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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 a

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