Less Stress Means More Success
By Rachel Brix, CPDT-KA
Photos by Ryan Brix
Let’s face itas great as our facilities are, they’re not home, and we’re not our guest dogs’ humans. So, at least in the beginning, there’s some level of wariness for most dogs.
For some the caution goes away quickly, but for many—especially with the high number of “pandemic puppies” we’re all seeing—fear accompanies most new experiences and relationships.
Most dogs being boarded experience at least some level of stress during their stay. If it’s not upon arrival or during the day, it might be overnight, during a thunderstorm, while the neighboring property is having its lawn mowed, or when feeding or potty time has been delayed a bit due to an unforeseen circumstance.
Stress affects how a dog thinks, feels and behaves. Eustress, or the “good” stress, can be extremely helpful by allowing dogs to use energy in a positive way. Whereas stress, technically referred to as distress, is the “bad” kind. The physiological response to stress can cause many issues, including illness, a suppressed immune system and behavioral issues.
It’s important we recognize signs of stress, which can be obvious and perhaps not so obvious. Common signs of dogs who are experiencing stress include:
- Not eating treats or food
- Stressed body language (yawning, lip licking, drooling, panting, various body postures, etc.)
- Vocalization (can include whining, excessive barking, etc.)
- Inappropriate elimination
- Displacement behaviors (sniffing, scratching or other behaviors out of context)
- Avoidance or, the opposite, comfort-seeking (avoiding interactions with people or dogs or, conversely, seeking out those interactions)
- Hyper-vigilance (the dog who’s always on alert)
- Destructive behaviors (such as tearing up bedding)
To provide the best quality of care we should seek to minimize stress in all our guest dogs. Thankfully, there are many measures we can take to help dogs’ boarding experiences be as stress-free as possible.
One of my favorite mantras is, “The best time to stop an unwanted action or behavior is before it starts.” So, finding out about each dog’s stressors can help prevent stress in your facility. By having conversations with pet guardians and making notes in a dog’s file or asking about stressors on your profile/intake forms you can find out what are aversive stimuli for each dog. An aversive stimulus is an unpleasant stimulus that causes a change in behavior. Where possible and practical, we can look to minimize exposure of dogs in our care to those stimuli.
By gathering pertinent information prior to each new guest dog’s stay, we can assess what each dog’s needs are. During temperament tests or intake interviews is a great time to review what stressors any given dog may have and go over any questions or concerns the clients have about their dog’s stay. This, in turn, helps minimize any anxiety or stress the humans might also have about leaving their pet. Remember; stress can be contagious!
Additionally, this is the prime time to inquire about what measures they take at home to best help keep their dogs calm. Do they like to be petted on the chest when they’re nervous? Do they normally give their dog calming treats during thunderstorms? Does the dog have a favorite banket or toy they like to have in stressful situations?
These initial contacts are also a great time to give a tour of your facility and discuss setting up a play day prior to any overnight boarding. Doing so gives guest dogs an opportunity to acclimate to staff, the facility and the routine. Routines are especially important for dogs and help them feel secure in their environments—especially when in a new place with new faces.
Slow & Easy
Introducing dogs slowly to their space can be extremely helpful, especially with a new dog and dogs exhibiting signs of stress. Talking softly to and petting dogs, careful to avoid the head and face, can also be helpful. By making ourselves smaller (i.e., sitting or even getting down on the floor with the dog) while avoiding postures such as direct eye contact, approaching too quickly and head-on greetings can also work to help a dog feel calmer.
Stimulate the Senses
Indoors we can play music; studies show classical is still at the top of the list, and there are dog-specific options available as well. If you have a musician on staff he or she could possibly play for the dogs. Aromatherapy is also a great option when used with care and appropriate caution.
So, what happens when you’ve taken steps to help prevent stress, but a dog is still stressed? There are many additional actions you can take to help a dog feel more at ease.
Perhaps the simplest thing we can do is slow down, take deep breaths and hang out with the dog a minute or two prior to taking them out. Studies show our breathing affects dogs’ sense of calm. Sitting with a stressed dog in their space, even if only briefly, can help them feel more comfortable and can be a great preventative measure as well. However, in these situations, we must be mindful again of body language and spatial pressure; some dogs do not want their space “invaded.”
If the dog enjoys petting (believe it or not, many do not), contact can also be a stress reliever, as can massage. Whenever possible, it’s strongly recommended to perform a consent test with dogs for petting. A quick search online will yield several videos/resources for this. But, in a nutshell, during these brief “tests,” the human allows the dog to approach, reads their body language, and if OK, proceeds to pet a couple of seconds then stops. If the dog returns for more and the body language is calm (no lip licking, yawning, etc.), he’s giving consent; if not, he’s not feeling it and we should respect that to further help alleviate stress.
Exercise is a top stress reliever. We can give the dog some one-on-one time, engaging in one of their favorite activities or with a familiar toy. When possible, take the dog for a walk or, better yet, a “sniffari,” where he can really use his nose and get great mental exercise.
Make a Move
If your facility’s set up allows, see if a change of scenery helps. So, if you have a larger space, a space closer to the main lobby/office (or farther away from it, depending on the needs of the dog) or away from the neighboring barking dog, house the dog there instead. Simply the difference in environment can work wonders for some dogs.
Calming coats/shirts are also another option; having several different sizes on hand is always a good idea. Additionally, discussing calming collars or other vet-approved measures with clients who have dogs suffering from persistent stress and anxiety can provide a potential remedy.
Moreover, fearful and shy dogs could benefit from behavior modification. If your facility has a trainer on staff or a solid relationship with one, this could be a win-win for the dog, the human client and for the facility’s revenue.
Finally, a dog who, despite your best effort, is unable to be calmed may warrant a call to your facility’s veterinarian for advice.
Understanding the impact stress has on our guest dogs and working to alleviate it can help all the dogs in our care have a successful boarding experience.