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Stress & the Agility Dog

Recognising and alleviating anxiety

Our canine partners usually do their best to please us humans, their owners, but always remember that they are not machines or tools.  Dogs are living breathing individuals and they, like us, feel differently day by day. They experience emotion and they can suffer from stress just like us. But how do you know when your dog is feeling stressed?

Stress is cumulative. It can be communicated from handler to dog, one dog to another, one human to another, dog to handler and so on, round and round. It can become an obstacle to optimum performance by either side of the partnership. If you have had a tough day, time spent with your dog may be the perfect release of tension. Sometimes though it can be easy – inadvertently - to take out your pent-up emotions and frustrations on the dog.

Our expectations when training for agility may increase stress. We expect our dogs to learn to jump over poles. Then we sometimes shout at them when they jump the 'wrong' one. We want them to stop on contacts except when we don’t want them to stop on contacts. No wonder the poor dogs are confused!  We take them to a venue where there may be thousands of dogs in a fever pitch of excitement and then we leave them in a confined space for periods of time but within sound, sight and smell of their fellows which can be a recipe for mass hysteria!

How do you know when your dog is feeling stressed? 
Dogs communicate through body language and they give off a variety of signals to indicate their state of mind. Similarly, if they recognise that you are stressed then they are quite capable of trying to signal you to calm down. Try to observe your dog in daily life to learn the signals of stress that are specific to him and what has triggered the stress on any particular occasion. We cannot totally prevent stress. Neither is it necessarily a bad thing unless your dog's stress level exceeds the point at which it is no longer capable of paying you attention which then, in itself, can become a source of further stress to both handler and dog.

There are many stress indicators to watch out for in the dog’s body language ranging from:

  • Change of posture – hugging or dropping to the ground

  • Stretching

  • Change of pace

  • Abnormal tail movement

  • Shaking and trembling

  • Ceaseless pacing or simply lack of movement

  • Shutting down - becoming 'flat' in posture and mentality

  • Vocalisation – squeaking, whining, barking

  • Facial expression – squinty or shifty eyes, dilated pupils, glazed expression, showing the whites of the eye

  • Avoidance of eye contact

  • Excessive panting, licking, yawning or drooling

  • Frowning, has ears held back, corners of mouth may be held rigidly

  • Any attention-seeking or irrational behaviours – digging, self-mutilation, persistent scratching, sniffing, spinning, circling, hiding, destruction of environment, etc

Obviously many of these activities may be perfectly normal at the appropriate time. What we really need to identify is 'out of context' behaviours. Once you learn your dog's triggers and stress indicators, you may be able to address the problem before the behaviour becomes excessive. However, there will always be situations beyond our control such as the weather (change of atmospheric pressure), the season (associated with un-neutered animals), gunfire or fireworks, proximity of other animals et.c when we may need to look for alternative coping strategies.

In the domestic situation our dogs are no longer able to cope in the manner that nature intended. When they detect a threat or difficulty they can no longer chose  'fight/flight/freeze' and so tensions build up, resulting in the symptoms we identify as 'stress.' Scientists explain adverse stress as being due to an animal’s inability to deal satisfactorily with perceived threat through the normal fight or flight response.

In these circumstances adrenaline and cortisol are kept at artificially high levels in the body, resulting in an imbalance of minerals in the bloodstream, muscles and nerves. Primary amongst these effects is the depletion of the body’s reserves of magnesium, the most important of the minerals, involved in over 300 metabolic processes.

How to reduce stress? 
Humans may choose to take 'time out,' stop for a coffee - or something stronger -  confide in a friend, have a soak in the bath.

Dogs do not have the same freedom of choice but you can still stop the activity, give them a break and maybe a change of scene. You could try showing the dog a few well-known canine calming signals – a deep sigh or yawn, a big stretch. Also avoid direct eye contact and an overbearing manner. In other words, show the dog by your own relaxed behaviour that there is nothing to fear. 

Try to keep the tone of voice low, soothing and reassuring without 'babying' or shouting or the dog may not be convinced! Maybe even adopt a new command, one that comes to mean to the dog that everything is ok; use it to begin with when the dog is calm and at rest then gradually introduce the command in stressful situations to condition him into relaxation.

Finally let’s address the problem of the body’s imbalance of magnesium versus calcium. If you have already put all the best advice into practice and your dog is still OTT and unable to focus in training or competition, then you may wish to seek a means of supplementing his magnesium levels. 

I had never thought of using a supplement for my dogs before until the company from which I bought an equine product introduced a similar range for dogs. I subsequently tried their magnesium calmer to see if it would help with firework phobia and was delighted to have my animals resting quietly as if it were any other night. 

I then wondered if the same product would help my youngest dog who is highly sensitive to the point where he can be difficult to train.  He is now able to remain focused when working, has grown in confidence and his speed has increased as a result. Because of the problems I have with this dog I have become very interested in the whole subject of canine stress and hope to continue learning more.

I was so impressed with the results from the product that I found and have recently become a distributor for the company!

About the author...
Sheila Szegota
is a distributor of Nupafeed products for dogs and recommends Stress-less, a unique magnesium calmer for nervous, anxious or tense working dogs available from www.ace-canine.com

It was always her ambition to have a dog and her favourite breed is the Border Collie. She has owned them now for over 20 years, tried a little showing and obedience, then discovered agility. Ten years later, she owns three BCs who all compete at agility. One of them, handled and trained by her husband, even qualified for the Novice Final at Olympia! The dogs and the sport have given us a shared hobby, lots of pleasure and many good friends.