Wild canids have many stressors: Finding food and shelter, avoiding injuries and predators, and maintaining a place in the pack are some right off the top of my head. These stressors are similar for most animals including humans, especially humans without a base salary of about $75K.
Dogs cared for by humans may have a reduced need to find food and shelter but they do have to maintain a comfortable place in the family/pack. In fact, some dogs suffer from too much food and shelter and not enough….well, good stress.
Consider whether elimination of stress is actually the goal If there were no stress, dogs would not eat or move into the shade. As a consequence, they’d die pretty quickly. Stress is simply an alteration of status that drives them (and us) to seek change. Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that we should seek and arrange not only a stress free life of our own but the same for our companion animals.
It’s all a mistake. Sure, chronic, traumatic stress can take a toll on health. This is the type of wear and tear that follows losses of home or family, wars or natural disasters. We should avoid, prevent and mitigate emergencies whenever possible. And we should offer aid to those recovering if we can. But the idea that we should or could eliminate stress is all mixed up. It’s the normal stressors of life that prepare us to handle emergencies.
One way to handle stress is to relieve it. Feed a hungry dog. Play with a bored puppy. When you can’t immediately provide whatever your dog wants you are actually teaching him or her to tolerate stress. And this is important for a happy life.
Good nutrition keeps us healthy and health makes handling stress more efficient. But even when nutrition has been a low priority we can at least turn to good nutrition in times of trouble. Extra weight stresses bones. Fat cells actually release hormones that interfere with managing stress. So keeping an ideal weight is a goal for stress management, too. Exercise is a great way to dissipate stress hormones and will help reach a goal of weight loss if needed. You don’t have to jog or take your dog to Yoga. A 20 minute walk each day will clear stress hormones and take off ten to fifteen pounds every year. Mental exercise works, too. Finding hidden food or chewing a bone can help a dog redirect energy just as more physical exercise does.
Skills that can be relied upon in times of stress also come in handy. Some handlers and trainers teach touching a target so they can ask a stressed out dog to go someplace else or check in with a handler. Some teach a default behavior such as sit so when a dog is unsure he will offer to sit exposing his ambivalence so the trainer can step in. Some just expect their dogs to deal with anything that happens. This is fine as long as you are watching for signs that your dog needs exit plan.
Do you know what stresses your dog out? Most people think they do yet, we’ve all witnessed handlers chuck dogs under the chin as the dogs squint and bear it. Or we’ve seen a stranger coo over a puppy who is recoiling in horror. A quick overview of canine body language can cue you to signs that your dog doesn’t love a head pat or walk in the dog park as much as you do.
Stress management skills are imperative for our dogs (and other animals) but we can also do them for ourselves to make us better caretakers.
So once you prepare your dog’s mind and body to handle the stress of life, learn to read your dog (and others in social settings) and give your dog some skills to let you know when it’s all too much, go forth and enjoy. The pursuit of happiness is not the same as it’s attainment. Only the pursuit is guaranteed by freedom.