On Stress

Shiba in a PFD

I was recently asked whether I thought people should put their dogs under stress. On the face of it, this sounds like a suspicious question… stress is bad, right? Of course we don’t want to stress out our dogs, right? Is this a trick question?

I feel that this is a great question to ask, because it tells you a lot about how someone views stress and approaches it from a training perspective.

Anyone who has exerted themselves to achieve something has put themselves under stress. Weightlifters stress their muscles to make them stronger. Students stress their minds to gain knowledge. Puppies learning to navigate their world must stress both to gain headway. For any growth or improvement to occur, stress must be present.

What we want to guard against is overstressing. Anyone who has trained for a sport knows the risks of overtraining. Breaks, sprains, strains, time lost, and regression are likely to happen when someone mistakes quantity for quality. The same kind of thing can happen to dogs – both physically and mentally. ‘Flooding’ is a term often used when referring to overstressing/overwhelming a dog.

One key component of training is establishing yourself as a safe place. When your dog has confidence that you will help them if they get overwhelmed or feel unsafe, they are more likely to look to you than react badly to whatever is bothering them. This is part of stress management. You’re telling your dog, “It’s okay to be scared or unsure; I will help you if you don’t know what to do.” which makes experiencing stress manageable for dogs.

To do this, you have to be aware of your dog’s emotional state and be prepared to advocate for them, get them out of an uncomfortable situation, or give them something to do that directs their energy constructively. Understanding canine body language can help you determine if your dog can self-manage their own stress or if they need your help with the situation.

So, yes, it’s okay to let your dog experience stress as long as they know that you’re ready to help them if they need it. As time goes on, you’ll get a better and better idea of what your dog can handle and what they will need your help with. And that’s teamwork!