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Attitude Really IS Everything: What Does Stress Look Like? (Part 2)

More from Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD.


Continued from yesterday's article, which can be found here.

What does stress look like?

One of the challenges of avoiding unreasonable levels of stress in our performance dogs is recognizing what stress looks like. Almost all of the classic signs of stress are also perfectly normal dog behaviors; it simply depends on the context. For example, panting could mean a dog is stressed, or it could mean the dog is hot or excited. For some dogs, stress is obvious and external. One quick look will tell you that the dog is miserable. However, other dogs show minimal external signs or the signs are confusing to the average trainer.

When evaluating your dog's stress level, make a point of learning what your dog looks like in a normal context where you know he is not stressed. What is your dog's body language and expression when he is playing with his doggy friends, running in the park, resting in the house, or begging for dinner? Keep in mind that "normal" is relative. For example, Denise's dog Cisu pants heavily when she works, but in Denise's other dog, Raika, that type of panting would mean excessive stress. If you do not have a baseline of what's normal for your dog in a stress-free situation, you probably will not recognize the early warning signs that your dog is struggling.

Stress also needs to be distinguished from boredom. If your dog is learning a new behavior and is continually moving away to sniff or is yawning excessively, it is very likely your dog is stressed and showing you avoidance behaviors. Avoidance behaviors are things that dogs do to try to get away from you or from work when they feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the situation. On the other hand, if you've been practicing stays for twenty minutes and your dog can do them in his sleep, wandering or sniffing is very likely your dog's way of telling you he's had enough. He's bored and you need to either move on to a different exercise or find a more entertaining way to train the one you are focused on.

In both cases, the trainer has a problem. She needs to make changes to the situation to bring her dog back into a happy emotional state where learning or working can take place at the optimal level of arousal. This chapter offers a variety of photos for you to study if you wish to better understand the range of observable stress behaviors in dogs. As you look at each picture, make a point of going over the dog from head to tail and see what you can identify that might suggest the dog is uncomfortable. For contrast, some dogs are shown in both a stressed and an unstressed situation. Here are some body parts and behaviors for you to pay particular attention to.

Head: Typically, a stressed dog shows the most obvious signs of distress in his head and muzzle. A classically stressed dog will have his ears back, pant with his mouth open, avoid eye contact, show ridges on the sides of his lips, and have lowered head carriage. Any one of these behaviors can be perfectly normal, but in combination they often suggest a stressed dog.

Muzzle: Look for hardness and tension around the mouth. Stressed dogs often show ridge lines running vertically, starting just behind where the upper and lower lips meet. Heavy open- mouthed panting, sometimes with the lips pulled back, is also common, as is drooling. Some dogs show prominent ridges under their eyes.

Yawning: Dogs yawn both when they are tired but also when they are stressed. If your dog is yawning when learning something new or when preparing to compete, it's likely a stress response.

Lip Licking: Dogs may lick their muzzles with their whole tongues or "flick" their tongues rapidly in and out of their mouths when distressed. Like many signals, this is dependent on the context; after a meal, lip licking would be totally normal and appropriate.

Ears: Dogs have a variety of ear structures, sets, and ranges of motion. Take that into account when using the ears as a barometer of the dog's stress level. One of the clearest indicators of a happy dog is forward ears. When a dog's ears are back, look to see if the ears are relaxed and the dog is simply resting or if they appear to be pulled out to the side. Ears that are tense and held out sideways are often referred to as "helicopter" or "airplane" ears. The combination of ears back and panting hard typically indicates stress.

Eyes: Worried or stressed dogs often have wide open eyes with the whites showing; this is called "whale eye" and happens when the eyes are open wide and the dog is looking at something using his peripheral vision rather than turning his head. It often indicates extreme discomfort, although some dogs naturally have the whites of their eyes showing. Worried dogs will often avoid eye contact. Other sign of stress are highly dilated pupils or red veins in the eye area. Blinking a lot, squinting, or keeping the eyes closed can be a sign of stress or of a sleepy dog.

Tail: Tail carriage can tell you a lot about your dog's mood. A tail carried low or tucked between the back legs often indicates stress or fear. The opposite  a tail held stiffly and pointing straight up - is also a characteristic of a stressed or hyper-alert dog. Of course, some breeds will normally carry their tails low, while others may naturally curl theirs over their backs. In addition to how the tail is carried, it's also important to note what your dog is doing with his tail. While an open, loose, or easy wag is almost always a sign of a relaxed dog, a slow, stiff, or fast wag can indicate stress, aggression, or uncertainty. Since tails can be so highly variable, it is important to know what your dog's tail looks like when he's feeling relaxed. A change in carriage or movement may indicate stress.

Movement: Some dogs move a good deal more than normal when they are stressed. This behavior is frantic, not enthusiastic. Other dogs stop moving altogether or move much more slowly when they are stressed. Stressed dogs may also leave wet footprints on the ground which is caused by excessive sweating through their pads.

Body Carriage: The body carriage of a dog also shows signs of stress that you can learn to identify. Stressed dogs may carry themselves lower than usual or stretch more often than normal. They are also likely to display muscle tension and lean backwards, as if preparing to escape. The back may be roached (rounded) with the head carried low.

Body Shake: Some dogs will give a full-body shake after a stressful experience. They are literally shaking it off. You may notice this after two dogs have been playing and they are gearing down, or after a particularly intense dog/dog interaction.

Clinging: Some stressed dogs cling to their owners. High-energy dogs tend to leap vertically at their owners, often biting at their face and grabbing their clothes. Quieter dogs will lean against their owners or hide behind their legs.

Vocalization: Whining, hard panting, and barking are also typical signs of stress in dogs. As with all other signs, context is vitally important.

It takes practice and experience to become skilled at observing stress signals in dogs. While there are some universal stress signs, stress can also be displayed in very unique individual ways. For example, Deb's Border Collie, Zen, does mindless scratching with his back foot. He displays this seemingly unconscious behavior in mildly stressful situations, such as being told to lie down while other dogs are playing. One back foot makes scratching motions close to his body without actually touching it. You might think he simply has an itch if you didn't see the pattern over time. By observing your own dog as well as others, and by looking at repetitive behaviors in their context, you will learn an enormous amount about canine stress levels and signals.

Is it stress, or just a high attitude?

All dogs will encounter challenges in training, but any experienced trainer will tell you it's much easier to work through problems generated by a high attitude than a low one. Dogs with a high attitude are a bit too full of themselves. Their problems reflect their enthusiasm for work as well as their impatience with waiting or down time in the ring. High attitude tends to lead to faults such as forging, barking, broken start lines, and anticipating commands. All of these are "errors of enthusiasm," and they tend to improve with a combination of ring experience and handler consistency. While it is frustrating to deal with a dog that appears out of control in the ring, it is almost always something trainers can learn to manage and channel as they develop their own skills.

While it is important that the dog feel in control during training, when the trainer allows a dog with a high attitude to take his enthusiasm or impatience too far, the results are often problematic. Here's a common example: A trainer places her dog on a sit stay, and then moves away for a recall. Just before she has a chance to call her dog, he comes on his own. Because the broken stay corresponded very closely to when the trainer had planned to call the dog anyway, the trainer pretends she didn't notice that the dog left before he was cued. Often the trainer justifies this error by saying that she doesn't want to ruin the dog's enthusiasm. That trainer has fooled herself; a high attitude dog rarely has his enthusiasm dampened simply by being required to wait for a cue. The dog, however, has not been fooled. Instead, he has learned that impatience is rewarded. This scenario does not have to happen very many times before the dog learns not to wait for cues. Normally a trainer in this situation enforces some of the stays but ignores others. Over time, inconsistency can cause great problems for the team.

To keep a dog with a high attitude performing with excellence, the trainer must be the absolute best possible trainer and handler at all times. This means being consistent and predictable; traits that are exceptionally important when working with dogs who have high levels of confidence and enthusiasm for their work. Doing so will allow the dog to work on that fine edge between maximum attitude and out of control behavior.

Some dogs with a high attitude just need a little ring experience to become comfortable. If their training has been well done, they have been properly prepared for trials, and their errors almost always happen in competition rather than in training, they may simply need a bit of positive ring experience to perform at their best.

Trainers can easily confuse a frantic dog with one that has a high attitude, but there are important differences. Dogs who stress up in a frantic fashion will often disconnect from their handlers and attempt to relieve their frustration or stress with movement. They will run zooming circles around both their trainers and the training area. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the dogs screaming, "Lalalala!" as he tries to drown out everything around him, including his trainer. Dogs who stress up might leap up at the trainer's face or grab at clothing. Some misguided trainers try to correct their dogs for these behaviors only to discover that their correction lasts for no more than a few seconds before the dog's intense behavior escalates and becomes even worse than before. Many trainers have experienced ripped clothing and bloody noses before they recognize that their dog is exhibiting an intense stress response and that their training approaches need to change drastically!

In certain areas of dog training, however, the term drive is still commonly used. We will also use it in this book in a non-scientific and general way. The term is still used to describe an internal state, but that state is considered more along the line of a personality characteristic. For example, "prey drive" refers to how motivated a dog is to chase and catch fleeing animals. The scientist in Deb would say that prey drive is simply a stimulus/response relationship. "Pack drive" refers to how strongly a dog feels the need to affiliate with other creatures. The scientist in Deb would say that pack drive is simply desire for social interaction. Both of these drives vary in individuals due to genetics and experience and they may change with different experiences and environments.

We will state something here which should be read until you are absolutely convinced: frantic behavior is not drive! Drive is the innate desire to work, while frantic behavior is a stress response.

Check back tomorrow for the final part in this series: "The Science of Drives." 


Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD, are both long-time, successful dog trainers and dog behavior instructors. Denise has been showing and training dogs for 30 years and runs Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (http://denisefenzi.com/). Deb has been showing and training dogs for 20 years and has authored many books and created several DVDs about training for dog sports. Together, they are the authors of Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship, which can be purchased at http://www.thedogathlete.com/.

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