Addressing Increased Stress in Dogs Post-Quarantine
By Kama Brown
When working to prevent aggression, it’s important to understand how cumulative stress affects our dogs. Each dog has a breaking point, which dog trainers refer to as their “threshold.” Thresholds are important to recognize in order to keep everyone safe. A dog that hasn’t left their home in months could quickly cross their threshold into aggression towards another dog or person just by being back in daycare or boarding.
Aggression in dogs is among a list of stress-related behaviors—and among a list of behaviors related to poor socialization during puppyhood. COVID-19 may have created the perfect storm for pet dogs who were not prepared for a life of quarantine. In dog training, when a dog responds to something in a previously known environment with aggression, we look for something called “trigger stacking.”
Trigger stacking is when multiple stressful events occur so closely together that the dog becomes stressed enough to respond with aggression. In a home setting, it looks like a dog who is put on edge by multiple small stressors and responds out of character to one of the stressors. For example, a dog who usually spends the day napping from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. would understandably have a hard time transitioning to having the whole family home during these hours. After a few weeks, triggers could become the sound of the front door opening, the sight of multiple dogs walking by, the repeated movement of someone in the kitchen, the constant hug from a child or the “ping” on the Zoom call meeting. These small stressors may have all happened before, but infrequently enough that a well-rested dog was able to manage them. Unfortunately, mildly stressful situations that occur closely together create anxiety and irritation for a dog who is not trained for, or accustomed to, this type of environment.
Grisha Stewart defines a trigger as, “An event, person, animal, noise or other factor that leads to an undesired or abnormally large reaction. If your dog barks at white dogs, then white dogs would be considered to be triggers for your dog’s reaction.”1
She then defines trigger stacking as, “Stress accumulation due to exposure of multiple triggers, either simultaneously or close enough in time that the dog’s reactivity has not returned to normal. For example, if a sound-sensitive dog who’s afraid of children hears a loud crash before he sees a child, he is more likely to bite than if he had met the child under calmer circumstances.”1
Dog trainers have a word for training a dog to do the same behavior in different scenarios—“proofing.” When we “proof” behavior, we practice the behavior in many different environments. The training environment is not just the physical space around your dog, but also the visual, sensory and auditory experiences that interact with each other within each physical space. The biggest reason for doing this is because the environment elicits behaviors from our dogs, and without proper proofing, our dogs will often respond differently to the same experience in a new environment. Under normal circumstances, proofing is done in small increments to create strong behaviors without adding stress.
COVID-19 created an entirely new environment for our dogs. All of a sudden the physical space was busier, and the sensory elements within that space were different. Trigger stacking could be one reason that dogs are reaching aggression thresholds they never reached in the past.
Top Gun Dog Training in South Florida has reported a rise in cases of dog aggression, fear and anxiety2. They also reported that as of Sept 2020, a pediatric emergency room department in Colorado saw nearly three times as many children with injuries from dog bites this spring compared to last year at the same time3.
For some dogs, the change in their usual environment (their main training environment) was welcomed, but for other dogs, this change was abrupt and stressful. Quarantine life created new routines and new expectations, quite literally, overnight. An entire wave of pandemic puppies also found themselves growing up in an abnormal new world where strangers didn’t interact with them and socialization was mostly an in-house experience.
Thankfully, there are some things we can do to help our clients’ dogs and our employees stay safe and happy whilst returning to normal business hours.
Whenever possible, try to schedule the same employees to work the same areas each day. This way, dogs are getting to know a familiar face while returning to a new environment, and handlers are more able to recognize when a dog is reaching a threshold. Have the handlers take notes about any behaviors that could be indicative that the dog is feeling fearful—especially during times of transition.
For any dogs that are showing signs of fearful behavior, try creating a new service that is geared towards scent work. Instead of off-leash dog play, have the dogs in the same room but separated, either by tether or crate, and allow them to be off leash one at a time while the others watch. Place about 10 objects in the space to explore and search, and encourage this seeking behavior by hiding treats, toys and items that smell like other dogs near the objects. If doing this inside, cardboard boxes, buckets, chairs and dog beds work well. When working outside, firewood, large rock piles, old tires, wheelbarrows and small tables work well. Try and keep the same core group of dogs throughout each session, adding in a new dog every few days or so. As these dogs practice moving around with confidence, allow two dogs to explore the environment together, without treats. Eventually working up to having the more confident dogs transition back into group play while creating a safe space for incoming dogs who may be showing signs of hesitation.
Be sure to categorize the dogs showing signs of fear behavior correctly, because watching other dogs move about will frustrate dogs who want to play. For these dogs, let them play! Adjust the group size accordingly and use shorter windows of time to modify for any over-zealous behavior.
Encourage the dogs to take breaks from play often by walking around the enclosed areas and showing curiosity in new spaces and toys on the ground. (If you lean down to look at anything at all, most dogs will trot over to see what you have found. Then you can stand up and walk over to find another invisible curiosity!) Keep an eye on dogs that wrestle without taking breaks. Use a leash as a management tool to restrict the movement of a dog that other dogs are trying to avoid. The goal should be dogs that play in balance with each other.
Many dogs have been adopted or brought home during the pandemic, and this might be their first experience with group socialization. Sometimes the entire group dynamic will change with just one dog being removed, so it doesn’t hurt to try bringing them into the play area in a different order each day to see how the group reacts.
Adding music, longer rest times and sessions of scent work can all help lower thresholds. Talking with owners about recent experiences or possible missed socialization opportunities during quarantine will help complete a history during intake and a training plan moving forward. COVID-19 has us all making adjustments, and clients will appreciate knowing there is a plan in place!
1. Grisha Stewart, BAT 2.0, P. 276
2. Top Gun Dog Training, news release, Sept. 21, 2020
3. Children’s Hospital Colorado, news release, Aug. 11, 2020