Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. – Counselling Psychologist
As humans, we are familiar with the concepts of anxiety and stress. They are related, but somewhat different in their origins and treatment.
Anxiety is generally seen as an unpleasant emotional state, including feelings of uneasiness, apprehension, and distress. Stress, on the other hand, is caused by specific external circumstances such as problems at work, family and financial conditions. How we deal with stress varies with the intensity of our reaction to stressful incidents and our innate or learned coping skills. Our reaction may take the form of anxiety, worry, or fear. Stress may manifest physiologically in the automatic fight/flight response, with increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, and sweating as the body secretes the so-called ‘stress hormones’, such as adrenalin and cortisol.
Our pets also experience anxiety and stress, but in a slightly different way because they lack reasoning skills. The incidents that trigger their reactions are often different from ours. For example, many dogs are highly stressed by thunderstorms. Loud noises, flashes of light – they cannot reason that it poses no threat and will soon pass; their stress levels escalate with each clap of thunder. We share our environment with our pets, and we sometimes expect them to have the coping skills to manage what, to us, is not fearful. The postman, the man with sunglasses, the traffic – all of these may cause stress to them while they don’t affect us, because we can reason that these events and people are not threatening.
If a dog is in full fight/flight mode, the best thing is to get her away as quickly and calmly as possible. The chances are they won’t be interested in treats (the digestive system shuts down in this mode) or any of the cues (commands) they usually obey. You’re also likely to be stressed by the event, so both of you need time to calm down and restore the system to normal balance. Since the ‘stress’ hormones remain active for up to 72 hours, you’ll both need some chill space.
Anxiety in animals is rather different to ours. On the whole, they are not plagued by uncertainty, worry, etc. as humans are. This is attributable to their focus on living in the moment, and not being too concerned with past experiences or the future. We can learn from them! They indicate their anxiety through body language: turning away, tucked tail, showing white of eye (‘whale eye’), lip licking and yawning. If these are ignored, they will move into the physiological fight/flight state, often misunderstood as aggression.
Other forms of anxiety, such as separation and trauma, may result in reactions such as running away, hiding, avoiding contact, barking, chewing, and self-harm. These may require medication in addition to behavioural modification, and are best managed with professional advice.
The best way to help our dogs handle stress and anxiety is to keep them safe, and help them to feel safe. That means keeping a good distance away from the scary stuff. At the same time we work at desensitising them by slowly coming closer, rewarding them so that the association moves from scary to ‘this makes good things happen’ (as in lots of treats). We also counter-condition them by suggesting an alternative behaviour. Slowly, we build a relationship with our dogs so that they trust us to keep them feeling safe.
And what about ourselves? Despite having the ability to reason, we still live with anxiety and stress. Living in the moment helps with anxiety as mostly it relates to the past or the future. Find enjoyable ways to relax, exercise with your dog, and work towards achieving calm.
Managing our own stress is one of the marvellous gifts our dogs give us! We stress less and live more. And the amazing relationship with our dogs is, itself, a stress-relief process.
After all, who wants to be stressed out?