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

Travel thoughts E1: dog/dog sociability

I had fun with The Brindle Girl series, and decided to do more video-style posts. I’m hoping this will tie me over until I go back to speaking in front of groups of people. I was going to record these while driving across Guatemala and Mexico – but it turned out that the AC blasting and the car were too much background noise. So I’m only recording these post road trip. They are still travel thoughts, so I’m keeping the name!

The first video post below is my musings about dog/dog sociability. After recording this, I remembered that I recently learned something that contradicts my anecdotal experience: dog breeds, it turns out, are much less predictive of an individual’s behavior and personality traits than we conventionally think they are.

How do we know that? As of today (May 27, 2021), the Darwin’s Ark project has analyzed 3,056,323 answers provided by the owners of 29,233 dogs. At the 2021 Lemonade Conference, Elinor Karlsson explained their approach in a captivating talk that was amazingly understandable even for someone like me, with zero training in data analysis or statistics. If you get a chance to catch one of her presentations – make sure you don’t miss it!

Based on what Elinor Karlsson and colleagues have found, you should take my video musings with a grain of salt! So before you watch my video – here’s the scientific caveat:

In relation to predicting sociability, we’ve learned two things from Darwin’s Ark:

  1. An individual dog’s behavior and personality traits can not accurately be predicted if all we know is their breed.
  2. Dog breeds have some subtle differences in behavior and personality when compared to all (pet) dogs.
    However, these differences are not clear for all factors examined in the Darwin’s Ark project. For example, there are no statistically significant breed differences when it comes to factors like agonistic threshold, and dog sociability – two factors relevant to my musings below.

The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

One thing that training dogs has taught me is to better understand certain behavioral patterns in myself. Here’s an example.

I dislike unsolicited advice. I try to refrain from giving it to others, and it annoys me when it is bestowed on me by friends who (I feel) should know better.

And yet, a lot of the time, my response to unsolicited advice is to reinforce the unsolicited advisor by thanking them for their help. As a result, the friend is likely to give me more unsolicited advice in the future. The spiral of miscommunication continues.

Why on earth would I thank them for something I didn’t want? I recognized what I was doing, and I was puzzled by it – until I observed a completely unrelated behavioral pattern in dogs.

Learning to tug

Some dogs show little natural interest in playing with a tug toy. A common method of teaching them to tug is to excitedly tease and slap them with the toy and push the toy into the dog. Lots of dogs learn to tug this way.

Throughout the training process, a handler who uses this method is getting positively reinforced for teasing and slapping the dog with the toy: the dog grabbing and pulling on the toy is equivalent to me saying thank you to an unsolicited advisor. It’s a powerful positive reinforcer for the handler or the unwelcome advisor, respectively.

But what is happening from the perspective of the dog? Pause for a second before you continue reading past this paragraph. Is the dog’s tugging behavior strengthened and maintained by …

(A) positive reinforcement,
(B) positive punishment,
(C) negative reinforcement,
or (D) negative punishment?

Scroll down to see if you were right!

tugging, dog training, dog trainer, play

The answer is (C): negative reinforcement. The dog in our example doesn’t naturally care about tug toys. The trainer slapping and teasing him with the toy, trying to put it in his mouth, slapping some more while talking excitedly is irritating, confusing, intimidating or annoying to the dog. In an effort to escape the trainer’s behavior, he will sooner or later try grabbing the toy.

That very instant, the slapping, teasing and pushing stops. Wow! A moment of relief! The dog just learned that he can stop his owner’s craziness by grabbing and holding on to the toy. The better he understands his ability to influence the handler’s behavior, the sooner will he grab the toy. Eventually, he’ll start tugging as soon as the toy is presented. Voilà – the dog has learned to tug via a negative reinforcement procedure.

I assume many dogs eventually start to enjoy tugging as such, even if they initially learned by means of negative reinforcement. Some dogs, however, may never truly enjoy to play tug, and keep doing it mostly in order to not get slapped and teased with the toy.

Me? I’m like the latter kind of dog when it comes to thanking people for their unsolicited advice. I keep doing it to escape the pressure of being expected to respond.

Unsolicited advice

Being showered with unsolicited advice from friends – whether it is dog training advice, dating advice, or life advice – feels like being slapped with a tug toy. It’s irritating. It makes me feel yucky and disrespected. If that were the only force at play here, I’d probably actively reject the advice (applying positive punishment), or ignore it (applying extinction).

The pressure to respond and the crux of kindness

However, two other strong forces come into play as well:

  • My need to respond to my friends’ messages (the equivalent of “will to please” in a dog),
  • and the belief that kindness is more important than honesty, i.e. we should not do things that may hurt our friends’ feelings (the equivalent to living by a certain rule structure we sometimes observe in herding breeds).

When a friend writes me a message, the ball is in my court, and I feel like I NEED to give the ball back to them. As long as the ball is in my court, it’s as if the slapping and teasing with the tug toy continued. Having a friend’s ball in my court is pressure – that’s why I’m having a really hard time just ignoring unsolicited advice.

So I will eventually respond – and I’ll be nice about it. I feel like I need to respond to my friend’s good intentions rather than to the effect their unsolicited advice-giving behavior has on me.

I’ll probably at least say “Thank you” or a send a smiley face or a thumbs up emoticon. While this is the weakest reinforcer available to me, it is still strong enough to maintain my friends’ unsolicited advice-giving.

The Challenge

Now that I’m aware of what has been maintaining my grateful responses to unsolicited advice, I’m going to conduct an experiment: I’ll try to change my own reaction, and find out if I can reduce unsolicited advice giving that way. At the very least, I expect to feel better when learning to respond in a way that is in line with my feelings about unsolicited advice. (The training parallel here would be giving the dog a way to opt out of playing tug.)

I’m going to start with focusing on advice given in written form, online. My alternative response to unsolicited advice will be to close the chat window instead of replying. I’m going to use a food reward for myself: I will treat myself to the world’s best cheesecake, which is sold at a local café, contingent on closing the chat window. I’ve only had this cheesecake twice because it’s fancy and expensive cheesecake, but I think about it every time I walk past the café. Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’ll have cheese cake every time I close a chat window on an unsolicited advisor. I’ll see how it goes!

How about you? Has dog training changed your understanding of your own behavioral patterns or the behavioral patterns of the humans around you? Would you like to design your own version of the cheesecake challenge? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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.

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.