Stress cycles

I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.

A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.

Not feeling well – the dog angle

When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.

The human parallel

I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.

Back to the canine side of things

At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.

Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.

Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.

Stress-ors and Stre-ss

The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.

There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!

Dumping out the bucket

Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.

How Game’s bucket got filled

Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.

Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.

Humans complete stress cycles, too

Grit and I playing our favorite game (pic by Isabelle Grubert).

One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!

Roughhousing and rolling on the floor with puppy Game (picture by Isabelle Grubert).

The good news, and the bad news

The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).

But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.

Be your dog’s advocate

Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.

Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.

How about *your* dog?

What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?

Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”

PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!


Resources mentioned in this post

Nagoski, Amelia & Emily – Burnout

Naked Feet

[Disclaimer: this is not a dog training post.]

 

I saw a woman lying in the middle of the street. She was curled up like you’d do when spooning someone. Only there was no one to spoon. 

 

The street was a freeway. I was on a bus – the first vehicle that stopped after a motorcycle ran her over. Her feet were naked. Her skirt had slipped up, revealing her lower legs and bare feet. 

 

Should I get off the bus and make sure she got to a hospital? 

 

She was facing away from us. “Dios mío,” whispered the woman sitting next to me. The sun was shining.  

 

A friend, a lawyer, once told me, “If you ever hit someone in Guatemala, run.” What if the guy on the motorcycle had received the same advice?

 

His motorcycle was parked on the side of the road. He was fine. He was making a phone call. He wasn’t going to run. And, just like that, I decided to stay on the bus. 

 

The woman in the street slowly lifted an arm. Just a for a second; then it dropped back down. It was the only movement I had seen since we stopped.

 

“She’s fine”, said the driver. “She’s moving.”

 

(I’ve seen the mouth of a sheep open and close a minute after separating the head from the body. Clearly, moving an arm doesn’t prove you are fine.)

 

And we continued on, the bus leaning into the turns so you had to hold on to your seat with two hands, blasting reggeaton.

 

Later that day, I asked a friend what would happen to the woman. She had no shoes. She certainly had no insurance.

 

“They’ll take her to the Hospitál Nacional,” said my friend. “It’s free.”

 

“Will they do a good job there?”

 

“They won’t,” he said. “If she gets there alive, and she’s badly injured, she’ll die.”

 

I thought of Peter Singer. He holds that there is no moral difference between walking past a dying person in the street, and choosing not to think of all the dying people in far away places. 

 

It’s morally outrageous to see footage of someone walk past a dying person in the street. We all believe we would stop. (We can’t know if we would. I’d have said I would stop – but I stayed on that bus.)

 

The thing is: there was no good reason to stay on the bus. If someone is lying in the middle of a freeway, and no one stops the oncoming traffic … How long until they get run over again, this time for good? I’ve seen cats and dogs on that freeway, flat like sheets of paper. There was no breakdown triangles, no traffic cones, and no one was stopping cars for this woman. I could have stopped cars for her, had I gotten off the bus.

 

I suppose Peter Singer is right. There is no moral difference: maybe we’re just as bad up close as we are at great distances.

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Riding in Cars with Roberto

Disclaimer: this is not a dog training post.

 

***

My car broke down today. I went to my neighbor’s workshop to ask for help.

 

Roberto, the mechanic, is in his 50s. He’s got a bit of a belly, the dirty fingernails of a good mechanic, and a formerly white Toyota that looks older than he is, but is still going strong. We took his Toyota (I miss having windows that can be opened manually) to go to San Cristónbal El Bajo where my car had broken down. A yellow teddy bear with long legs and long arms dangled from his rear-view mirror, and he had one of these little flasks with “new car smell” in his old car; a tiny tank holding a purple liquid attached to the air vent. There was a reassuring amount of dust on his dashboard. We’re in the dry season – la estación del polvo. Open the windows and don’t clean your car for a few days, and there’ll be enough dust on your dashboard to leave visible traces in it with your finger tips.

 

The first time in someone’s car, you learn something about them. Like the first time in their house. You notice things (like the teddy bear. Like the radio with a screen that came to life when he started the car. There was a USB stick plugged in, but the music was turned off. What someone listens to, and whether they turn on the radio or not – it tells you things about a person that go beyond their use of cars).

 

Roberto didn’t turn on the radio. I wound down the window, and we exchanged the usual semi-ritualized politenesses: how long had I lived here? Were he and his sons from San Pedro Las Huertas originally; had they always run the workshop? What did I do for a living? These four questions is all it takes to know whether you’ll want to continue the conversation, or get through whatever time you are having to spend together in silence, avoiding further engagement. Whatever result you come to – ideally, it’ll be mutual. Mutual silence? That’s okay. Mutual conversation? That’s okay, too. One person talking and engaging, and the other one decidedly looking out the window, playing with their phone, turning on the radio? Awkward.

 

Roberto and I unspokenly agreed that we were going to have a conversation while the wind was blowing late morning heat through the car. Noon was in the air, and dust – always dust.

 

“I’ve heard San Pedro used to be controlled by a gang. This whole concept of gangs … it’s foreign to me. It doesn’t really exist where I come from. Can you tell me about it?”

 

And he did. “It wasn’t really a gang,” Roberto said. “People like to exaggerate. It was a bunch of boys. Ladrones del pueblo. They’d steal stuff  – chickens, for example. Anything they could get their hands on, really. They’d threaten people and take things from them, or break into houses.”

 

“That’s interesting … It seems like San Pedro Las Huertas isn’t full of super rich people. Who’d they steal from?”

 

“Oh, everyone. It didn’t matter if you had little or a lot for them to take it.

 

We didn’t have problems with them for a long time. My dad … he was the kind of man who doesn’t get involved in the lives of others. You know, the kind of man who doesn’t get upset as long as the ladrones harass someone else.”

 

I nodded.

 

“But we did have issues with them at some point …”

 

“What happened?”

 

“My brother was walking … right here, in this street. Walkmen had just gotten popular, and he had his walkman and headphones. They took it …”

 

“They stopped him and threatened him … with weapons?”

 

“With knives, yes.

 

We knew who they were, of course. We knew where they lived.

 

And then they took my brother’s bike, too, the next time they saw him.”

 

“Wow.”

 

“Yeah. So my dad, who usually didn’t get involved, went to their house, and he knocked on their door …

 

He said, ‘Why did you take my son’s things?’

 

They denied it, but my dad just took the boy’s machete from him … And he told him to return my brother’s stuff.”

 

I could imagine Roberto’s dad – probably looking much like Roberto did now – threatening that young man at his door. The mechanic would speak calmly, and look directly into his eyes, exuding power by his mere presence. I pictured him wearing an oil-stained red polo shirt, like Roberto was wearing one today.

 

“They gave it all back, and they didn’t steal from us again”, said Roberto. “Some people let others take their stuff.  So they will keep taking stuff from them. Others confront the ladrones; they stand up to them – and they’ll be left in peace.”

 

“What happened to the ladrones? They are gone now, aren’t they?”

 

“Yeah … one of them went to prison. One was murdered. One left … None of them are here anymore.”

 

“… until another group just like them takes their place?”

 

“Yeah. There was another group already. They tried to do the same thing. But people stood up to them, and the group didn’t last.”

 

We got to the place I had left Bergziege, my car. Roberto unloaded a rusty yellow toolbox and a large piece of cardboard, and his upper body disappeared under the chassis. There’s something reassuring about a person’s legs sticking out from under a car, for some reason. I sat down on a concrete step and told him to let me know if I could assist him in anything.”De acuerdo,” he said, “Okay.” He wasn’t a douchebag kind of guy who believes women can’t hold a hammer.  

 

The problem, he said, was the transmisión. Bergziege had lost a few screws. He took something off the undercarriage: a long metal tube with a joint in the middle.

 

“You can drive like this, without the transmisión. Just not up very steep hills; you’ve only got front drive now. It’ll take a few days till I get the screws, but then we’ll put it back on.”

 

“Okay. I’m supposed to drive up a hill today though … That’s actually what I was going to do when the car broke down. I need to take three bags of cement up there. You think I’d better not …?”

 

“Nah, better not until you’ve got the 4WD back. You may not make it up with the cement.”

 

I asked him if he’d help me. Could we take the cement up the hill in his car?

 

“Sure; I’ve got time.”

 

We loaded the cement out of Bergziege and into the Toyota, and then it was my turn to tell a story. His daughter, now 27, used to really, really want to see the snow when she was little (he said).They got a Christmas tree, and covered it in styrofoam crumbs to give her a glimpse of the experience.

 

My story, then, needed to be a story about snow. I told him about a particularly snowy winter a few years ago, when I lived on a hill in Austria. I seem to always end up on hills of some kind. We’d walk up the hill, through the forest, in the snow – they only cleared the street once a day, and if it kept snowing, cars would be useless. (The way it feels to walk uphill in fresh snow; how it gets exhausting, but is also its own kind of beautiful? What it’s like to walk at night, taking a shortcut through the forest, when the air is crystal clear and cold and dark, and if there were no highway close by, it would be completely silent except for the sound of your feet? The way the snow makes time slow down, and your thoughts too? Also, being in warm houses when it’s snowing outside; the beauty and the relentless cold and all the things that fit in between.)

 

We had delivered the cement, and he stopped on the bottom of the hill to let me out where Bergziege was waiting. “Thank you, really,” I said. “What do I owe you?”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Come by on Tuesday and see if I already got the screws we need for your transmisión.”

 

I closed the car door, and the sun spit his Toyota back out into the dusty street.

 

***

 

What can we learn from this? At least five things. In chronological order: people tend to exaggerate when talking about crime. Quiet people are more powerful than loud ones. Cars come with large metal parts that aren’t essential for them to work. I’ve got lovely neighbors.

 

(Also, something about human nature and the fact that standing up to ladrones pays off, but I’m not sure about the details of that lesson.)