In our quest to give our dogs a good time, are we creating “fun addicts?” Are our attempts at getting a “tired dog” (hence a “good dog”), overstressing our dogs?
Initially, it is important to understand that in this context the notion of “stress” is not necessarily a bad thing. It is becoming overstressed which is bad. Stress, as used in this article, is really just a physiological reaction in the body that involves release of adrenaline, increased heart rate, release of cortisol, increased gastric juices, change in water balance and heightened defense reactions. These physiological reactions are separate from any emotional feelings about the stressor. This distinction between the feelings about the stressor and stress itself is important. Just because something appears to be, or is in fact, fun does not mean it is not stressful. Roller coasters are fun, but physiologically they still cause stress in the body. If one doesn’t handle stress well, the stress of the roller coaster will have a worse impact than on someone who processes the chemical bath attendant to stress better.
There is also a difference between stress and stimulation. James O’Heare, author and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, describes the difference as
“Stress occurs when any demand is placed upon a dog to change or adjust. (Lindsay, p. 109) The demand does not necessarily have to involve an aversive for stress to occur. If a demand is placed upon the animal the animal will respond to it. ... Normal levels of stress that are managed well by the animal are referred to as stimulation. ... The stress threshold is the upper limit point at which stress surpasses the dog’s stress tolerance. Many dogs can handle high levels of stress without reaching their stress threshold while others cannot handle even small amounts of stress without the dog’s becoming anxious.” (O’Heare, Canine Aggression Workbook, p. 78-79, emphasis added).
Not every dog is going to be overstressed by participating in agility, a flyball race or a game of fetch. Some will only be stimulated by it. That is, it will be stimulating for the dog in that it creates only “normal levels of stress” that the dog handles well. (O’Heare, supra.) On the other hand, if you notice that your dog is aggressive, reactive, jumpy, and mouthy or just can’t seem to settle down after a game of fetch, your dog is probably being overstressed and you need to make some changes.
Some of you may be thinking, “But I know my dog loves fetch because he’s constantly bringing me the ball, Frisbee, etc.” There are a couple of pieces likely at work here. First, we teach our dogs to rush. We reward it. It gets attention and interaction from us and for most of our dogs there is nothing as rewarding as that attention and interaction from us. Second, dogs can get just as addicted to the chemical rush of stress as people can. Like the marathon runner who is addicted to the endorphin rush or the drug addict trying to get his fix, a dog who is a “fun addict” will seek out that rush.
Irrespective of the dog’s emotional feelings about the activity, the chemical and neurological effects on the dog are essentially the same as those which would occur during a threat or other negative stressful situation; that is, a Fight or Flight response.
In nature, dogs are better at handling these kinds of stressors. When they run for prey, it’s a short sequence of rushes. When they’re tracking other animals, it’s a low energy pace. Even dogs bred for particular jobs don’t do those jobs at full throttle for hours at a time. Author Turid Rugaas has noted,
“The livestock guarding dogs just walk along with the livestock, doing absolutely nothing, just being a part of the quietly grazing animals - TILL something turns up that they have to attend to. How often? Once in a blue moon. The herding dogs like border collies...can have strenuous days but a lot of it is short jobs and no jobs at all. In other words, they do not work all the time, and definitely not rushing around. Most of the time is waiting and doing nothing, most of the work is calm and concentrated.”
“Dogs are born to save energy. Too much speed and they get stressed, because it is artificial. When you throw balls for your dog, he doesn’t run because he is happy, but because he is made by nature to react AUTOMATICALLY upon movements and rushes for it. This is survival, to catch food. We make him run for 50 “rabbits” which is completely unnatural and his reaction to that ball being thrown is the automatic button of hunting that goes on, it is a non-willed behavior.”
Rugaas has also noted in her observations of wild groups of dogs how much better they deal with stress.
“Short stress, mostly calm, cooling down long after stress - often chewing bones if they have some. Most of the time they are calm and relaxed. If dogs are allowed to steer this themselves, you will see them avoiding too much and too long stress situations. Not in the beginning, if we have taught them to rush, but if they get time to find out. It is very interesting. I think people mistake what stimulation is.”
With our dogs, we frequently engage in high stress activities with extended periods of rushing around, and the stress period is unnaturally prolonged. Conversely, we infrequently create rest periods or give the dogs a chance to calm themselves down. Accordingly, with unnaturally long stress periods and no cooling off periods, some dogs go on “stress overload.” They can’t process all the stress, and their bodies physiologically signal that a Fight or Flight response is warranted. Add that to a dog that may not handle relatively low grade stressors very well, and you are much more likely to have a dog that reacts to that physiologic build-up and does what his body demands; that is, the dog chooses to fight or flee.
Even if the dog doesn’t progress to the point of taking “fight or flight” action, the dog may shut down or give other external indicia of stress. For animals that don’t handle stress well, those stress chemicals and physiological changes can stay in the body and brain for up to two weeks. If you continually train activities such as fetch, the dog never (or rarely) returns to a baseline stress level and the stress keeps building on itself.
It’s not the running or fetching itself which is overly stressful. Running, fetching, flyball or agility can be great. But, as with so many things, we tend to overdo it. It is the prolonged rushing about with little or no cooling down or relaxation period where we are artificially creating the drive that can cause difficulty.
So, how do you keep your dog stimulated? I’m not saying the adage about a tired dog is wrong. It’s not. We just may not be considering how tired we can get a dog through mental stimulation, rather than physical exercise. Frankly, most of us can’t physically exhaust our high energy, high drive dogs. Clio could have physically played fetch much longer than the two hours we played. I’ve seen dogs that ran paths in their owners’ backyards and still were never tired. But, we can make a tired dog by making them work their minds and senses, in addition to meeting their physical needs for exercise.
Turid Rugaas states it nicely, “Mental stimulation is getting stimulation to the brain through the senses.” Stimulation, as opposed to physical exercise, can include the natural intake of the environment...the sights, scents, sounds, etc. Exploration of a new environment would include that kind of stimulation. It might also include running in brief spurts.
Instead of fetching moving objects, teach your dog to find, fetch and retrieve still objects. Break fetch games up with longer periods of brain work such as obedience training or tricks, creating significant rest periods between throws or runs. Play scent games with your dog. Make them use their nose to take in their environment and learn. Make a scent track for your pup to find you or things she likes. Make it easy and obvious at first and then increase the difficulty. Try to find fields or places where your dog can be safely off leash (assuming you have a good recall and can do this safely!!) Take walks with other dogs. Go to new places as often as you can to have new environments for your dog to explore. Set up obstacle courses in your backyard or put interesting objects there for your dog to investigate.
When your dog is getting stimulation through his senses, scent, sight, and taste he will be tired, but not overstressed. Switch the activities around so your dog isn’t doing the same thing every day. Don’t forget to build in those periods of rest that the wild dogs create for themselves. After you do these activities, make sure there’s a significant rest period for your dog, maybe just chewing on a bone. Building in that down time will naturally limit how many new things you can do every day, which is also a good way to give your dog time to process and recover from all the new experiences.
The key is to find a balance between your dog’s physical exercise needs and their need for mental stimulation. Physical and mental stimulation are crucial to dogs and important pieces of having a dog that behaves in the manner we would like. As in most things, you have to pay attention to your dog and their reactions. If you are seeing behaviors like those described above, evaluate your activities and see if you need to make some modifications.