Last weekend was the fantastic SPARCS conference, an annual gathering of some of the finest minds in canine science. This event brings together researchers from a wide range of canine related fields, but if Twitter was anything to go by, it was clear that there was one standout word on the lips of everyone involved this year – EUSTRESS.
Eustress in essence means ‘good stress’ and was initially explored in model looking at stress in its many forms (Lazarus 1974). We often consider stress to be a negative emotion, yet many of us fail to recognise that the feelings of anticipation and even the joy at meeting a friend can all be considered stress, in terms of the physiological release of cortisol. Stress is managed through the activation of the HPA (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal) axis which is a group of organs that regulate the response to stress.
Responsible breeders strive to expose puppies to small stressors as they develop which helps in the deployment of this stress system. Experiencing an appropriate level of stress allows the HPA axis to develop resilience, stopping an overreaction to stress in adult life. However, too much stress can swing the pendulum too far into distress, so this must be carefully managed to not cause more harm than good.
How do modern dogs experience eustress?
Many dogs live very different lives from the lives their breed ancestors would have had. Very few pet Labradors spend hours retrieving game in our modern age and most border collies don’t have access to sheep – these dogs are unemployed. A study by the Kennel Club found 20% of dog owners do not even give their dogs a daily walk!
Lack of exercise and stimulation leads to obesity which has become all too commonplace in many of our animal companions, We have become accustomed to assuming Labradors must be overweight whereas this is far from the truth. Compare these two labradors, both of working type.
The lack of a job to do and the boredom that goes along with living an unstimulated existence swings the stress pendulum to the realms of chronic distress rather than eustress and can result in physical and behavioural abnormalities.
It’s important to understand that even dogs that do not show obvious outward signs of stress may be suffering – chronic boredom may result in general depression.
Small stressors may help build resilience. One of the most important gifts we can give our canine companions is the ability to cope in new and novel situations. How many of us know dogs that are happy and content at home but bark and new and novel sounds or objects? How many of us have dogs that startle easily when out of the home even though the same stressor may have been tolerated on familiar ground?
Resilience is a key life skill, particularly if a dog has to go into kennels in an emergency or has to stay at the veterinarian for treatment. Dogs that have never left the confines of a house and garden are likely to find this transition very stressful at the one time in life that they need to be kept calm and stress free.
So what’s the answer?
If you have an unemployed dog then it’s time to get them on the payroll.
Look at what motivates your dog and find them a job to do. Try obedience, dock diving, agility, lure coursing (chasing an artificial lure just to be clear!), scent trials, or just getting out and exploring somewhere new and exciting, GIVE THEM A CHALLENGE! Isn’t that why you got a dog anyway?
Dogs deserve to feel fulfilled and to have a life purpose. They have amazing senses adapted to see the world in ways we can only dream of and it’s sad that so many do not get to fulfill their full potential.
Give your dog a job and let’s stem the tide of unemployed dogs.
Lazarus R.S. (1974). Psychological Stress and Coping in Adaptation and Illness. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 5, 321-333.