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Canine Brains and Stress

As the UK begins to emerge from the Coronavirus lockdown many people are noticing changes in their dog’s behaviour that are giving cause for concern.

By Clare Russell

We can struggle with conversations about dog’s suffering with stress, anxiety or depression, but as the canine brain is very similar to ours, there is no reason to believe these emotions aren’t being experienced. Having an understanding of the way a dog’s brain handles stress and anxiety is a good starting point for helping your dog cope with this period of adjustment to the ‘new normal’.

Anxiety, fear, and stress are adaptive emotional states that help dogs to survive and thrive. Some stress is necessary to keep dog’s functioning, sharp and alert and in moderation will help them learn how to cope with their living conditions.

Like us dogs have a limbic system and it is key to survival, allowing the brain to bypass the rational, thoughtful but slower pre-frontal cortex and move straight to flight or fight; a super-fast highway that allows for quick reaction, and most dogs have been bred to be superbly fast reactors.

The limbic system comprises:

Thalamus – a sort of relay station, directing incoming information to the appropriate part of the brain for further processing.

Hypothalamus – together with the pituitary gland, constantly adjusts the body to keep it optimally adapted to the environment.

Hippocampus – essential for laying down of long-term memory.

Amygdala – in front of the hippocampus, is the place where fear is registered and generated.

We also need to consider the Vagus Nerve which sends messages to and from the gut and brain. New research suggests that the Vagus Nerve plays a bigger role in fear and anxiety than first thought, and that its activity can be affected by our gut health, gut microbiome and diet.

The Physiology of Stress When a threat is perceived as an external stressor the hypothalamus responds by stimulating the body to produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Because we cannot have a conversation with dogs and rationally explain our world to them, it is important that we open our minds to what they may consider a stressor. We know that the man who visits our house regularly is a parent and a kindly, caring individual, but to our rescue dog who has had limited exposure to men when young, he is a threat. Other threats reported are:

  • High visibility clothing

  • Car headlights at night

  • Heavy Goods Vehicles, motorbikes or buses

  • Brooms, umbrellas, stick

  • People wearing hats

  • Balloons

If your dog reacts to any sound, object, or person with anxiety, then it is important that you take it seriously, no matter how silly it may seem in your human experience. The hormones produced by the dog’s brain, prepare them to cope with the perceived threat, triggering a fight or flight response. For example, if your dog is off lead, they may bolt, running unconsciously, looking for safety. If your dog is on lead you may see a ‘fight’ response such as, barking loudly, spinning, lunging etc. In this situation your dog may really want to move away from the stressor, but as the lead is preventing this response, we see the typical ‘reactive’ dog behaviour instead. Most dog’s bodies self-regulate their stress, they can run it off, chew, lick, rest or play; hormones levels drop whilst heartbeat and blood pressure return to normal. However, for some dogs their environment, including sounds, other dogs and people make it almost impossible for them to escape their perceived stressor and their brains become stuck in a state of high arousal. This highly aroused state can interfere with sleep and affect a dog’s immune system leaving them more open to infection. A useful equation for calculating whether your dog may be struggling with anxiety is: Distress x Uncontrollability x Frequency If you apply this to fireworks for example, then city living dogs may be exposed for at least 3 weeks (frequency), they do not like the noise (distress), they have no idea when the noise will be made (uncontrollability). Put all three of these together and anxiety around fireworks becomes understandable. Whilst most dog’s will recover quickly, for some the problem may become more severe and the maladaptive states of chronic anxiety, generalised anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or phobia can be seen. These will always require professional help, usually a Vet combined with a qualified dog behaviour therapist. Signs that may indicate your dog is chronically stressed:

  • The anxiety continues past the stressful event – for example after an evening of fireworks one would expect a dog to be behaving normally by the end of the next day.

  • The anxiety gets in the way of normal activities - refusing to go out for walks, playing less often, eating less, stereotypical behaviours such as digging or foot chewing that prevent a dog from resting or causes damage to their bodies.

What can you do? 1. Contact your vet – there are many products and/or medications available that can help. It is also important to establish if pain is contributing to your dog’s stress. 2. Create a safe space for your dog – for some dogs this will be anywhere within the house, or a particular room, crate, garden, or car. 3. Provide aerobic exercise – if your dog enjoys the company of other dogs then a play session may suit, or for those that need more space, rent a secure dog run. Unless you have a small dog or you jog with your dog, then an onlead walk is unlikely to raise your dog’s heartbeat enough to be aerobic. 4. Provide decompression walks – on lead walks are opportunities for your dog to decompress with assessment, scenting and being with you. Choose a quiet spot and allow your dog to sniff and scent. 5. Play with your dog – play is great exercise, provides learning and something positive for a dog to focus on. 6. Provide something to chew or lick – both chewing and licking are normal dog behaviours that help dogs settle and soothe themselves. 7. Take part in a positive training activity – I have found agility training to be helpful for some of my fearful dogs, scent work classes have also been very effective. 8. Avoid comparison – comparing your dog to other dogs, or yourself to other dog owners is rarely helpful. Every dog, every owner and every living situation is different, and should be treated as such. 9. Trust your dog – if your dog is showing signs of fear or distress, take them seriously, remove them to a place of safety and use some of the above techniques. 10. Be patient – it can take time and an integrated approach to help dogs that are chronically stressed. Use a diary, video or photographs, to track your progress. 11. Ask for help – get in touch via the contact forms on my website or The Dog Learning Centre Some helpful resources:

Copyright: Clare Russell,

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