Seek and You May Find

the noise of the camera? Whatever it is

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What, now even our dogs are all stressed out? Is this something we really need to worry about? Or just yuppy puppy pseudo-angst?

That probably would have been my reaction if, a decade or so ago, I had read an article about signs of stress in dogs. Today, though, I get it. Trained to recognize the telltale body language and behavior of on-edge dogs by WDJ’s professional trainer contributors, I now see stressed-out dogs just about everywhere I go.

When I first read Pat Miller’s article on this topic (“Stress Signals” in this issue), I could plainly picture a number of dogs in my own life who regularly exhibited certain stress signals. There was my parents’ mixed-breed, Andy, who would stop in his tracks and seemingly idly scratch his ears with a hind foot if any of our voices sounded angry or loud. My darling Border Collie, Rupert, used to flick his tongue out and lick his nose constantly around strangers and especially small children.

Carly belongs to a family I know well. It’s become a tradition for me to take a photographic portrait of their sons every Christmas, and Carly is required to be in the pictures, too. We’ve always thought it was funny that Carly always yawns repeatedly and deeply every time we make her sit for these portraits. In fact, we save and collect these comical yawning shots from year to year. Is it the sitting still, being called (to make eye contact with the camera) without being allowed to move, the noise of the camera? Whatever it is, I now realize something about the experience is stressful for her, and her yawning helps relieve that anxiety.

A few times a year, I dog-sit Paws, a high-octane yellow Lab, when his family goes on vacation. At seven years old, Paws still acts like an uncouth puppy. He’s so frantic and whines so loudly that it’s quite unpleasant to take him anywhere. I recently brought him to a do-it-yourself dog bathing facility, where he whined so constantly and at such a high volume throughout his bath that I half expected a round of applause from the other customers when we left. Also, while he can take treats from my hand with the greatest of delicacy and care at home, when we work on his training out in the world, he snaps and grabs at them, often biting my fingers by mistake. But now I get it. His hyperactivity and whining are not just misbehavior; they are signs that he is incredibly stressed and overwhelmed when he does get taken out.

Pat gives a number of good reasons for us to pay attention to our dogs’ stress signals (bite prevention is one very compelling rationale).

Less dramatic but just as tragic is the fact that dogs, like all other mammals (humans included), have a difficult time learning and retaining what they have learned when they are stressed. Numerous studies with a wide variety of species have shown that increased levels of cortisol (a potent hormone released during stress) impair the brain’s ability to process and store information.

Understanding this will certainly give me more patience with Paws. It will also change the way I’ll work with him in the future, so he can relax and retain his lessons after all these years.

-Nancy Kerns

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