Critical incident stress information

This dog is suffering from his fears.

For over 25 years I worked setting up and leading outdoor and cultural adventures for students and women’s groups. Since I became obsessed with thinking about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges, I’ve steadily begun to do less traveling. That and along with the fact that spring is in the air, I decided to empty out a filing cabinet of old paperwork. I managed to toss out two folders, one was already empty, but then opened a folder that had resources for training leaders to deal with ‘critical incidents’.

One of the first pieces of paper I looked at included information about ‘common signs of a stress reaction’. As I read the information, which was written about stress responses in people I of course began to think about how they related to similar responses in dogs. Since dogs and people have a mammalian brain structure in common, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that some reactions to stress in people will be similar to some reactions to stress in dogs.

The responses were broken down into four categories: Physical, Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral. Let me share a few with you. Under ‘Physical’ were; fatigue, nausea, muscle tremors, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, visual difficulties, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, headaches, chills, symptoms of shock. We know that fearful dogs will exhibit signs of many of these responses. We can see them shake, notice sweaty paw prints, and if we are monitoring their heart rate find that it is elevated. What struck me most were the signs that were not easily noticed by us, or impossible for us to see.

Imagine a fearful dog suffering from nausea, weakness and a headache having a collar and leash around their neck and being dragged up a flight of stairs, or out a door, or into a room full of people. Imagine feeling that way yourself and being forced to do something. How well do you think you’ll be able to perform or comply? How helpful are threats, pain or intimidation likely to be to improve your performance?

In the ‘Cognitive’ category were; poor attention, poor decisions, poor concentration, hypervigilance, poor problem solving, heightened or lowered awareness, confusion. So there’s a dog, scared almost literally ‘out of their head’ and someone is expecting them to learn a new skill, perform a behavior or make a good choice. How realistic are our expectations that a dog will do well in any of those events given a level of stress which induces those responses?

The list of ‘Emotional’ responses to stress are; anxiety, severe panic, emotional shock, uncertainty, loss of emotional control, depression, inappropriate emotional responses, apprehension, feeling overwhelmed, intense anger, irritability, agitation. ‘Nuff said.

‘Behavioral’ responses include; change in activity, withdrawal, emotional outbursts, suspiciousness, loss or increase in appetite, anti-social acts, nonspecific bodily complaints, hyper-alert to environment, intensified startle reflex, pacing, erratic movement.

The paper went on to explain that, “Reactions to traumatic events might be immediate or delayed by months, while the signs and symptoms might last for hours, days, months or longer. With the understanding and support of loved ones stress reactions usually pass more quickly. Occasionally the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance may be necessary.”

Never underestimate the impact stress, anxiety and dread have on a dog’s behavior and health.


8 comments so far

  1. honeysjourney on

    I have been thinking along these line for sometime now. What happens when 3 or more of these conditions come together at one time? I truly believe that is when humans go postal and head to a work place shooting co-workers. If humans can’t deal with multiple conditions what does that say for dogs stating out being fearful then add a couple more conditions. I was there, saw it first hand and still reeling over the end results.

    When we humans get stressed, for an example at work, can call in sick, quit, have a drink or just do something fun to try and break the stress we feel. What can a dog living in a stressful situation do? nothing but suck it up and deal with it, If dogs can hope, they may hope nothing else is added to the mix.

    You have correctly said so many times in the past to “wrap your head around triggers.” The triggers we need to wrap our heads around are all triggers not just the ones we happen to be working with at the time. As an example, Honey’s fearfulness is fragile, so when her physical condition changed, do to being in wonderful heat again, I allowed her to initiate our daily work and contact, not wanting to add another condition to the mix.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The reality that stress affects how a dog feels physically is lost on many. Lucky for Honey you’re not one of them!

  2. Kevin Myers on

    This is, I believe, where many of us get it wrong when “thinking” for our dogs. As children and adults we are often taught to push through many of these responses in order to achieve a goal. We’re told that these responses are normal and in order to be a better person we are told or sometimes even forced to push past them. If this works for us, then we extrapolate that it should work for and be good for a dog exhibiting these responses. It worked for us, so we don’t see the danger or harm in forcing the dog to work though the issues.

    Learning often seems to have stopwatch placed upon it and for many this seems to argue for shortcut methods to achieve goals. Risk justified. Sadly, when this backfires we are not the ones who paid the price but got nothing in return.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true Kevin. My contention is that IF a dog is going to respond positively to being forced or flooded, then they would have also responded positively to desensitization and counter conditioning. The amount of additional time required using these techniques is likely going to be small in the long run. And the added benefit is that the dog has had the opportunity to develop skills for dealing, as opposed to just having to learn the skill of sucking it up.

  3. Mariana on

    Thank you for this post! When I see a fearful dog I remind myself of a stressful situation that I have been through and how I felt that moment,I definetely couldn’t think straight,or remember things.How could we try to teach anything to our dogs if they are in this situation? That would certainly lead to failure and anger from both parts.Its not hard to understand why the most dangerous dogs are the fearful ones!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Mariana. Hopefully more people are able empathize with their scared dogs. Preventing fearful dogs from becoming aggressive should be tops on our list.

  4. Liz on

    Thanks for this info as I found it very helpful. I just(one day ago) adopted a senior dog (10 y.o.) from a shelter. She has lived there for over 7 years and is very shy/fearful. She prefers her crate and stays in there all day and night(the door is open)except when I “coax” her outside to walk/eliminate. I am hoping to see this change over time as she becomes accustomed to her new surroundings. Your blog will help me help her. Any tips are welcomed as I am a new shy/fearful doggie momma.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Check out for ideas. I’d also talk to a vet about meds that can help this dog out. Your first goal is to create an environment where the dog is not anxious. This can be difficult with a dog like this, meds can help, alot. Dogs suffer from stress and we should deal with it however we can IMHO.

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