Every dog has a threshold at which it fails to perform. There is always a breaking point. That can mean that distractions become too intense for a dog to still follow obedience commands. It can be that a fearful dog is getting too stressed and shuts down or blows up. It can be that an aggressive dog acts upon its triggers. When the stress is too high the dog fails.
Stress has multiple layers. For example, a dog that is not feeling well, can react towards a stimulus one way although it would handle things differently if it was feeling better. Or a dog with too much pent-up energy can’t focus on a task until some of that energy has been drained.
By focusing only on triggers upon which a dog reacts, we make it much harder on ourselves and our dog to better deal with its environment. The layered stress model describes the different stress layers we should address before working on any actual reactivity. The Layered Stress Model was developed by Chad Mackin.
The Health Layer of Stress
Health affects behavior. If a dog has a health issue their threshold will be way lower than if they were healthy. A dog can’t tell anyone if it isn’t feeling well and you are only going to notice conditions once they get bad enough to show symptoms.
We all know that acute conditions can affect behavior. The classic example: a dog with an injured leg snaps at you when you touch that leg. That’s obvious. But people are less aware of how chronic health issues can really increase the base layer of stress in a dog.
An allergy that leaves a dog itchy. An inflamed stomach from food intolerances. Neither of these would be bad enough for us to see physical symptoms, but they would absolutely add to their stress! Also, medications can influence this concept in a couple of ways. Some medications cause emotional side effects and many antibiotics can cause stomach distress. That can easily make dogs a little snarkier.
Even more rare examples are physiologically impaired dogs with thyroid issues, neurotransmitter dysregulation, and so forth. Clearly, those would drastically affect behavior.
Obviously, you are keeping your dog in great health. Regular vet care. Good food. Grooming and hygiene. All that good stuff. And I know discussing health during a behavior discussion is a little like that phone call to the IT department when they ask you “is it plugged in”, or “is the power on?” Yes, it kind of makes you want to punch them, but it IS important. If the thing isn’t plugged in, or on, none of the advice they give you will help. It’s the same here. If a dog isn’t in good health, none of the strategies to manage a dog’s stress will get it as low as it is supposed to.
Any time you see a sudden change in behavior in your dog please take a moment and look at the health layer. Skipping this step and assuming health may drastically affect the outcome of any protocol you try.
The Lifestyle Layer of Stress
Everyone has a biologically fulfilling lifestyle with biologically appropriate activities. If dogs had the world to themselves they would move 10-20 miles per day, hunt, kill, fight and mate. They wouldn’t go dock diving or heel. If you take your dog for a six mile walk every day you are still only providing a third of one fifth of what your dog naturally would do. We need to find biologically fulfilling activities for our dogs to keep them psychologically healthy. Our job is to figure out what our dog likes, evaluate if we can provide that and if not find acceptable surrogate activities that fulfill our dog in the same way.
According to the Brahimil Commission on Animal Welfare the definition of a good lifestyle is:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst (this is self-explanatory)
- Freedom from discomfort (this too, is self-explanatory)
- Freedom from fear and distress (this can be natural evolutionary fears, or learned fears)
The emotional causes can be different for each dog. One activity may totally distress one dog and not bother another. Getting to know your dog helps understand what causes them distress. “Freedom” from these fears and distresses, doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding them. It may mean teaching them that they don’t need to be afraid of them. It will be up to you to understand your dog, and decide what they need. It is also up to you to develop the relationship you need to guide them through the fears they need help with.
- Freedom to express normal behaviors (this is the one everyone is familiar with)
Dogs need exercise . Some need more than others. Some need different types of activities. Many times it is influenced by breed but each dog must be understood as an individual. You must figure out what behaviors and activities are fulfilling to your dog, and find a way to provide them—or surrogate activities, that don’t ruin your own lifestyle.
The Clarity Layer of Stress
Every being requires a different level of clarity to maneuver the world safely. Structure is one way to provide clarity but not the only way. Some dogs need a lot of clarity others need none. The goal of structure should be to provide clarity. As understanding develops, structure can be reduced without the dog losing clarity. One example is obedience commands. Most obedience is interpreted and not literal. An example would the difference between using the commands “off” and “down”. These commands tend to be used very inconsistently. Same with “no” and “enough”. If commands are used inconsistently there is no clarity, we are asking a dog to guess. If a dog is asked to sit and first sits but then lies down and then gets back up and walks around without any feedback up to that point but is then suddenly scolded, what is it learning? It is learning to understand “sit” as something to be interpreted and if it guesses wrong it leads to unpleasant consequences. This adds stress. Interpreted obedience adds stress due to a lack of clarity. Only literal obedience can reduce stress. Without clarity a dog is not disobedient, it just guesses wrong. Obedience should only be used if it provides more clarity.
The Leash Layer of Stress
Most dogs find leashes annoying as they prevent them from doing what they want to do. Leashes are frustrating because they are restraining—anything restraining tends to frustrate dogs. We often use positive forms of frustration to increase drive but negative forms of frustration are unproductive during training. Leash restraint creates negative frustration unless we acclimate our dogs to them. If we don’t, most dogs develop a relationship of disregard or distain for the leash and collar. By acclimation we can change this perception of the collar signal from annoying restraint to helpful information.
After the dogs’ layers of stress have been lowered, their threshold has been raised, they have learned to relax on cue, and are still struggling with a specific trigger, we have several different methods to help them through these issues: Desensitization, Faith in Handler Drill, Counter-Conditioning and Flooding.
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Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen, and Community Canine certifications.