Stress: the good & the bad

When talking about stress, most people are referring to the negative effects largely associated with chronic stress. Stress is a normal part of life and nobody can be insulated from it.

Stress responses are experienced at neurobiological, physiological, psychological and behavioural levels. This involves a complex interplay between body and brain systems.

Dogs and other mammals, (and probably birds), all have similar biological ‘equipment’ for experiencing stress – the parts involved in stress responses are very ancient and likely evolved in more simple creatures. That’s because stress keeps us alive.


 If stress is needed to keep us alive, how can it be bad?

Stress acts at a number of different levels, depending on the nature of the stressor. Different stressors elicit different types of stress responses.

Any time the body is faced with challenge, it must produce a response that helps it cope with that challenge. If the individual has the neurobiological, physiological, psychological and behavioural tools to rise to the challenge, all is good.

This version of stress is beneficial – it involves goal oriented behaviour, it enhances performance and the more practice an individual gets at ‘good’ stress, the better they become at coping with their world.

But, where the individual doesn’t have the right tools, they may experience the negative effects associated with stress such as neurological damage affecting learning, memory and future sensitivity to stress, feelings of loss of control and anxiety, physical damage to organs and behaviour that may appear fearful, anxious, or aggressive.

Avoidance of the stressor is really the brain’s main aim – the brain would rather be stressed than dead. So, stress causes the individual to be more vigilant, on the look out for stressors to avoid. In dog training, we often called this raised state of awareness arousal.


Your dog on stress

When the stress systems engage, everything is escalated: the individual’s sensitivity, vigilance, activity. But the body can’t perform in this heightened state over long periods; increases in breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, circulation of stress related hormones and neurochemicals will have detrimental effects on body and brain over time.

To counter this, an opposing system is activated to help turn off the stress response and bring the body back to a more even keel. That’s certainly how things are supposed to work but this is where it can get tricky…

Just like us, animals develop skills (or behaviours) for coping with stress, helping the body calm. And they need help in developing these skills, especially during adolescence.

Stress responses happen in ancient parts of the brain, in and around the Limbic system, and when this is engaged in monitoring the environment and keeping the body safe, higher thinking parts of the brain, in the cortex, are inhibited.
This makes sense – if the brain is worried about safety, wasting time on thinking may not be terribly helpful.

When stressed, the brain and body are in a more reactionary state and not as well able to think through problems.


Enrichment, challenge and stress

Instead of referring to it as stress, using the term ‘challenge’ may be a better fit in terms of understanding how stress can benefit us, as well as have negative effects.

When the body is challenged it must be able to adapt so that it can cope with and recover from stress.

Good stress will be appropriately challenging, motivating the animal to respond – they will have the tools to cope with the challenge and therefore recover once they have dealt with it.

This might not be the case where the animal doesn’t have the necessary behaviours allowing it to rise to the challenge, where it is exposed to cumulative or sequential stressors so doesn’t have sufficient time to recover in between, or where they are unable to escape exposure.


Enrichment must be enriching; that means that appropriate enrichment must provide the animal with outlets and opportunities for good stress. Otherwise, it’s not enrichment.

  • make sure it’s individual – set it up so that it’s enriching for your individual pets
  • have a goal – what should your pet get out of a particular challenge? what behaviours should they demonstrate or would you like to evoke via this particular challenge?
  • be adaptable – be ready to step in, adjust the challenge, rearrange the set-up
  • maintain appropriate challenge – how will you know when your pet is beginning to feel in over their head? how do they show frustration? when do they look to give up?
  • it’s better to prevent them becoming overwhelmed than to wait for frustration before jumping in – that means you start with the easiest challenge and build challenge to coincide with their progress
  • the buck stops with you – always think how you can adjust each challenge to work for your pet so they experience good stress