Stress and Dog Training

Jul 8, 2014 | Learning Theory, Pet Guardians, Training

I’d like to thank The Pet Professional Guild for asking me to blog for their website. I feel there is no better organization for pet dog guardians or pet professionals to be members of.  I’m honored to be part of the PPG team both as a professional member and as a contributor of information via their blog roll.

My blog series for PPG is geared towards the very active and very inclusive dog-human dynamic. Essentially if your companion dog is as much every part of your life as your human relationships, this is the blog for you.

My blogs will discuss training, behavior modification and how when dogs are properly viewed, they are not misjudged and or mistreated under the influence of false notions or pseudo science. In teaching people about dogs, I have found one of the biggest hurdles in achieving more reliable behavior is how the human perceives the dog’s actions and the how they address the dog when communicating. I write long blogs packed with information. You have been warned.

My first installment is about stress. It is a topic that permeates all areas of dog guardianship as well as training and behavior modifications. Stress affects professionals and dog guardians, and especially the dogs themselves. The dogs’ stress will be the focus here, but this information also translates to humans.


A dog’s life can be stressful

Stress is a part of life; there is no way to avoid it completely. In fact brains are wired to handle some stress with ease and efficiency, it is chronic and or psychological stress that is the real danger.

Dogs have all manner of stressful events; they may be related to excitation as they approach their favorite dog friend on leash, or it may be fear and anxiety related to perceived or actual events that trigger fear such as when loud sounds occur or when dogs are remembering sequences that have overly generalized as fearful that predict fear or pain.

One thing for certain about stress is that it needs to be managed and “padded” by humans so that dogs do not develop behavior issues. Stress is actually a necessary part of learning. In order for the dog’s stress to be managed, humans need to take a proactive role in the training of the dog in the moment when stress occurs, as well as awareness to the environment to prevent and or pad the stress with management as a matter of course. Additionally, allowing dogs to de-stress by way of moving and working it out to a degree, both in play and in the moment of stressful events, goes a long way in conditioning dogs to respond and bounce back from stress.

“Frustration” (doled out or experienced in an instructive safe way) “serves to invigorate or amplify behavioral efforts aimed at restoring instrumental control over available reinforcers…within certain limits frustration (low levels of managed stress) contributes beneficially to the learning” (Lindsay 2000).

If the dog is allowed to always make their own deductions of how to associate to events they may end up with some false memories and behavior issues. Humans, due to our ability to formulate events ahead of time can have a big impact on the dogs associations, then the dogs conditioning is more efficient and being proactively shaped.

As Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University underscored in a Washington State University guest lecture, of “all the criteria” when calculating the success for handling the stress in primates was “the personality and how the individuals handled the stress” that was the largest factor in health of the primates, not genetics. That signals cognition and emotion are directly tied to learning and health. It illustrates how humans can help tremendously with the proper info on stress reduction.

Canine physiology and cognition are both affected by stress relatively the same as primates, and as anyone can attest, dogs have different personalities, and each dog within themselves will have different responses to different stimuli that triggers stress.
As individuals’, dogs will each handle stress differently, and each dog will also have different response to the parameters of contexts they find themselves in that are stressful to them. Humans in their individual responses to stress or perceived stress will also play a role in the dogs associations. Human behavior that results in reduction of stress, when stress is present is crucial for long-term success.

We can never lose sight that dogs are individuals and so individual memories are also stored and responses may be, and most likely will be varied depending on the environmental variables of distance, duration and saliency of distractions (stimuli). The humans play a major role in how those memories are shaped for the dog.

EX – Passing skateboard roughly 10 feet away, the dog barks and lunges.

One dog walker does nothing but holds on to the dog’s leash with it extended 6 ft = stress and negative associations.

One dog walker jerks the leash back and scolds the dog = stress and negative associations.

One dog walker heard the skate board, then prompted the dog farther away from where the skateboard would pass, thus adding 10 extra feet now making the passing skateboard 20 feet, not 10. The handler then marks “YES” and rewards the dog with high value food for each under threshold orientation to the skateboard = stress reduction and a more positive association is made to passing skateboards.

The environment, not genes, is the biggest influence on behavior. Humans are the most powerful of the variables, as they control a vast amount of the environment and are responsible directly or indirectly for how behavior is shaped in dogs, and stored in dogs. Humans are the main connection to the environments the dog will be in, humans are responsible for attenuating the saliency of stimuli, and that is a large part of how the dog associates the stimuli and the context.  Humans are the gods of reinforcement. We modulate the variables. As long as humans are benevolent and empathetic we’re on the right path with our guardianship.

Environment is not just what is occurring around the dog out doors or in the home, environment is also what is occurring inside the dog, it’s physiology, blood pressure, cortisol levels at the time of stress verses when resting, what are the natural responses to the environmental variables in an open environment verses in a closed or indoors context? Out doors as well as indoors there are going to be stimuli that is impossible to fully control, but the animal will have varied associations based on the distances and durations of sudden exposures to the stimuli and how humans respond, redirect and reinforce. Many of these associations are the results of the variables based on the behavior choices of the human.

Factoring in of physiological states of the dog in open environments is another aspect that is not usually looked at when assessing behavior.

This is due to the major gap in the canine educational system as well as access to the means and ways to measure physiology. Blood sugar levels, cortisol levels, time of day and circadian rhythms, and even simple food allergies or dietary deficiencies are incredibly important in the outcome of behavior and learning.

The age and current health of a dog is always playing a larger role than most people consider when discussing behavioral modification and training and that too is something that should always be considered, especially when the focus is reduction and modulation of stimuli that causes stress.

When humans are causing fear and pain to shut down the dog in order to stop the dog from doing something as a way to “train” daily, they are not doing the dog or themselves any favors. Chronic stress hinders learning and damages the immune system.

This is widely known in the neurological scientific community, and dog trainers should take it upon themselves as a form of cognitive ethics and inform people the dangers of creating and causing stress for dogs.

By teaching dogs what works through sequential learning the dog remembers the sequence much more reliably as they were safer at the time of the event and they stay sound for future events of the same or similar nature. The important aspect of stressful events is the dog’s ability to “bounce back”.

When dogs have stress that is unmanageable from the environment and or are met with fear and pain based approaches disguised as “training”, the dog is learning to survive, not so much what the lesson is. Learned helplessness is a possible result from stress.

What does stress do?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University spent 30 years during summer months in Kenya Africa studying baboons. His main aim was to look at the stress levels of the primates based on their social constructs.

What he found was that the lower ranking baboons that were subjected to stress from being beaten up by higher ranking baboons had a higher level of stress hormones in their blood stream. What this causes are a host of health problems

These stress hormones are called Glucocorticoids (GLCs).

Dr. Carol A. Shively, a professor of pathology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem discovered that social stress among primates can also cause heart disease.

When humans cause undue stress for dogs in the form of startle or pain based choke and shock approaches, or perhaps having a stressful home environment, such as too many dogs and perhaps they do not all get along or space is limited, its causing the limbic system to take a major hit of cortisol and that causes it to overload with Glucocorticoids (GLC’s), too much of these too often, especially under duress, and the dog will possibly shut down if the fear, stress or pain is intense and chronic enough. Learned Helplessness is a real behavior phenomenon.

The other outcomes are the dog may bite and badly, be overly excited, the dog may get an autoimmune disorder and become ill, and or the dog may develop anxiety or PTSD symptoms and have an anxious pathology.

This “flooding” and or chronic stress by way of harsh “training” in turn will decrease hippocampus functioning due to a flood of the GLC’s.

The other outcome is many dogs are simply “dumbed down”.

Stress effects long term memory, so the dog may stop doing X Y Z behaviors, but in it’s place is a dog that has been beaten down cognitively and emotionally to offer behavior out of fear, not out of a love for the game so to speak.

The hippocampus is the area of the brain that processes long-term memory and excites or inhibits behavior. It has been shown with MRI scans that hippocampus will actually stop growing neurons when stress is chronic or over the long term. Another area of the brain, the amygdala, which processes most of the fear dogs have, will actually increase in size with chronic fear, as that is one of the main areas that mediates fear for canines and primates, the animal will thus develop an overly generalized sense of fear.

These GLC’s can’t be removed by the hippocampus as readily as if they were not flooded, it then holds onto excess that taxes the immune system, increases inflammation in the brain and damages neurons. GLC’s take up energy, neurons need energy.

Beta Amyloid is neurotoxin in the brain, when the levels are too high; GLC’s make Beta Amyloid more toxic.

Get rid of the GLC’s, reduce them, and the aging process slows, the immune system strengthens, the hippocampus atrophy is slowed and neurons regenerate, and long-term memory is improved.

Again, dogs with overly generalized fears are more prone to bite and or become ill from stress. Stress, as mentioned, is also a cause for heart disease. One thing is clear undue stress placed in dogs is not helping.

Sadly far too many humans have been swept up in the “pack leader”, “dominate the dog” mentality, and the use of fear – pain – intimidation and stress induced interactions are the norm and erroneously many consider it “training”. Some even confuse implementation of negative reinforcement as a “punishment”.

It is imperative to understand that addressing a dog with stress when they are stressed or frustrated, fearful, or are overly aroused in general circumstances, implementing yelling – choke – shock – startle et al… will cause immune system damage as well as behavior debits that may not be able to be reversed.

“The more glucocorticoids in the system at the time of the stressful event the more neurons are being damaged” (Sapolsky).  Thus the greater the memory loss, additionally the immune system is being hammered, the more risk of disease.  In the long run along with behavioral issues that may or may not be able to be resolved to acceptable levels, the dog will have cognitive and immune deficiencies, thus shortening the life span of the dog and jeopardizing the dog’s quality of life. Stress is not a good thing if it is based in fear or fear is the result from the stress.

The methodology of causing dogs fear and pain, as a way to “train” is a slippery slope that ends with shut down sick dogs that die too early.

The Take Home For People Training Dogs – Think like a referee and don’t take it personally, your dog is not the adversary the environment is. Work to control the environment and not add too much stress and the dog will do really well in training and be healthier.

“Stress needs to be worked out by muscles or it degrades the immune system”. Dr. Robert Sapolsky.

Short stressful events, such as chasing prey or a dog being trained positively when they are on leash where distractions abound or a dog excited about an exit from the house or car, or in play, are all contexts that usually intrinsically supply an average amount of “fun stress” or anticipation.

Managed stress; built on sequential learning implemented with “pay offs” are normal, safe ways for dogs and humans to learn when under fun stress.

These salient and “marked” events are great learning opportunities due to the anticipatory quality of the context. When dogs are in anticipation the most dopamine is surging. Dopamine is a chemical that makes dogs and primates happy, excited, and motivated and fuels learning. It has been shown that the anticipation of events, not the pay off has the most amount of dopamine being released in the system. Life is full of anticipatory events that lead to payoffs. These can be created such as during play or on a walk or perhaps the anticipation occurs suddenly such as a knock at the door.

During this anticipatory stage of the event people are usually attempting to orchestrate the dog in some way. When they keep the approaches safe and free of fear and pain the dog learns at a much higher rate.  This is due to the Frontal Cortex (FC) being engaged in learning and problem solving, as well as evaluating reward punishment out comes. The FC is developed primarily through environmental influences, especially in early development. If the dog is fearful or too frustrated then all they do is address that stress cognitively with survival tactics, and all else in the event learning wise, pretty much goes by the way side, this is due to the fact that dogs are first and foremost looking to control the environment and feel safe, not “gain rank”.

Once the proceedings become too fearful or painful the dog will attend to that and the learning of whatever the intended lesson is will be mostly lost.

The good news here is when humans are focused on their behavior and aware of the environment, apply positive training and properly orchestrated behavior modification dogs learn well and remember much easier when they are met with stress. When humans remove any extra stress from training they are helping to build the long-term memory and dogs generalize the lesson more effectively.  Sequences that result in safe outcomes that have a moderate amount of stress or anticipation resemble what dogs and other animals have been designed to do for billions of years, work hard under properly proportioned pressure conditions and get paid for it in some way.

Humans have helped dogs through stressful events for thousands of years by working with them not against them, now that we have proof by way of science, not feelings, as to how and why behavior occurs, we need to help dogs as best we can deal with stress.

Here are some ways to reduce stress and improve training results.

  • Manage the environment. When humans are a step ahead of the dog in terms of knowing how to finesse environments in the moment or ahead of the event in order to reduce stress, everyone learns much better. Distance from and lowering the duration of what ever is causing the stress is the best way to ameliorate the stress.
  • Organization. People may be dedicated and not using fear and pain to “train”, but without organization they will always have setbacks.  Think ahead, simplify, and make sure you have what you need for the walk, the visitors, the vet visit all worked out a day before or a few hours ahead of time. This way you will be ready when the training moment comes. Usually the things that need organizing for people are their attention to the environment, leashes, and food treats, pouches, their words, their kids or other people in the home such as visitors. Have a plan.
  • Do Not Scold Or Startle! Every day no matter the class or session, I see humans resort to some form of “shzzt” “No!” or chanting the dogs name or some form of “hey no cut it” out routine. All these create stress and are usually administered during a stressful or anticipatory event. Saying “NO” does teach the dog anything except to fear the context and shut down to some degree. Usually that just ends up ignored and the people ramp it up.   

Use the 4R’s.

–       Reassure. This is the best way to use your voice. “It’s ok, good boy”, a prompt like a smooch sound etc… all are better to get the dogs attention than a harsh verbal directive, as that will startle the dog and that will lead to more stress, less learning of sequencing. Also the dog develops a negative association to the humans voice in a stressful context. Not good.

–       Redirect. Use a lure or a cue to get the dog moving in a new direction. Dogs learn sequences well; teach them sequences that lead to rewards and safety. This also helps with associations to hands.

–       Remove. Most dogs will settle when they are removed or the stimulus that is causing the stress is removed. Think, “Create distance” when stress is occurring. That is the best way to reduce stress in the moment. This also sends the dog a signal that either they need to stop as a time out might be warranted, or that you will help the stress be reduced by helping them gain distance and removal.

–       Reward. Another completely misguided notion that gets floated is that when a human reassure or even rewards a dog after they have had a stressful event, or in the middle of one, that they are in some way “rewarding bad behavior”, that is not true and it can be proven cognitively.

Train the dog in the moment. Many times in a class of four dogs, the dogs that are being trained and not chanted at are the dogs that settle and or are less anxious about being leashed and contained. Dog’s do what “works”, what reduces stress provides intrinsic positive reinforcement, show dogs safety and the vast majority of the time they are more than willing to comply and or settle.

Earlier in the blog I detailed when dogs and humans get stressed they produce what are known as extra Glucocorticoids. The GLC’s in the right amount are good, but too many and the brain and the immune system are taxed. Over time it causes major disease and behavioral issues.

The notion that causing some sort of stress (yelling, startle, choke, shock, physically manipulating) to stop behavior being in some manner “teaching the dog a lesson” is dead wrong. In fact it will only cause the dog more stress, even if the dog has stopped barking or what ever the behavior is that the human is attempting to stop, the dog is still experiencing stress, that also means the dog is associating it to the context.

Stress is often experienced internally, quietly, in a shut down manner and not externally. So as the scolded dog slinks off to the corner of the room all those same neurological and physiological processes are still flooding the dog with stress hormones. Again, many dogs thought to be “calm and submissive are really living in Learned Helplessness.

How do we begin to address the conditions of stress that are in many cases unavoidable in modern life, Dr. Sapolsky suggests we work to “build a better neuron”.

There is no neuron building kit at Brains R Us, however there are ways to reduce stress and build neurons while expanding cognitive plasticity.  Behavior that is rehearsed becomes stronger.


–       99.999% of all fearful and stressful reactions dogs have in life are not a bona fide emergency. When humans react to the dog in a stressful way to basic stresses such as the doorbell it only compounds the stress. Sure the dog might stop barking but they still feel stress. They catalog it as a negative event.

Focus on the human mechanics and timing

–       Work on human skills related to dog training. This means mechanics and timing of rewards and kind consequences.

I work with roughly 400 people a year, all ages all backgrounds, all different dog skill sets, many types of dogs and ages and histories. The one underlying component that translates into success is this; the people that “buy in” follow a plan made to be flexible, learn and work to better their skills all these people have success.

The people that are “know it all’s” and resist the science and math of dog training, ignore behavioral laws, all have less success and in some cases create far more problems than if they’d simply “bought in” and worked on their own short comings and not focused on the dog’s supposed “problems” and what ever narrative that has been constructed, Many of the problems I am asked to deal with could have been avoided had the humans not bought into some fictional narrative and received proper info. . Stay out of the dog’s head, focus on human behavior and the environment and the dog improves. Environment, not genes is the largest influence on behavior.

Dogs are not out to get humans in any way

–       Shift the mindset off of the dog is doing it to the human on “purpose”. No matter how humans “feel” about the event, the dog does not have sufficient serial memory to formulate a moral imperative to transgress humans in the form of getting back at us.

Once humans get past this faulty mindset, which creates stress, and look at the dog based on what is occurring in the environment that is reinforcing the behaviors, and what humans are doing or not doing, then the stress goes way down. It always comes back to controlling the environment and being aware of human behavior, then dogs will follow suit.

Remember, if the dog has all the cognitive ability to formulate complex thoughts based on inferences from context and convoluted, complex long-term memory, why would they do anything at all for humans? When the average dog can land 25 bites in 4 seconds, think about it, dogs across all breeds, deference is the response dogs choose to some degree the vast majority of the time.

Dogs do not have the sufficient serial memory to formulate conspiratorially morally imperative thoughts to transgress humans.

Dogs are primarily looking for safety in all it’s forms, food and social contact, not to “gain rank” on humans. Dogs respond to reinforcements. Human supply reinforcements in droves that’s why dogs are so enamored with us. Dogs supply humans with oxytocin that makes humans happy and joyous. Humans like to feel good. Dogs and humans make a good team.

It’s not a complicated arrangement.  Undue stress can make it complicated.

Sapolsky, Shively et al., agree that the classic ways of stress reduction are the best ways to lower and in some contexts eradicate stress.

Exercise, eating properly, that goes for your dogs too. Humans teaching dogs by guiding them to learn, not simply to stop behavior. Conditioning dogs by way of living in a safe and stress free life at home or as stress free of an environment as possible when ever life does get hectic. Much of that learning can be done as you go, while you live your life, and so much learning can be done in play!  When the communications with dogs are applied properly it is incredibly fun and effective.

Sapolsky also suggests “behavior modification” through empathetic means. This will actually create new neurons and new memories in time; the dog is feeling better and learning at a higher rate, and the human is having success and also being reinforced. Anyone that has done any serious form of behavior modification knows how gratifying it is to see a dog get past fears or anxiety.

Reduce stress to better the chances of learning and reduce the risks associated with disease, especially immune disorders. That’s the take home.

The relationship between dogs and humans was not built on adversarial undertones. The canine human bond is built on cooperation and respect. The environment is the adversary. The dog is doing all it can to understand the happenings; humans can help tremendously in that regard.

Work to help dogs understand that they are safe, no matter what, and in time they will handle stress better, and so will the humans that guide them.

Behavioral Flexibility  – The Foundation to Less Stress

Stay flexible and allow behavioral leeway in the criteria of what you ask from dogs, especially when environmental stress is placed on the scenario.

Humans allow behavioral leeway to each other and humans are way more adept at inferring from context and so forth than dogs, so allow some flexibility. The idea that has been floated that the dog is doing it for “enter moral imperative here” is nonsense, and anyone blaming and using pain or fear to “train” as a form of “teaching the dog a lesson” is abusing dogs, period.

Go easy when and where you can for the dog and for your self. If you want to push the criteria and “get better or different results” just do not do it in a way that causes undue stress for the dog or the humans. In any scenario that has fear, anxiety, frustration and or too much stress as a component the dog will not learn as well. Mitigation of the challenging times with benevolent leadership is the key to making sure the dog stays sound.

Far too many people undo good positive training with bad choices in terms of not lowering their criteria and or not simply better orchestrating the environment and reducing distractions or stress. That means the humans mechanics, timing and awareness to what is reinforcing the dog and what is needed for a kind consistent consequences so the dog can focus on the proceedings the human wants so the dog learns.  Once that becomes the norm for the humans, most places become much easier to train in and it’s fun to see the dog really shine on a daily basis as they learn new things or learn in new places.

Have fun training, be aware when shaping behavior, go slow when modifying behavior, and in general work to create less stress living your dog centric life!

Thanks for reading!


Lindsay Vol. 1 Applied Dog Training and Behavior Iowa State Press 2000

Memory Processes in Classical Conditioning Mark E. Bouton Eric W. Moody 2004 University of Vermont

Stress: Portrait of a Silent Killer

Dr. Robert Sapolsky Washington State University – Stress & Neuron Degeneration

Dopamine jackpot – Sapolsky on Dopamine

Dr. Robert Sapolsky – Are Humans Just Another Primate?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky – Humans Are Unique Among Living Creatures?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky Stanford University – 25 lectures on genetics, biology, learning, stress –

Subsecond Dopamine Release in the Nucleus Accumbens Predicts Conditioned Punishment and Its Successful Avoidance Erik B. Oleson,  Ronny N. Gentry, Vivian C. Chioma, and Joseph F. Cheer

Stress Linked To Harmful Fat And Heart Disease