes interact with one another and with medication, so always run it by your vet.
- iCalm Dog Music – bioaccoustically engineered calming music for dogs. Think of this as Fido’s spa time. This music is designed to relax dogs and has been proven to do so. Play it during times when you think he needs some help relaxing. It can also be used to drown out noise. Never pair this exclusively with stressful events or the music will take on a negative meaning.
- Thundershirt – a pressure jacket that can help relieve stress. This is only helpful if your dog is okay with wearing clothes. Never pair this exclusively with stressful events or the shirt will take on a negative meaning.
- Medication – Often times dogs suffering from behavior problems can greatly benefit from behavioral medicine. For our NJ clients, they should see Dr. Emily Levine. For our NYC clients, they should see Dr. E’Lise Christensen and Dr. Andrea Tu.
Management: Whenever possible, exercise management to prevent rehearsal of unwanted behaviors. This means manipulating the environment in some way. Forms of management include:
- Baby gates
- White Noise Machines for drowning out external sounds
- Privacy film for windows to prevent reactivity
- Privacy fencing in yards
- Vests and or Leash Sleeves requesting strangers respect your dog’s space
- Exercising avoidance of triggers
Behavior Modification: Modifying your dog’s behavior will involve helping him associate his triggers with an appetitive. This method is referred to as Counter Conditioning and Desensitization (CC/DS). The key points are highlighted in this infographic: Grisha Stewart’s CC/DS infographic.
© Give Paw Dog Training LLC 2017