My husband and I have a good friend from college, Dr. Michael Morales, who has a Doctorate in Biochemistry and teaches at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. He was a recent guest on Your Family Dog to talk about the immune and endocrine systems in dogs. (See: The Inside of Your Dog). We had a wide ranging discussion and touched on two topics that I asked him to write a bit more about. This week I am tackling the subject of stress and whether or not there is such a thing as optimal stress.
First of all, Mike gave a terrific definition of stress:
Stress is any stimuli that disrupts normal physiologic equilibria. Stresses can be divided into two broad categories. Neurogenic stresses are those perceived by the nervous system, like the mailman coming to your door every single day. Systemic stresses include injuries, excessive thirst, or starvation.
He goes on to add that despite the variability of the types of stress we (or our dogs) encounter, the body has “just one integrated stress response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands.” The adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which is always present in the blood stream, lasts a long time, and there is much more of it during times of stress. It is often thought of as the stress hormone but, “in reality, it is an anti-stress hormone” whose function is to help one cope with stress. Epinephrine is the other major adrenal hormone. Non-epinephrine from the sympathetic nervous systems pairs with epinephrine and,
These are the famous “fight or flight” hormones. They cause your puppy’s arousal when that mail man appears. Epinephrine doesn’t last long in the blood stream, just a minute or two compared to hours for cortisol. Interestingly, one of the functions of cortisol is to increase the amount of epinephrine. It doesn’t cause its release, but it allows more to be released at an increased frequency.
The important take away here is that there are both short response and long response hormones that are released to help us manage stress. So, if we have the internal mechanism to manage stress, why do we all instinctively know that chronically high stress is not good and can have some serious consequences? As Mike explains:
Exposure to high levels of cortisol in a puppy or even prenatally in the womb can cause psychological damage that can last long into adulthood. Cortisol influences genome function in a way that can be permanent and can potentially be transmitted across generations. Added to this is the revolution in our understanding of brain development, and one could conclude that the responsible puppy owner avoids stress at all costs, right? Of course, it’s not so simple. Remember, cortisol is always present, and in fact, we can’t live without it. So it turns out that there is a correct amount of stress.
Who knew? Well, many of us knew that a bit of arousal enhances learning, but we didn’t know how the hormones worked to enhance that learning. Mike continues:
The effects of cortisol can be thought of something like a bell curve. At the top of the curve is where you are likely to find a happy well-adjusted dog. Too much cortisol is associated with aggression and overly defensive behavior. Too little cortisol will leave your precious little bundle unable to cope with the normal stresses that invade the life of all living creatures.
So now it’s not your puppy’s stress you’re worried about, but you own, trying to figure out how to properly raise the little guy. Neurobiology has provided some good news as well. Throughout life, neurons are born and die, synapses are formed and disappear, axons and dendrites grow and are pruned. This suggests that there is considerable potential for reversing the effects of a stressful puppyhood than had been previously imagined. But it is important to understand that the longer intervention is delayed, the harder it will be to undo the consequences of excessive stress early in life. So do the best you can, and trust that a supportive environment will undo any of your inevitable mistakes.
So, when you are headed out the door with your puppy, keep in mind that some stress is necessary for your dog to grow into the well-adjusted adult dog that you can trust to handle the ups and downs of a dog’s life. Be sure to have a lot of wonderful treats on hand while you are exposing your puppy to the world, and use positive reinforcement training to build a happy, trusting dog, eager to learn new things. Be smart about where you take him before his puppy shots are finished, and don’t try to do too much at one time. A happy half hour walk to the play ground to meet a few children will likely do more for your pup than a 2 hour forced march through town!*
A final thought from Mike:
We’ve all heard of or know dogs who overcome the cruelest of circumstances to become a well-behaved and cherished family dog. The flip side is the dog raised in a loving secure home who ends up nasty and aggressive. Researchers have noticed this individual variation as well, and have seen it even in strains of mice in-bred to be genetically nearly identical. It used to be chalked up to the dreaded “experimental variation.” It is now understood that this extraordinary variability of outcome in the face of chronic stress is not some experimental artifact but a feature of complex organisms. Considerable effort continues to be expended to understand this effect.
In other words, do your best to help your puppy his best. And, remember, that we cannot control every situation, genetics are complex, environmental factors influence behavior, and unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen that will have long term effects.
But, on the other hand, sometimes we win the lottery.
*For more information on socializing your puppy please see:
Jennifer Shryock, founder of Family Paws Parent Education* is an expert on kids and dogs and has dedicated herself to helping families with babies or toddlers have a safe and happy life with the family dog. She is passionate about Creating Dog Aware (TM) Generations so that kids grow up understanding dog body language and how to interact safely and successfully with dogs. Jen has been a guest on Your Family Dog Podcast twice, once to talk about preparing for baby, and once to talk about the challenges of puppyhood. We plan on having her back a lot more as her knowledge of dogs and children is extensive, insightful, and practical.
On the website for Family Paws is a resources page with free downloadable PDFs. These great graphics illustrate important points for keeping kids and dogs safe. One that I use a lot, not only with parents of babies, but with any one who wants to understand what supervision really means when it comes to dogs, is called “The 5 Types of Supervision.” I have found that most people are very well intentioned when it comes to supervising their dogs. The problem is, they do not realize what real supervision entails. It is not enough to just be in the room with the dog. You have to be actively engaged if you want any realistic chance of preventing an unpleasant incident.
If you are not paying attention to the actions of both dog and child and watching for stress signals in the dog, you are likely to miss the opportunity to prevent a situation from escalating from uncomfortable to difficult to possibly dangerous. I like the graphic from Family Paws, because it clearly illustrates what is and is not supervision and what you need to do to make sure everyone is safe.
A good companion graphic to this one is called Success Stations. “A success station is any designated spot that a dog is limited to so that they have no options but to succeed.” Gates, crates, and tethers are all useful for providing your dog with a place he or she feels safe. I have used success stations with kids as well as with other dogs. In the Your Family Dog episode on Challenging puppies, we discussed how kids can help with making success stations by decorating a trifold presentation screen and putting that in front of the crate of a resting dog, This provides a visual barrier for the dog as well as a visual reminder for the kids that the dog is resting and cannot be disturbed.
My own dog Zuzu sometimes needs a break from the grandkids in my house so we have a sign on the gate to my office that reads: “Zuzu’s Alone Zone.” When she is in the office and the gate is closed, the kids have to ask if they can come in. Knowing she has a safe and quiet place to not be disturbed has really helped Zuzu to cope with the happy chaos of 4 children.
Helping your child and dog learn to love each other by having a plan that provides a safe and comfortable environment will set everyone: dogs, kids, and parents up for success.
From the Family Paws Parent Eduction Website:
“Jennifer Shryock is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), owner of Family Paws™ LLC in Cary, NC and holds a degree in Special Education…As a Mother, dog behavior consultant and teacher, Jennifer recognized a need for support and education for these families and began building resources for new and expecting families through her own business Family Paws. A consistent need for this specialized service led to the creation of the highly endorsed international program Dogs & Storks® for expecting and adopting families and then years later Dogs & Toddlers™, for families with babies 3 months of age and up. All of these passions and ideas have led to the creation of Family Paws™ Parent Education now offering programs all of the United States, Canada and beyond!”
Moving is a stressful time for everyone, your pet included. We have recently moved, though only for the academic year, so we simply packed clothes and books for the time we will be gone. That alone was stressful for Zuzu, who could not understand why the suitcases were out, my office was suddenly filled with boxes, and her toys were being washed. She is a sensitive individual to begin with, so I tried to be extra attentive to keeping her stress low and her routine as normal as possible, and I made sure that her most favorite bed went with us to New Jersey as well as her most important toys, particularly her beloved blobby.
Having moved several times with an assortment of dogs, I have found that the best way to help your dog cope with the stress of moving, is to: 1) try and keep things as normal as possible; 2) be sure to take time to play with and walk your dog every day and; 3) keep her with you as much as possible.
- Keeping things normal. If you feed your dog twice a day in the kitchen, continue to do so, making sure the area around her bowls is kept as clutter free as possible. If her breakfast comes in an intelligence toy, or as a game you play, continue to do that even if it seems to takes up time you need for packing. Keep beds and toys in their normal places, and try to make sure they are packed last of all.
- Play with your dog! You may feel as if there are way too many things to do and way too little time to do them, but playing with or walking your dog will give her a sense of normalcy and it might even lower your stress as well as hers when you take a moment to breathe and focus on something other than the next box. Be sure to do this on moving day as well as when you get to your new home.
- Keep your dog with you as much as possible. This becomes especially important during the actual move. On the day the movers come, designate a family member to be pet supervisor for the day. An article at I Heart Dogs about moving says this,
A lot of people think it’s better to leave their dog at a boarding facility while they move, but this can cause even more stress. Your dog knew something was up prior to the moving day, and now you are dropping them off somewhere and driving away. This can make the situation much worse, so make your plans to allow your dog to stay with you.
This is also important to keep in mind if you are stopping over night along the way. On the way to our new destination, we went to visit my husband’s cousin for a couple of days, and I was sure that she was not left alone in a new place until we had been there for a few hours and we’d had a chance to play ball outside, and she was calm, tired and ready for a nap. We also stayed away less than 2 hours.*
Other things that I have found to be helpful in keeping my dog’s stress lower during times of flux:
With a bit of effort on your part moving does not need to be overly stressful for your dog. Besides, keeping his stress level lower, may help to make moving a bit easier for you as well!
*For more information on visiting with your dog see our podcast on Your Family Dog: New Places, Happy Faces, and here is an article from the Whole Dog Journal, Moving with Dogs: Everything you need to know
According to a friend, summer has officially ended. It’s not because she has tucked away her white shoes until next Memorial Day, nor because OSU football has taken over central Ohio like a crimson and grey hurricane. It’s because the season for allowing her dogs to be off leash on their 4 acre property has ended. Acorns have littered the woods around their house and the deer arrived to gorge on them. Like so many places, the Bambis of the world have learned that they have little to fear from suburbanites and are quite bold in their pursuit of these carb laden nuts. Since the deer are not fazed at the sight of people within 30 feet or so, their dogs now have to be on lead so that they do not engage in a 5K deer run.
So why do deer love acorns? Are there some types they prefer over others? And can people and dogs eat them? These are the questions that came to my mind when she told me about the all you can eat Quercus* buffet. According to the Whitetail Journal on Grand View Outdoors.com, ” Deer love these nuts because they’re large in size allowing deer to consume them quickly, and they’re packed with nutrition. It’s like a protein bar for wildlife.” The author goes on to add that 100 grams of acorns (3.5 ounces) contains “40 grams of carbs, 23 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein. (For comparison, a boiled egg and a half cup of black beans each have 6 grams of protein also, but zero carbs).” Pretty good stuff if you are trying to fatten up for winter!
Deer also have preferences for certain acorns, based primarily on the tannin content of the acorn. Tannins make the acorns bitter and at higher levels can make the protein harder to metabolize** Acorns with lower tannin levels are preferred. Here the “Recognized Acorn Priority Preferences” according to Realtree.com (listed from most (1) to least (5) favorite):
- White Oak: Low tannic acid level makes this the sweetest of all acorns. Generally, they produce a heavy mast crop every third year and a decent crop every year.
- Pin Oak: Low to medium tannic acid level. Typically produces a crop every other year.
- Water Oak: Low to medium tannic acid level. Typically produce a crop every year.
- Red Oak: Medium tannic acid level. Deer usually won’t feed entirely on red oak acorns because of their bitterness.
- Black Oak: Produces a crop every other year. Medium to high tannic acid level. Usually a good spring food after winter thaw.
- Bur Oak: This is a very large acorn with medium to high tannic acid level. The large size makes them more attractive for consumption.
- Live Oak: Typically produces a crop every year. Lower in preference due to high tannic acid levels
Can people eat acorns? Yes. But tannins are not tasty for people either and can also cause kidney problems in humans. “Native Americans depended on acorns as part of their diet, particularly the Yurok and Karuk tribes of California. The shelf-life of an acorn – which Native Americans would store up to two years to compensate for off years when the mast crop wasn’t abundant – made these nuts useful as an insurance food staple.” (Whitetail Journal).
Tannins can be removed from acorns. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac you can do it one of two ways: repeatedly boiling the acorns in pots of water until the water runs clear. “This may take an hour or more, depending on the variety of acorn.” Or, alternatively, “you can soak the raw acorns in cold water to leach the tannins out. Change the water when it turns a darker color. This process may take several days, depending on how long it takes for all the tannins to leach out of the acorn meat.” Obviously this is not a project for the “need something in a hurry ’cause the kids are starving” crowd. But, once you make the flour, it seems to me that you are one step away from acorn bread, acorn encrusted chicken fingers, acorn coffeecake (served with chicory coffee), but I digress…***
The final question is: Is it okay for my dog to eat acorns? The answer is (as you have probably guessed): no, not really. According to Banfield Pet Hospital: “Acorns can be toxic to pets if ingested. They contain tannins, which can cause stomach upset and diarrhea in some pets, and in particularly bad cases acorn ingestion can cause abdominal obstruction, internal damage, and kidney disease. Keep your dog from eating them if at all possible.” Yet another reason to keep your dog on a leash in the fall!
*Quercus is the genus for oak trees.
** This why you should not feed acorns to cows! The tannin levels can cause ulceration and kidney failure.
***I do remember that in the book, My Side of the Mountain, (which I last read in the 4th grade, some 100 years ago) the hero made acorn pancakes. I don’t remember if he leached the tannins out, but I think not, so he probably needed a lot of syrup…
Does your elderly dog walk into a corner and just stand there? Does she just stare into space? Does she pace in circles? Go to the hinge of the door to be let out? Not respond to her name? She might have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), commonly referred to as doggie Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Eileen Anderson is an award winning blogger (eileenanddogs) and dog owner. She knows all about CCD as her beloved rat terrier, Cricket, had it and she was able to manage Cricket for two years with CCD. Ms. Anderson has written a book, Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which has garnered praise from experts such as Dr. E’Lise Christensen, board certified veterinary behaviorist, and Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash. One of her goals, with the book and website, is to help owners diagnosis CCD early because “there is medical help for cognitive dysfunction in dogs.” She also wants to provide owners with information that will make their lives and that of their dogs more manageable. I have not read the book, yet, but her website dedicated to canine dementia is filled with valuable information about CCD, including photos, videos, a printable symptoms checklist, treatment options, suggestions on caring for a senior dog, and more.*
One of the pages I found to be the most helpful was on symptoms. Ms. Anderson lists types of symptoms as well as specific ones. (She includes pictures and a couple of videos to illustrate the symptoms.) Here is her list of types of symptoms:
Changes in social interactions
Loss of house training
Changes in activity level
Inability to learn
She goes on to list 29 specific symptoms of canine dementia, and at the bottom of the page is a link for a printable checklist of symptoms that you can take to your vet. In addition to the four listed at the beginning, here are some others to look for:
- Failing to get out of the way when someone opens a door.
- Failing to remember routines, or starting them and getting only partway through.
- Performing repetitive behaviors.
- Having trouble with eating or drinking (finding the bowls, aiming the mouth, keeping food in mouth).
- Losing appetite.
- Trembling for seemingly no reason.
- Falling off things.
- Getting trapped under or behind furniture.
- Sleeping more during the day and less at night.
Under Treatment she lists prescription drugs as well as supplements that may be helpful. Food and enrichment are discussed on the treatment page as well as on the Enrichment page. The resources page has tips from other owners as well as links to books and articles that can help you manage your dog. And, she also has a kind and sensitive page devoted to how to decide when the time has come that “you need to help your dog with dementia leave this world.”*
Watching our dogs age is never easy, but having a dog develop dementia can be especially painful. But, by diagnosing early and effectively managing it, we can provide our senior buddies with a good life for however long they have with us.
* On Your Family Dog, Colleen Pelar and I have a two part series with Dr. Alicia Karas, of Tufts Veterinary School, on elderly dogs. Part 1 is Giving Older Dogs the Good Life, and part 2 is Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye.
Also, just after publishing this blog, this link about a potential new drug to treat CCD came through my email. Let’s hope the trial goes well and we have another tool for helping our elderly dogs.
Dr. Zazie Todd is the brilliance behind the Companion Animal Psychology blog, and Colleen Pelar and I loved having her as a guest on Your Family Dog to talk about making happy dogs happier. This week, however, she has a post on Companion Animal Psychology about Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe. As per usual, Dr. Todd is spot on in her approach to helping a dog overcome its fears, and she has some wonderful recommendations on books that might be helpful as well.
Here are her 8 Tips (For details, see the blog post. All quotes are from the blog):
- Recognize the dog is fearful. This may seem like an obvious step, but sometimes owners don’t recognize some of the subtler signs of fear their dogs exhibit. Learning your dog’s particular signals will help you to better discern your dog’s mood and allow you to intervene sooner rather than later. *
- Help the dog feel safe. Helping your dog feel safe is your first priority with a fearful dog. What safe looks like depends on the dog. One pup may need a place of his own to regroup, another dog may need to hold a beloved toy, and yet another may find solace in a predictable daily routine
- Don’t use punishment. “[I]f your dog is fearful, it is especially important to stop using punishment because the risk is your dog may become more fearful or even become afraid of you. Your dog is already stressed by whatever they are afraid of. You don’t want to add to that stress by using aversive methods.” Positive reinforcement is the best way to reassure your dog and teach her that the world is actually a good place to be.
- It’s okay to comfort your dog. When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? The same may be true for your dog as well. If he solicits your attention and comfort when scared or stressed, go ahead and reassure him, because “you are a secure base for your dog – meaning your presence can help them in a stressful situation.”
- Don’t force your dog to face his fears. “Some people think forcing your dog to face the thing they are afraid of will make them get used to it. But what can happen instead is they sensitize to it and get more and more afraid.” You can help your dog become less fearful, but it is a slow desensitization process whereby the dog is gradually exposed to what scares him. And, it is generally best done with the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist so that the process does not become overwhelming to you or the dog.
- Seek professional help. A professional trainer who works frequently with fearful or aggressive dogs can help to expedite the process of desensitizing your dog and make sure you are on the right track. “And don’t forget to consult your veterinarian too and find out if medication can help your dog. In some cases they may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist.”
- Be in it for the long haul. Resolving anxiety and fear can take a long time, and in some cases it may improve, but never fully resolve. “So it’s important to understand that it may take a long time to help your pet, and that fearful dogs can still have a happy life.”
- Make the most of available resources. There are a lot of books and blogs out there on helping your dog to overcome his fear. Be sure you get one that employs positive reinforcement training and lots of tasty treats. She lists a lot of books, all of which are excellent resources, but one I have used with success is: The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears, by Dr. Patricia McConnell.**
And, don’t despair! Fearful dogs can have long and happy lives, especially if we give them the support and tools they need to feel safe and be successful in their world.
*I have several blogs on body language, here are a few: Can you hear me now?, Being Anxious is no Fun for You or Your Dog, This is not the dog I wanted… And if you prefer your information orally, Your Family Dog has a lot on body language, but here are two: What Does Friendly Look Like?, Growling–Is It a Good Thing?
There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!
These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!
Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018
So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:
I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all.
With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive. According to the Wolf Park website:
Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.
This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “with forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines.”
On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it. This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.
I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself.
** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction? Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.
Blog Posts by Category
- Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
- Behavior or “What the heck?”
- Informational or Doggie Demographics
- Care and management or living together in harmony
- Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”
- Toy Box or stuff that doesn’t fit neatly elsewhere
- Puppy Vaccinations: How they work and why your pup needs so many. April 1, 2019
- Does your dog bark, lunge, snarl, or growl when on leash? You are not alone! March 1, 2019
- Aging With Canines February 8, 2019
- Sometimes it is the dog, not the owner. January 16, 2019
- Some new favorites, canine-wise. December 11, 2018