Stress is Not a Single Category

In the dog world, I have come across the concept of ‘stressing up’ (zoomies in the ring) versus ‘stressing down’ (avoidance, sniffing, scratching, etc) as a dog’s response to stressful situations. It came up during the Intro to Herding workshop that Sei and I took with Kynic Stockdogs a few weeks ago. And I have been thinking about it ever since.

Prior to introducing the dogs to stock, we were asked whether we anticipated our dogs stressing up or stressing down. Thinking back to our work with toys (ball, disc, flirt pole), I guessed that Sei would stress high. When introduced to stock, Sei was pretty unsure/unconfident about the sheep at first, and pretty classically stressed down, avoiding looking at the sheep and sniffing around. This did not surprise me at all. I know that he is often unsure in new situations at first and takes some time to watch the situation before gaining confidence and jumping in. So I had a bit of cognitive dissonance going on. I guessed that he would stressed up, but also expected him to stress down; contradictory beliefs. I could not sort out in my brain the times in which Sei was going to ‘stress high’ or ‘stress low’, but I knew that they are both in his repertoire of reactions to stress.

I explained my lack of understanding to the instructor, and how when frustrated Sei would ‘stress high’, as compared to what she had just seen with his reaction to stock (which I had said at the time didn’t surprise me). Helene pointed out that the stress experience by Sei that was initiated by frustration/unclear criteria caused a different reaction in him (‘stressing up’) than the reaction to stress initiated by anxiety/uncertainty/fear (‘stressing down’/avoidance). This was one of those lightbulb moments for me!

The issue in my thinking was that I was picturing ‘stress’ as one big amorphous thing. I was lumping stress caused by all sorts of different stressors together such that they had one type of behaviour as a reaction. On some level I must have known that this wasn’t a good model for behaviour under adverse conditions, because I recognized that Sei had two different reactions to different kinds of stressful situations. However, I seemed to be getting caught up in the baggage in the human world around the word ‘stress’, and had not been able to look clearly at the behaviour my dogs were showing me.

‘Stress’ is not a single type of situation, but rather a broad category of different kinds of situations that elicit emotional states that the dog needs to find a coping strategy for, such as frustration or anxiety (I’m having trouble coming up with more at the moment, but this will be stuck in my brain for a while, so I’m sure I will come up with more). To be a better trainer and advocate for my dogs, I should be aware of their coping strategies for different kinds of stressors, so that I can better give them what they need to be comfortable in difficult situations. Something to observe and work on going forward!


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