Friday, September 14, 2012

Relieving stress - handling the cause, not the symptoms.

Take yourself back in time, back to the jungle, and there's a tiger in your path. Your senses sharpen, your muscles prepare for battle, your breathing increases to feed oxygen to your muscles, your heart beats faster. All of this happens to increase your response to danger. All of this happens as a response to the stress of seeing a tiger. Once you throw your spear, all that tension releases along with the lifeblood of the tiger.

Today, you are stuck behind a desk while your boss maligns your work, or you are stuck behind the wheel of your car while an SUV cuts you off causing you to swerve dangerously into another lane. Modern culture doesn't allow you to throw a spear to release the tension, so eight hours later, when you get home from a stressful day, you kick the dog, or if you are smart, you play a round of golf, go to the gym or take the dog for a run. Exercise can help in the release of stress.

Now take yourself on a walk with your dog. She is attached to a leash by law usually about 6 feet long. Another dog and human approach from the opposite direction. It's your friend Bob so you stop to talk. Three things are now going to happen to the two dogs 1) they get bored standing around 2) they either want to sniff each other, play or run off after the cat they smell and 3) stress builds up from the frustration of knowing they can't move more then 6 feet away from the humans. If these two dogs try and relieve that stress in any way, the humans have (in the "traditional" method) been encouraged to correct the dogs and make sure the dogs stays completely still. The stress level rises in both dogs and eventually explodes if the talking and standing still goes on for too long. The time period could be minutes or days or weeks before the explosion happens. It all depends on how much the stress builds and what activities the dogs have to relieve that stress during each day. It also depends on other triggers for stress that the dogs encounter during each day and whether that stress can be released as well.

Like humans and because dogs live in a human world, dogs cannot act as their ancesters once did. In our world a dog cannot flee because it's either attached to a leash, confined to a yard or other small space, or backed into a corner in the living room by a well meaning stranger looking for puppy breath. In our world a dog is discouraged from hunting the neighbors cat, digging holes in the garden looking for moles and howling and barking at the smells on the wind looking for companionship.

Chewing, whining, barking, pacing, spinning, digging and aggression are all responses to stress. All of these behaviors will release the tension of stress and are used by dogs to do so. None of these behaviors are acceptable to most humans - especially aggression.

There are many methods in the dog training world that deal with these "symptoms" of stress. You have the assertive crowd who use shock collars, prong collars, rolled up newspapers, choke chains, spray bottles of vinegar or citronella, bark collars, electric fences and a host of other tools that cause pain, fear, intimidation or shutdown in the dog. You have the "positive" crowd that teaches an alternate behavior to the chewing, whining, barking, jumping, etc.. You have the serious crowd who use slow, careful counter conditioning and desensitization methods to change the behavior, to change the response to stress causing stimuli. All of these are reactive - the humans are reacting to the behaviors they don't like, dealing with the "symptoms" of a deeper issue which goes, with most trainers, unnoticed.  Most of these methods actually increase the stress load in a dog, hidden underneath the alternate behaviors, the avoidance behaviors created by the assertive crowd and the actual introduction of the triggers that are cuasing the stress by the serious trainers.

Reduce or elminate if possible the triggers that cause stress, institute a regimen of calming exercises, confidence exericises and a detox that actually reduces the amount of stress hormones in the body and you will reduce and eventually eliminate the overt signs of stress.  The "symptoms" need only be addressed if they are life threatening, and only to the point of reducing the threat.

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