When dogs experience major changes in their life, they often experience stress and show it in a number different ways. Today, Ace killed his six-year-old (toy) pig. His beloved pig that he begged everyone to throw for him, or just cuddled up with on any given patio chair to gently squeak. We’ve built him a whole group of pigs over the years, not one of them even slightly damaged. He had loved them all and would often build a ‘pig pile’ at the base of his chair, or hoard them under the patio stairs. But today, he totally eviscerated his oldest one.
We are moving homes. Today, we emptied out the basement and made countless trips to the charity drops, piles in the garage and piles of trash. The dogs followed our every move, staying as close as possible to us. I knew this move would be very tough on them, but anticipated more stress reactions from my rescue than from Ace. Ty the rescue is licking more, glued to me and frantic when I leave. Ace has expressed his emotions mainly by blocking the door when I want to go and barging through – despite the manners that he’s had over all his 7 years. But today, I saw just how stressed he was when I saw him destroy a toy for the first time in his whole life. As I relaxed in the hot tub after a long and stressful day (yup, drink and a soak is my idea of relaxing!), he lay on the grass and killed his pig.
People often share pictures of their ‘bad dogs’ that have destroyed something, the dog looking appropriately shamed. What the dog is actually showing is a reaction to the owner’s displeasure, not an understanding of what they did was wrong. Stress and anxiety show themselves in different ways in different dogs. One may self-harm with excessive licking, another may get destructive of things, while another may try desperately to follow their owner and damage doors and windows to do so.
Stress can cause indoor accidents as well, and I’m fully anticipating these. Adrenaline and cortisol have an effect on the internal organs, which can cause both uncontrolled urination and bowel movements. For this reason, my dogs are now being contained when I go out, so that they aren’t frantically running about, making accidents of kinds more likely.
An excellent means of helping dogs handle new and stressful situations is an increase in exercise. The brain experiences a rush of stress hormones, called glucocorticoids when we exercise. Why is that good for stress levels? In the long run, exercise trains the brain to better deal with stress. In studies, animals who exercise more are less anxious in stressful situations, are more likely to find a solution to a problem, such as a maze, and are less likely to lose track of the goal. We’re now heading out for a big run, to help them cope better when I leave.
Anticipate what your dog is feeling, don’t just react after the fact. Holidays and their commotions, departure for vacations, back to school are all disruptions that can bring about new and unwanted behaviours if not managed well.