Home E Behavior E Is Your Dog Acting Up? There’s A Good Chance Stress Is To Blame

Is Your Dog Acting Up? There’s A Good Chance Stress Is To Blame

By Kayla Fratt

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As a dog behavior consultant, I specialize in helping people and their dogs through difficult behavior problems like aggression, anxiety and phobias. Dogs that leap and scream at the end of the leash when they see other dogs aren’t just annoying; they’re stressed out! The same goes for a dog that destroys the blinds whenever he’s left alone. Odds are, he’s not just bored; he’s actually panicking when you leave.

The reality is, many dog behavior issues actually are rooted in stress. Our modern dogs live remarkably sterile, quiet, lonely lives that are very different from the lives that their ancestors were bred to live. It was only a few generations ago that your dog’s day would have allowed them to fulfill a job, working outdoors with lots of exercise and enrichment. Contrast that with the life of a well-loved suburban pet: a few leashed walks per day, maybe some wrestling in the evening, and otherwise long hours alone and/or in a crate. 

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The reality is, many dog behavior issues actually are rooted in stress. Our modern dogs live remarkably sterile, quiet, lonely lives that are very different from the lives that their ancestors were bred to live.

It’s no wonder that our dogs panic when they’re left alone — we’ve bred their ancestors to crave our company. It’s no surprise that our dogs leap out of their skins with joy when something exciting happens — their lives can be quite boring. 

Modern dog training is based on the humane hierarchy. That means that before attempting to change a dog’s behavior, our job as trainers is to ensure that the dog’s needs are being adequately met and that the environment is setting them up for success. Trying to teach a dog not to jump on someone when that dog is chronically lonely and under-exercised is similar to teaching someone to mediate when they’re trying to hold down a job and raise kids alone during a pandemic. Sure, it might help. But the real problem is that the environment is not properly set up for success!

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…before attempting to change a dog’s behavior, our job as trainers is to ensure that the dog’s needs are being adequately met and that the environment is setting them up for success.

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So how do we help dogs that are acting up?

1. Remove the stressor, if you can.

If your dog is stressed by guests, other dogs, being alone or anything else that you can control, your very first step should be to remove or control that stressor. For example, my older dog will growl at the puppy if the puppy approaches his food bowl. Instead of training this problem, I simply feed the dogs separately. Problem solved, and I don’t have to spend any of my precious free time working through a complex training plan. My older dog also digs in the trash when left alone. My solution: put a weight on the trash can and only leave him alone when I have to and when he’s properly tired. He’s more likely to forage if he’s under-exercised or stressed by being left alone too much. Even when your dog’s problem behavior is rooted in excitement, you can often manage the problem by avoiding whatever causes their exuberant response.

2. Address any physical issues or pain.

First, we address the dog’s overall wellness. No matter what the behavior problem is, we need to ensure that the dog is physically healthy. Dogs are exceptionally skilled at hiding pain from us, so Dr. Jennifer Summerfield often suggests talking to your vet about treating for pain, even if your vet can’t elicit a pain response. Most adult humans realize that it’s entirely possible to have a painful back yet not show a limp, or to have a sore knee but not pull away in pain if someone touches your leg.

3. Engage in behavioral wellness practices to reduce stress.

Sarah Stremming promotes the simple four steps to behavioral wellness (exercise, enrichment, nutrition and communication) to help ensure that your dog is living a less stressful life. Breaking down your dog’s health into these four pillars helps us see where we may be lacking. Start out with some simple things, like feeding your dog a higher-quality or fresher food out of puzzle toys and taking your dog for longer walks in nature. Many studies show how much being in nature reduces stress for humans. There are no such studies for dogs yet, but anecdotes suggest that being able to sniff and romp to their heart’s delight works wonders for stressed-out dogs.

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Sarah Stremming promotes the simple four steps to behavioral wellness (exercise, enrichment, nutrition and communication) to help ensure that your dog is living a less stressful life.

4. Offer your dog breed-appropriate enrichment opportunities.

Once you’re sure that your dog is on the road to physical health, it’s imperative to ensure that your dog is being given breed-appropriate exercise and enrichment outlets. I highly recommend Kim Brophey’s book “Meet Your Dog” to familarize yourself with your dog’s breed group and understand what breed-typical behaviors you can expect, as well as how to give your dog appropriate outlets for those genetic needs. Even if you’ve got a mixed-breed, Kim Brophey’s book will help you out! For example, let your guarding breed patrol the yard each evening and don’t stress them out with lots of unexpected guests. Let your herding dog try their hand at treibball and let your terrier dig up treats in a kiddie pool full of sand. Many, many dog behavior problems come from your dog’s genetics coming into conflict with their environment.

5. Ask yourself: are my expectations reasonable?

Sometimes we expect a small, shy toy breed dog to be as friendly as a lab, or we expect a lab to politely and passively ignore potential friends. Given your dog’s personality, age, genetic history and training history so far, are your expectations fair? In many cases, our frustration stems from the fact that we’re expecting too much from our dogs.

6. Consider an alternative behavior you can teach your dog to do.

If, after all of these changes your dog is still exhibiting the problem behavior, it might be time to start training. Consider how you’d like your dog to behave in a given situation… and the answer cannot just be “not doing X!” Be clear and specific with what your dog’s “job” is in a given context, and then help teach them using positive reinforcement to perform that new “job.” Know that this approach will take time, and make sure that you’re constantly revisiting steps 1-5 as you progress with your training plan. 

In many cases, the problems that we try to “fix” in our pet dogs are actually due to stress from a mismatch between genes and the environment. We can’t change our dog’s genes (though we should consider genes when selecting a new dog), but we can change their environment to set our dogs up for success. 

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We can’t change our dog’s genes, but we can change their environment to set our dogs up for success. 

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Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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