“Bad” Dog or Stressed Dog?

infographic with three batteries labeled Mental, Emotional, Physical. The question at the top reads Do Your Dog's Batteries Nee Re-charging?

Reactive and Destructive Dog Behaviours

Consider this scenario:

For the past two weeks Fido’s person has been very busy working on home renovations and yesterday evening she invited some friends over.  When the doorbell rang, Fido ran to the front door, barking loudly as usual; Fido’s person yelled at him to stop but he kept barking.  She chased Fido away from the door to let the guests inside, but Fido ran up to meet the guests anyway. Fido has always been very excited when guests come over, but he seemed more excited than usual and started jumping up on the guests.  The people yelled at him to stop, but he continued jumping and started mouthing and nipping at clothing.  Fido’s person scolded him angrily, grabbed him by his collar, and put him in the spare bedroom. He whined and barked for 30 minutes and then was quiet.  A few hours later, after the guests left, Fido’s person opened up the bedroom door to find Fido sitting on the bed “looking guilty” next to a ripped up pillow.  She began to scold him. Fido turned his head and “ignored” her.  Fido’s person stepped toward the bed, intending to grab his collar and send him outside.  Fido crouched and urinated on the bed.

Is Fido a bad dog or a stressed dog?

Overly reactive and destructive behaviours are common symptoms of a stressed dog, and the disruption of home renovations can certainly affect our pets.  Add to this the excitement of guests, the tension of yelling and scolding, plus the frustration or anxiety of being alone or separated from family members, and it’s no wonder Fido behaved the way he did.  What could Fido’s person have done differently to help him?

Management is essential to improving a dog’s behaviour

An important first step is to try to prevent the rehearsal of the unwanted behaviours by managing the situation (the dog’s environment and access to things in the environment).  Set up the dog for success by recognizing his weaknesses and planning accordingly. Fido would have been better able to handle the excitement of guests if he had experienced a few days of things being back to his normal routine; the noise, chaos, and even smells of renovations can be highly stressful.  Since her dog normally gets excited by guests, Fido’s person could have prevented unwanted behaviours by having him on a leash when the guests arrived; or Fido could have been in a cozy, comfortable kennel in another room in the house, enjoying a special treat.  (Dogs can be trained to love being in their kennel, and this should be trained in advance before testing it out in a difficult situation.)  Leaving Fido in a highly amped up state in a room with nothing to occupy him is just asking for trouble, especially in the context of the stressful evening.

Avoid aversive, coercive, punishment-based dog training methods

Another step to improving a dog’s behaviour is avoiding aversive or punishment-based training methods.  When possible, take measures to help the dog make good choices that can be rewarded, and if the dog makes poor choices, don’t punish. This doesn’t mean you let the dog do what it wants. It means that punishing this behaviour will cause more problems. When Fido was barking and jumping up on the guests, yelling didn’t help stop his behaviour.  A highly aroused dog is unlikely to “register” what his person is saying is unlikely to respond appropriately; the dog is likely to understand the emotional state of the human with the raised voice, but the dog might end up becoming more stressed and agitated by the yelling human. Who knows, the dog might think that his person is upset and “barking along” for the same reason the dog is.  Yelling, scolding, intimidation, and physical altercations usually increase the stress levels of both the dog and the person, and this can result in an escalation of the unwanted behaviour, new undesirable behaviours, and a weakening of the trust and bond the dog has with the person.

Learn how to “speak dog”

The third step to preventing problem behaviours is learning how to “speak dog.” Dogs communicate mainly through body language, and humans tend to ignore or misinterpret many of the subtle and quick signals.  When Fido’s person entered the bedroom, Fido instantly read her body language (anger) and responded with an appeasement behaviour (ears back, eyes soft).  When Fido’s person started to yell, he offered another calming signal (look away/head turn).  When that didn’t seem to work, Fido offered a “louder” signal: submissive urination.  He was doing all he could to reduce the tension and avoid a conflict.  From Fido’s perspective, the ripping of the pillow was not connected in any way to his owner’s anger.  Dogs are not mind readers and unless two events occur in close proximity, dogs will not make the connection.  Yelling while pointing at the ripped pillow or rubbing the dog’s nose in it might make the human feel better (punishment can be rewarding to the punisher), but it will not communicate anything to the dog except that his owner is unpredictable and violent and should be feared.

“F Responses” Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fidget, Fawn, Fool Around

Acknowledging a dog’s limitations, planning a response rather than reacting, and understanding dog communication can go a long way to helping a dog through a stressful event, but what about dogs who are “bad” all the time?

Excessive barking, marking, hyperactivity, destructive behaviour, aggressive displays, and house training problems can all be signs of stress, but by recognizing the earlier, subtle signs, many serious behaviour problems can be avoided.   Most dogs in their early stages of anxiety or uncertainty will do things like avert their eyes, blink frequently, lick their lips or nose, wrinkle the skin around their forehead and eyes, stop to scratch, tuck under their tail, and turn their head away from the thing causing stress.  They may also do things that seem out of context like yawning when they are not sleepy, panting when they aren’t hot or tired out, “shaking off” as if after a bath, and drooling when food is not present and there is no mouth injury.  Stress-related behaviours can also include whining, excessive grooming, tail chasing, and attempts to hide or escape.  Each dog is different and may favour some behaviours over others.  The important thing is to recognize the signals for what they are and manage the situation to help reduce the dog’s anxiety before it leads to unwanted behaviours.

In some cases, stress signals can escalate to threat signals (i.e. closing the mouth, freezing, lip lifting, showing teeth, growling, deeper barking, whites of the eyes showing, nose bumping, snarling, snapping the air) and then to a bite.  Often a growling, snarling, lunging dog is acting out of fear, showing an aggressive display because fleeing is not an option (i.e. he is on a leash, tied up, cornered, injured).  His earlier warning signals have been ignored or misinterpreted; now he is highly stressed, well beyond his threshold.  Unfortunately, a common consequence of this is that the dog eventually learns to stop giving the early warning signals because they haven’t been effective; instead, the dog learns to go straight to threat signals because that’s what has been working from the dog’s perspective. (Consider how responding with punishment to these anxiety-based behaviours is likely to cause more stress and make matters worse.)

When dogs have “too much Christmas”

Sometimes dogs overreact because of too much excitement.  Many dogs are over-stimulated by the sight of people or other dogs and they become impatient or frustrated by their inability to get closer to them; sometimes these dogs learn that lunging and pulling can get them closer. In many cases, these dogs need more distance and time to become desensitized to the sight of the trigger, but their humans are not aware of this and allow them to get closer before the dog is ready.  In many cases dogs with reactive behaviours can be rehabilitated; to do this handlers must recognize and respond to the early calming signals to keep these dogs below their threshold while controlling access to the triggers in the environment.

When reading a dog’s signals, it’s important to look at these behaviours in context. For example, when a dog exposes his belly, sometimes this is an open invitation to a belly rub; but sometimes this is a sign of fearful submission, and if you bend down to try to give the dog a belly rub you may get bitten. Tail wagging is another misunderstood signal. Is the dog wiggling his whole body when he’s wagging his tail? Is his body very forward and stiff when he’s wagging his tail like a flag up in the air? Tail wagging signals the dog’s level of excitement. Whether the tail is held high or low is a clue to the emotions behind that excitement (i.e. fear, friendliness).  Look at the whole picture to “read” a dog, and consult reputable resources or trainers if possible.

Chronic stress affects a dog’s health

Along with behavioural problems, dogs that are experiencing chronic stress often have physical symptoms such as allergies, skin conditions, poor coat condition, body odour, excessive shedding, poor or extreme appetites, and digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, gas, sensitive stomach).  It’s important to take note of digestive problems, as these are often both a symptom and a cause of stress.  The digestive system is essential to the health of the immune and nervous systems; too much stress is one factor that can lead to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut flora that can cause hypersensitivity and cognitive and behavioural problems, adding to a dog’s stress levels.  A healthy gut is essential to reducing stress and improving a dog’s diet is an important step.

Reducing your dog’s stress

A dog’s stress levels can be reduced through other changes as well.  Reducing or removing stressors in the environment can help, even something as simple as closing the curtains or turning down the volume on the television. Massage can be helpful, as well as a variety of tools such as Thundershirts, Bach Flower remedies, and specifically designed music.  One of the simplest ways to reduce a dog’s stress levels is to let the dog get sufficient good quality rest or sleep.  In a study of stress in dogs, the most stressed dogs were the ones who got fewer than 17 hours of rest or sleep per day.  Exercise and activities seem to induce stress when they interfere with a dog’s rest.  High performance or highly stimulating activities, although fun, can also be stressful for dogs, and the study suggests that dogs require a lot of rest afterward. Think of a dog at daycare sleeping the entire next day at home. Be careful with sudden changes in routines, as these can be stressful; for example, an over-scheduled dog athlete needs to slowly reduce his schedule.

It’s difficult not to become upset when the dog is destroying our home or when our lives are turned upside down because of our dog’s unwanted behaviours.  We can improve things by learning to pay attention to what our dogs are telling us and by making changes to help reduce their stress.

No More Fights at Dog Parks

Small white dog sitting in grass while a large breed dog is approaching with very forward body language. The small dog has ears pinned back and is leaning away from approaching dog.
Photo by Izumi on Unsplash

5 High Risk Behaviours at a Dog Park

  • letting your dog walk unleashed from vehicle to the dog park entrance. This is a high risk area for encounters with dogs in a high state of nervous system arousal. Your dog and other people’s dogs are not at their best for making good choices.
  • Standing still or sitting inside the dog park, especially near the entrance/exit and amenities like water stations, shaded areas, play structures. It’s best to keep dogs moving along to avoid congestion and forced interactions with incompatible dogs
  • looking at your phone. You need to pay attention to dog body language and behaviours — from your dog and other dogs nearby in the park. Your phone is a dangerous distraction and can take your attention away from noticing early signs of trouble.
  • tossing a toy near the entrance or other area that is high risk (congested and/or dogs are generally amped up in that area). Your dog might be the best trained dog there with the best social skills, but that doesn’t mean other people’s dogs aren’t going to have a conflict with your dog. Some dogs might be very possessive or highly amped up by balls, squeaky toys, or sticks.
  • Not interrupting mounting behaviours (humping). Humping leads to a dog fight 50% of the time. Humping is often a sign that a dog is too amped up, doesn’t have appropriate social skills, or has learned that it’s fun to do. Humping at the dog park is unlikely to be a mating behaviour (unless there is a female dog in heat, coming into heat, or coming out of heat — yes, there are some people who don’t know this is a really bad idea).

How to Prevent a Fight at the Dog Park?

A dog park is a very stressful, intense environment for dogs. It’s not the place to teach your dog social skills or to get over their fear of other dogs. It’s quite the opposite. A dog park is often the best place for a dog to learn that being rude or being a bully is fun or that other dogs are scary. Some people whose dogs behave aggressively or rudely will purposefully take them to a dog park in the hopes that other dogs will train their dog. Some dog owners will take their dogs to a dog park as a test to see if their dog is still aggressive towards other dogs.

The most effective thing is not to go to the dog park. The dog park might seem like a great idea but consider carefully the dog you want to take there. Would you take a young child to a swimming pool if that child was afraid of water or disliked swimming? Would you enjoy yourself if you accompanied a friend to an amusement park but you had a strong dislike of amusement parks (the rides, the sounds, the smells, the crowds, etc.)? Not all dogs are highly social. A dog doesn’t have to enjoy all other dogs.

What Should Dog Park Users Start Doing ASAP?

There are a few simple things dog park users can do immediately to help reduce the chances that their dogs are involved in a dog-dog conflict. Most of them may seem like common sense.

Avoid crowded conditions

This should be obvious: when there are more dogs present, the odds are in favour of a conflict because there are more opportunities for a conflict to occur. But the connection between crowded conditions (dog density, if you will) and inter-dog conflicts (fights between two or more dogs) is more complex.

An important part of the way dogs avoid conflict is by avoidance: dogs will move away to avoid conflict. Well socialized dogs that are not stressed out are naturally Conflict Avoiders. If the conditions are crowded — as in, the size of the entire dog park is small (dog runs) or if an area of the dog park is congested — the dogs have less room to move away from a conflict. When a dog cannot avoid a conflict they are more likely to become a victim of the aggressor they cannot appease/avoid, or they are more likely to aggress towards the other dog. And the recipient might not be fully responsible for the stress the aggressor is reacting to: the recipient might be the nearest target. This is a big reason why crowded dog parks or congested areas in the dog park are so dangerous for people and children, as well as dogs.

Don’t hang out near the dog park entrance or exit

The entrance to the dog park is a very intense location for many reasons. Firstly, when a dog first arrives to the dog park, their nervous systems are highly aroused with the anticipation of what they will get to experience. If the previous experiences were intense, the dog’s nervous system will already be responding as if they have already experienced the thing they are anticipating. And if the dog has an intense feeling about vehicle rides, then they are doubly “amped up.” Their nervous systems are primed to react intensely — like an engine primed with fuel waiting for a spark or flame.

Secondly, people tend to stop moving once they are inside the dog park. Sometimes they do this because they meet friends there and start chatting. Or they think that once they are inside the dog park they don’t have to pay attention to their dog and instead they will look at their phones. When a dog owner loiters, often their dogs will be nearby.

Often the dog parks are designed in such away to encourage people to stop and linger in the area right after entering — seating, water stations, and other dog park amenities are often placed near the entrance, which is a terrible idea for a dog park. It might make sense for a people park, but it doesn’t make sense for a dog park. We need to design them for dogs to use safely, and a big part of that is discouraging crowded conditions.

When dogs are hanging around the entrance to the dog park, they are more likely to mob new comers trying to enter the park. Now we have a dog fight ready to happen: amped up, excited dogs in crowded conditions all trying to meet the new dog arriving (who is also amped up before even entering). Can you imagine trying to enter a public recreational area and being mobbed at the entrance by a crowd of strangers who are greeting you intensely — perhaps in an overly friendly way or perhaps in a very assertive way (and even threatening way). Now imagine you were attached to someone and had to follow them into this chaos.

And to make this area even more of a powder keg ready to explode, many dog parks have the entrance near the exit. Or worse, the same gate system. Now there are tired dogs (who may be overstimulated) leaving the dog park encountering a crowd of dogs ready to get the party started.

Do your dog a favour and use an alternate entrance or exit. Avoid the congestion Avoid dog parks that are too small for the number of dogs there. Avoid going at peak use times.

More tips for avoiding dog fights at the dog park

Here is a short article in the Whole Dog Journal entitled “5 Tips for Avoiding Fights at the Dog Park” and an article from the APDT Chronicle of the Dog Summer 2020 (see page 44) outlining some simple ways park users can change their own behaviours to drastically reduce the risks. 

Changing Human Behaviour to Affect Dog Behaviour

Problematic dog owner behaviour at dog parks is not rare; one only has to look at the posts on a dog park social media page to get a glimpse into the problem.  But how much can dog owner behaviour influence dog-dog conflicts at dog parks? A lot, actually. Even something like bringing a dog in an e-collar can be dangerous.

Education and Accountability of Dog park Users

One of the biggest factors influencing dog-dog conflicts at dog parks is the behaviour of human park users, and the two most effective ways to change the behaviours of park users are Education and Accountability.  Many dog parks rely on Bylaw enforcement to address the unwanted behaviours of dog owners, and there is a place for this: holding people accountable through heavy fines can be effective, but it requires a lot of resources (money) to enforce the Bylaws. And as anyone who studies the science of behaviour knows, punishment and coercion are not the most effective methods to changing future behaviours. It’s essential that Cities put efforts into helping to educate dog owners and give them some tools to help them change their behaviours.

Dog owners need to be educated in how to read dog body language — particularly canine stress signals — and how to use dog parks in ways that will mitigate the risks to all the dogs present.

3 Ways to Educate Dog Park Users

Here are three simple and effective ways to educate of dog park users:

  • posters at the park illustrating dog-body language to watch for. Here are some good examples of dog park signs). Any municipality in Canada wanting the rights to use this artwork for dog parks (for no charge) can contact the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
  • Dog Park Ambassadors (volunteers who use the parks frequently) that have been trained by the City to help educate park users about A) the rules and Bylaws for using the park safely; B) dog behaviour/communication as it relates to dog parks; and C) how to interact with people at the park to help keep the experience positive.
  • free dog training lessons for dog park users taught by Certified Professional Dog Trainers hired by the City. (Calgary’s award winning Responsible Pet Ownership model used CPDT certified trainers to help avoid the problem of improperly trained and unethical dog trainers. The CCPDT is the leading certification program for the dog training industry.)

Use positive reinforcement with dog owners

Education can help empower dog park users to use the dog parks in ways that help make them safe and positive for everyone, and adding “perks” can further motivate and reinforce dog owners for their “good” behaviours.

Changing behaviours and a “dog park culture” will take time and an effective approach. Simply relying on Bylaw enforcement to punish dog park users is not effective or efficient.