Posted by: Linda Trunell | October 31, 2014

Is Your Dog Stressed?

“Stress is the response of an organism to a demand placed upon it to change or adapt.”

Canine Neuropsychology, third edition, by James O’Heare, Ph.D., Dog Psych, 2005

You may not know that there is “good” stress (eustress) and “bad” stress (distress).   Stress is necessary to change or adapt and learning is stressful for people and dogs.  We should understand how the stress our dog feels impacts learning.

This is from Dr. Jack Singer  

Good Stress/Bad Stress

Researchers have discovered that the body responds differently to different kinds of emotional stress. Negative stress, which scientists call distress, is the kind of stress that comes from having your well-being threatened, or from being attacked, physically or emotionally. Distress causes the heart to race, breathing to become shallow, blood vessels to constrict (resulting in clammy palms and headaches), and even insomnia. Loss of a job, worry about family or spouse and divorce or death are huge sources of negative stress.

Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems

Positive stress, called eustress, on the contrary, comes from the anticipation, or the experience, of pleasurable events such as a roller coaster ride, falling in love, watching or participating in a close ball game, or waiting for the starting gun for a marathon. Eustress may cause some of the same physical symptoms, but is actually excitement. Your body processes eustress as positive, and eustress can make you feel good as your body releases endorphins.

Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance


This performance curve shows how stress affects performance.  Note that optimum performance is obtained at the top of the curve where your dog is focused and quick to respond.  If your dog is feeling frustrated or uncomfortable he will start feeling some distress and as he becomes more distressed, his ability to learn will decrease.

American Institute of Stress

American Institute of Stress

A consequence of extreme distress because of force or fear is called “learned helplessness”.

Learned helplessness is a mental state in which an organism forced to endure aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.

In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action. (From Wikipedia)

Are your training methods causing your dog distress?

Here’s to being our dog’s best friend,






  1. […] is always some stress in learning because it involves changing behavior.  (Is Your Dog Stressed?)  Good teachers help the student learn without causing distress. Whether we are teaching a dog […]

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