Updated: Jan 2
I love reading about research and all the really cool, interesting and relevant things that are being discovered about the dogs we share our lives with. The problem is that I’m really not smart enough to read the actual published papers and understand everything. And when I make the effort, I find myself unable to grasp a lot of it, and start to feel my eyes glaze over.
Lucky for me, Kristina Spaulding, Ph.D. did the work and translated it into layperson speak in her new book The Stress Factor in Dogs: Unlocking Resiliency and Enhancing Well-Being!
When I first heard that this book was going to be released, I knew I had to read it. As a trainer who specializes in dog separation anxiety, stress and anxiety are of great interest to me. By reading this book I was hoping to get some insight as to what my client’s dogs were going through, and possibly find additional ways to help the dogs through my training program. I got that and so much more!
Below is a summary of each of the chapters and some of my impressions. Don’t assume based on reading this blog post that I’ve in any way summed the book up. The book is chock-full of so much more cool information than I’m able to write here. After all, it took Dr. Spaulding an entire book just to get it all down!
Chapter 1 - What is Stress?
So, you think you know what stress is and want to skip this chapter? Don’t! Because although we’ve all experienced stress, Dr. Spaulding explains that there are different kinds of stress and goes through them all, with both definitions and relatable examples. Before you can discuss a topic, it’s helpful to have a common definition so that everyone is on the same page. These definitions are important because they have bearing on the research results Dr. Spaulding discusses in the remainder of the book.
Chapter 2 - The Physiology of Stress
I don’t think it’s uncommon for us to breathe a sigh of relief and assume the dog is now fine after they’ve experienced a frightening or stressful situation. This chapter will make you reevaluate that assumption. Stress changes the body in ways that last longer than we think, and chronic stress not only impacts the immune and digestive systems, but also damages the brain.
Some highlights from this chapter are:
Dogs suffering from toxic stress can have brains that have been rewired, and are less likely to be able to adapt.
Chronic stress damages the hippocampus which leads to a dog being unable to contextualize fear; fear can become generalized and a dog can no longer understand when they are safe or unsafe.
This is one of the reasons medications for dogs with anxiety and fear issues can be so helpful, as it can help the brain function better.
Chapter 3 - Toxic Stress and Its Impact on Behavior
So how do these physiologic changes (and especially the rewiring of the brain) impact behavior? Dr. Spaulding goes through research of stress on pregnant dogs and how that in turn effects the puppies in utero. There’s also a lot of research on development through adolescence, and it turns out that stress during this period of time can create long-lasting issues in dogs. Everything from anxiety and depression, to poor social skills. There are some surprises in some of these studies in that not all have the results you would anticipate. Remember that not all stress is bad!
There is also some great information that breeders, rescues and shelters could find valuable when they care for pregnant dogs and puppies that would make it more likely the puppies had a better shot of being well-adjusted dogs.
Chapter 4 - How Toxic Stress Impacts Learning and Memory
Stress has huge impacts on both learning and memory. So much that Dr. Spaulding recommends reducing stress before starting a behavior modification plan! Dr. Spaulding includes a discussion which reveals that the impact of stress on memories and learning depends on the relevance of the situation to what learned.
One of the most interesting research findings for me was learning that when animals are stressed, it’s harder for them to eliminate fear.
As a dog trainer specializing in separation anxiety, I found this interesting, because it means that a dog with separation anxiety may be harder to treat not only if they are stressed from the owner needing to leave them alone, but for other reasons as well.
Chapter 5 - Why Are Some Dogs More Resilient to Stress Than Others?
My first thought when I hear this question is that of course it’s genetics. And Dr. Spaulding does start the chapter talking about the influence genetics has on the ability of dogs to cope with stressful situations. There is reference to trauma, which I found relevant to me personally, as after a car accident seven months ago I have a dog who is still anxious in the car without medication, and one who did not seem to suffer any negative psychological damages. This section gave me an understanding of why that is. My biggest takeaway from this chapter is that the genetic response to stress can be overcome, and that giving animals choices, teaching them to problem solve, and making sure dogs with anxiety encounter predictable stressors is the best way to do so.
Chapter 6 - Helping Your Dog Avoid Stress or Cope with Stress
This is the most important chapter of the book whether you have dogs and want to improve their lives, or if you’re a dog trainer who wants to help owners with training and behavior issues.
The best part of this chapter was the discussion about helping dogs improve their coping skills through giving them control. Providing enrichment for dogs is a big topic now, and Dr. Spaulding discusses the fact that when enrichment is provided properly, it allows dogs to feel a sense of control. She explains what is needed in order for enrichment to be beneficial.
She also has advice for families wanting to get a puppy, as far as what to look for both in the breeder and in the puppies themselves. She goes on to explain things families should and should not do in raising puppies in order to ensure they have good coping skills as adult dogs.
As a trainer working with dogs suffering from separation anxiety, some of the findings discussed in this chapter really got my wheels spinning. I spend a lot of time working with my clients on desensitization to their leaving and absences. And that is incredibly important, and something I cannot even imagine dropping out of my training protocol.
But I can definitely think of things to add to my treatment plans that could possibly make the training more effective by increasing choice, while at the same time improving the quality of life for the dog.
Chapter 7 - Stress in Specific Populations
I was interested in hearing about the impact of stress on shelter dogs since I worked at an animal shelter for 17 years. As animal rescue organizations search for ways to alleviate stress in their populations, this research is vitally important in helping them do so.
There are a number of studies on stress in shelter dogs, but Dr. Spaulding makes it clear that more is needed. She pointed out problems with some of the studies having small sample sizes, and some that excluded shelter dogs exhibiting aggression or extreme fear as not being an accurate representation of the shelter population.
In addition to the research on shelter dogs, Dr. Spaulding also discusses the research on stress in dogs such as therapy dogs, service dogs, dogs that compete in dog sports, and other dogs that work to assist people in their jobs.
Chapter 8 - Concluding Thoughts
This chapter includes a very short summation of the findings in this book, as well as Dr. Spaulding’s thoughts on the research.
Are you like me, interested in research but not trained in reading papers?
This appendix did not make me smarter, but it did give me great information on what makes a good study, and what to look for in order to know whether a study is relevant or not.
Not only does The Stress Factor in Dogs: Unlocking Resiliency and Enhancing Well-Being! summarize research on stress and how it’s applicable to dogs, but Dr. Spaulding also makes it clear what the research DOESN’T prove. And she also notes when studies are flawed, and when more research is needed on that particular aspect of stress.
While some might think that reading a book on stress would be boring, I found it to be more like archeology. The more I read, the more amazing treasures of information were uncovered. And the more I , the more I considered how this information could be used to improve the welfare of our dogs. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in improving canine welfare.