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
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!
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