What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

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