Updated: Jul 28, 2020
by Scott Stauffer, Diana Kastner
Before we dive into the human aspect of stress, we want to take you on a little tour of what this article does and does not stand for. Towards the end of the article we are discussing the importance of allowing dogs to cope with stress in THEIR ways, but understanding first what that means is every bit as crucial as understanding what it doesn't mean.
What it means is that when we get into a situation that stresses our dogs, we need to allow our dogs to express themselves without repercussions. This self-expression is their way of communicating their needs to us and to the world around them. More often than not, self-expression starts in very subtle ways, long before the trigger becomes a matter of urgency - a twitching of the ear, biting at the leash, weaving from side to side during the walk - there are many ways dogs communicate stress before we typically pay attention. But whether we pick up on their communication early or late, what matters is that we listen to what the dog tells us, since they are communicating their needs; and unless we help them meet their needs, we are slowing down their coping process. Typically, the dog will communicate needs such as "I just want to stare at the trigger a little bit and process all the information about it" or "I, need cuddles" (release of opioids and more oxytocin for a reassuring emotional connection) or "I want to leave now" (amongst others).
What this article doesn't mean is that we should go out of our ways to seek stressful situations we can expose our dogs to. What it doesn't mean is that we should force our dogs into stress. Anything that isn't natural is counter-productive and either leads to trigger stacking, chronic stress or loss of trust and confidence in themselves as well as in YOU, and it may even result in trauma. Stress is a serious thing with the potential of serious long-term consequences, which is why understanding the science behind stress is crucial. Therefore, this article does not justify forceful and prolonged exposure (including flooding) to stress, but help in situations when stress catches up with our dogs naturally during everyday activities.
The boogey-myth of stress
Is it fair to say that we are a fundamentally stressed society? Between juggling jobs, family, bills, ball games and dance recitals, and whatever else life has in store for us, we are constantly on the go. And as if that’s not enough to worry about already, we are forever told that stress is bad; that stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease, that it can cause a variety of long-term health issues … even kill us. Our research into the more recent - yet not new - science of stress shows that this is indeed correct. But there is an interesting twist that most of us are unaware of: The power of ones mindset. No, we are not talking about imagination, which is exactly how we viewed mindset in the past. Today we know that mindset literally helps regulate the chemicals throughout our bodies. And in the case of stress, studies show that whether we believe stress is harmful or beneficial has great influence over the amount of the various neurochemicals and stress hormones that are released when we deal with a crisis situation.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, and Alia Crum, PhD, both of Stanford University (see references/links below), are two of the leading experts on the topics of mindset and stress, and we find their work to be valuable additions to Affective Dog Behavior, as it is based on extensive research studies and it addresses why we should probably change the way we look at stress.
We have a built-in mechanism that helps us cope with and thrive through stress
“It’s not stress that kills you, it’s our reaction to it” – Hans Selye
From looking at the research at hand, we understand that there are only two types of stress that are truly harmful:
chronic stress and
the stress that we believe to be harmful
For all other crisis situations, we actually have an innate, built-in mechanism that enables us not only to cope with stress but actually thrive through stress.
The stress chemicals we are most interested in are:
But first, please understand that these chemicals have other, non-stress related functions as well.
Adrenaline is released in the adrenal glands, which are attached to the top of the kidneys. Basically, adrenaline prompts the body to ready itself for an emergency by increasing the blood flow to the muscles, as well as increasing blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, and changing the carbohydrate metabolism to boost overall energy.
Cortisol is released from the outer layer of the adrenal glands. Even though it turns sugar and fat into energy, and improves the body’s ability to use that energy, cortisol has a somewhat negative effect on the immune system and even slows down wound repair. During stress, cortisol suppresses biological functions, such as reproduction, digestion and growth - in this case, these are deemed less important and a possible hindrance to an effective flight or fight response
The hormone DHEA also comes from the adrenal gland; however, a small amount originates in the brain, where it functions as a neurotransmitter. DHEA influences estrogen and testosterone levels, and being a neurosteroid, it also has the unique ability to help the brain grow as it copes with stressful experiences. Doesn’t that sound promising? Let’s say it one more time:
DHEA HELPS THE BRAIN GROW DURING STRESS!!!
And that’s not even where the magic of DHEA stops. As we have just mentioned the negative effects of cortisol, DHEA counters some of them. For example, DHEA promotes wound repair, and it boosts the immune system. This correlation between DHEA and cortisol means that the ratio in which both are released is vital to the body’s ability to cope with stress. More about this in just a little bit, though. First we still need to cover Oxytocin.
Is there anybody who hasn’t yet heard of this “love hormone”? Unlike the hormones we have just mentioned, oxytocin does not originate in the adrenal glands but in the brain. It has many functions, but until just recently, we were not aware of the fact that oxytocin is released during stress, adding it to the list of stress chemicals. The question is why? Why would a neurotransmitter that boosts confidence and promotes social behaviors be released in a moment of crisis? Well, for one thing, oxytocin helps us be more social and literally seek social connection when we are most vulnerable. Secondly, and this may come as a big surprise, research shows that the heart (which is supposed to be at risk during stress) is equipped with oxytocin receptors, and when oxytocin attaches itself to these receptors, it helps repair stress-related damage to the heart, literally making the heart stronger.
The Growth Index of Stress
Back to the relationship between DHEA and cortisol. The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response.
Higher DHEA = Higher Growth Index
In her book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal describes how a higher growth index helps us thrive under stress. Interestingly, it is associated with increased focus, problem solving skills and academic persistence; it also appears to decrease post-traumatic stress symptoms and predict resilience in extreme circumstances.
The Upside of Stress also refers to the work of Alia Crum and her studies of mindset. Even though one's mindset does not change the levels of cortisol released during stress, it does influence the release of DHEA. When we view stress as harmful, the release of DHEA decreases, negatively affecting the growth index of stress. In a way, that means that cortisol, including its negative effects, has the upper hand when we think of stress as being bad.
How does this affect our dogs?
The biggest takeaway important in our work with dogs is that we truly need to learn to relax about stress. Yes, chronic stress is bad all the way around, but the evidence clearly shows that our mind controls the effect of stress. As Kelly McGonigal puts it: “The effect you expect is the effect you get”.
The way muscles rejuvenate themselves through strain, DHEA helps the brain grow and oxytocin promotes heart repair through stress
These are some very important facts to consider when we deal with dogs in stressful situations. Of course, since mindset involves complex cognitive abilities and the canine brain lacks the complexity of our own, it is doubtful that dogs spend much energy on pondering on the future health effects of stress. Dogs are more in the moment. When they experience stress, their system typically works as intended, provided we do not stand in the way. See, because we view stress as a bad thing rather than just another means to survive and thrive, we tend to project our negative mindset unto our dogs; a mindset that clearly lowers our release of the much needed DHEA. And thus, influenced by our negativity, we try to avoid or at least minimize our dogs' exposure to stressful situations by following carefully developed training protocols that oftentimes suggest when and how we should manipulate the environment. Ultimately, we are depriving our dogs of the opportunity to cope with stress in THEIR ways; slowing the process of building resilience and negatively affecting many other aspects of a dog's wellbeing - from brain growth to possibly causing an effect that is not natural to dogs: chronic stress.
There is a good possibility that dogs can pick up on our negative mindsets. Could it be that their olfactory system is so sensitive it can detect the imbalance between cortisol and DHEA that arises during negativity? This might be an interesting future study topic.
Affective Dog Behavior teaches and advocates for the inclusion of all sciences that help us help our dogs feel safer with us but in THEIR ways. Allowing dogs to experience stressors and cope naturally is not new to us, only now we have the science that explains why this is important in our human-dog relationships.
However, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, forcefully exposing dogs to stress is a big no-no, as trigger stacking, chronic stress and flooding remain to be issues of great concern.
University of Wisconsin - study
Kelly McGonigal, PhD - How to make stress your friend
Kelly McGonigal, PhD - The Upside of Stress
Alia Crum, PhD - Rethinking stress
Harvard University - Harnessing the upsides of stress
In the study from the University of Wisconsin, stress was broadly defined as a situation “in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both, tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, social system, or tissue system,”