Who do you think experiences higher stress levels?
A CEO responsible for billions of dollars and thousands of employees? Perhaps a military leader making decisions that could cause deaths and injuries to thousands of soldiers?
Or a middle manager just running her small department?
If you guessed that stress levels are higher for the CEO or general, you’re wrong. And your mistaken belief might be the reason you’re stressing out your dog.
Lack of Control Equals Stress?
The researchers speculated that the higher stress levels in the employees might be caused by their having less control over their work. And I believe that’s likely.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has experienced the stress of being asked to double my productivity or work results without extra staff, equipment, or time. Right?
And here’s what that means for your dog: domesticated dogs have very little control over their lives. Could we be causing them stress?
Decisions We Make for Our Dogs
I feed my dog Honey at 7 a.m. every morning. I pick her food. She can’t go outside unless I open the door. I decide when we go for a walk and for how long.
Honey can’t chase that squirrel because she’s attached to me by a leash. And even worse, she can’t jump on the crossing guard, UPS driver, or random strangers.
If I see her getting ready to roll on a tiny mouse corpse, I stop her.
Now I don’t imagine Honey saying in her fuzzy little brain: “Gee, I’m just trying to be a dog. When will I get to choose my own path?”
But she does express frustration when she can’t do what she wants. And if I frustrate her too much, I’m stressing her out.
How To Stop Stressing The Dog
I’m far from perfect, Honey will tell you (thank goodness she can’t speak English). But I have worked hard to keep from stressing Honey out.
I do it by watching for signs of frustration.
In the house, Honey shows she’s frustrated by barking.
She usually barks when she’s ready to go for a walk before I’m ready to.
If my husband is home, he’ll buy me some time (and lower Honey’s stress levels) by playing a game of tug. I’m not as talented at playing tug so I have to decide how important it is for me to continue with my work or if I can afford to take a walk break in the middle.
When we’re on a walk, Honey shows her frustration by sitting down to scratch. It took me a long time to realize that’s what the scratching was about. But now it’s a helpful way Honey talks to me.
Honey is most likely to scratch when I’ve chosen a different direction than she wants to go. So I’ve started letting Honey choose the route, within reason.
I don’t always have time for a six-mile walk. And I’m not going to give in to Honey’s wish to say hello to that obviously uncomfortable cat on a neighbor’s porch. But why should I always get to choose our walking path? After all, we’re walking for her.
Most of all, I keep asking myself when I make choices for Honey if I really have to. Or if it’s okay to let her choose what she wants at any given time.
Letting Your Dog Make Choices
I believe that people feel comfortable with different levels of control. Most people don’t tell themselves every moment of the day, “I could do anything I wanted to.” The stress of making good choices would be overwhelming.
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I don’t think every dog would feel comfortable with the total freedom Ted Kerasote wrote about giving his dogs in Merle’s Door and Pukka’s Promise (affiliates). A fearful dog would probably become more fearful with unlimited freedom.
But even a fearful dog can be empowered to make some choices. In fact, that’s the idea behind Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) which rewards dogs for responding calmly in a stressful environment by letting them move away from what frightens them.
So what are some choices you can safely let your dog make (hopefully lowering stress levels in the bargain)?
- Treats – put a different flavored treat in each fist. Let your dog choose the one they want by nuzzling (hopefully, not biting) your hand.
- Walking route – if your dog shows an interest in another direction and it’s a safe choice, go that way.
- Avoiding stressors – try the BAT method by moving your dog away from something that freaks him out before he reacts to it.
- Toys – put three toys in front of your dog. Play with the one she chooses first.
- Length of walk – if your dog isn’t ready to go in, lengthen the walk. Honey feels pure joy when we pass by our house and keep walking.
- Beds – take the beds you have scattered around the house and put them all in the room where your dog spends most of her time. Keep her favorite in that room before returning the others.
I’m sure there are dozens of others I haven’t yet thought of.
I’ve Stopped Stressing My Dog (most of the time)
Honey doesn’t always get her way. But I think I’ve made walks more enjoyable for her since I’ve tried to look at them through her eyes.
She certainly scratches less.
Sometimes I have a good reason for not following Honey’s nose down a particular street, like knowing that it will lead us in front of that house where the big, off-leash dog likes to glare down at us from atop his garden retaining wall. But I think Honey realizes that I listen to her often enough that she doesn’t find being denied something nearly as stressful.
Honey isn’t quite the CEO of Chez Webster. But I think she’s feeling better about the amount of control she has around the house. And hopefully she’s not so stressed that she needs an executive golf weekend to improve her day.
Your Turn: What choices do you let your dogs make? Do you think giving some control to her our dogs lowers their stress?
I love Ted Kerasote’s books and found them very thought-provoking. The links will take you to Amazon. If you buy something there, I will earn a few cents but your item won’t cost you any more. Thanks.