Is your dog stressed?
Dogs can be affected by stress just like people. Just like us some dogs are more susceptible to stress triggers than others. Some dogs will show their stress more clearly than others. So how can we notice if our dog is stressed?
Some signals that dogs give are more obvious than others. The dog that paces the house and will not settle, the dog that lunges on the lead or constantly barks are all clearly over excited, over aroused or over threshold. What ever you call it they are all signs of levels of stress. On the other end of the scale some dogs will internalise their stress. These dog's stress signals will be more subtle in just a widened eye, a quick lick of the lips or a scratch. These dogs can sometimes be harder to read, especially for a novice handler.
When looking at stress and anxiety it is often just the fight or flight instinct that is considered, but there is also the freeze response to consider. Your dog may freeze on the start line of a competition out of fear and not be able to move or they may lose their speed or spring in their step.
Which ever way your dog shows it's stress we need to be observant and find ways to help them deal with it. We need to ask ourselves is it fair or necessary to put our dogs in this situation. We can certainly not expect our dogs to perform at their best in competition if they are too stressed to concentrate and relax. It is important here to realise that a small amount of stress can heighten our senses and improve performance and so we are only really referring to when the stress tips over the point of enhancement into a negative space. A dog running off doing zoomies or sniffing is a dog that can not think calmly and is finding other ways to try and relieve his own stress.
Each dog will have a difference stress tolerance level where they can cope and so it is important to be aware of each individual.
Denise Fenzi suggests in one of her books that if a dog shows 2 signs of stress we should not ask the dog to work but should rather remove them to a less stressful environment. I think this is great advise as asking our dog to do something when they are not able to focus is setting them up for failure. This will demoralise the dog further and add to their stress.
I have often heard it said in the agility world that a certain thing is not agility training but instead just basic dog training, but how can we separate the two? When we are training our dog to do agility, or any other sport, we are training our dog. So we should be looking for these stress signals throughout our training sessions and prioritise. After all a happy, relaxed dog will learn a lot more quickly than a stressed one.