by Rita Martinez
Many of the incidents to which you and your canine partner will be called to work will be stressful situations. The elements of danger, urgency, injuries, fatalities, unknowns are all stress producers, for the human and the canine member of the team. As humans, it is our obligation to our canine partner not to get so caught up in our own thoughts that we fail to consider and observe their reactions.
Canines are a species with sophisticated and subtle communication skills. They exchange information with each other and with us through body language. Some of it is obvious to us as handlers, but much of it frequently goes unnoticed to the untrained eye. If a handler isn't paying close attention to these subtleties, they can actually believe the dog is working when it is in fact just going through some of the motions.
These loyal canine partners of ours are so willing to work with us that we easily fall into the trap of thinking of them as tools or objects rather than individual partners with thought processes and opinions. Our partners can, in fact, be valuable tools, but are not any more a machine than we are. They are living individuals and experience emotions similar to many of ours. Dogs can feel joy, fear, anxiety, excitement, agitation, jealousy etc. and stress. It is stress that we need to deal with in this paper.
Can you easily recognize when your dog is experiencing stress? Do you consciously watch for it? There are many signals through which you may spot this condition before it gets out of hand or critical to performance. Dogs and their body language form of communication have many signals or gestures that tell us how they are doing. As each dog is an individual, it will be your job as the handler or observer to look at the big picture and determine what the dog is telling you. Common things that can indicate stress are:
Body tense, stiff
Body droopy, tired appearance
Body lowered, not cowering but slinkier than usual
Change in pace
Tail wag different from normal
Frantic racing around or returning to you frequently
Whale eye, white showing
Red pigment around eyes (also inner ears)
Avoids eye contact (turns head away)
Looks to handler frequently for directions
Panting, too wide or too narrow
Licking lips or nose
Mouth corners back, mistakenly sometimes referred to as a smile
Ears back or uneven
Veins prominent under eyes
Stop to chew on self, scratch
Just sits or lays down
Comes to you in an attention getting manner, may go behind you
Tail held lower than normal
Circling, returning to you in arc path
Out of context behaviors
Requires re-direction or reminder to get to work
Does not desire normal reward
Turns away from you
Loose or urgent stool
Many of these signals are very subtle, and can be harder to observe on some of the longer haired breeds, but not impossible. If you spend some time watching your dog and looking for any of these occurrences and think about what was happening when you saw them, you will become more adept at recognizing them when it's very important. Obviously, some of the above examples would also indicate there might be a problem with hazardous contaminates (drooling, red pigment around eyes, etc.). You need to use some judgment in this respect. It is always your chief obligation to keep your canine partner safe!
Since canines communicate through body language, they have long since figured out what every little gesture you use really means. If you are intense, uncomfortable, tired, frustrated worried, blah blah blah, or stressed, they will be totally aware of it. As your partner, they will react to that as well as to the environment. You may find them trying to calm you down with calming signals; approaching you in an arc, turning their head away, averting eye contact, licking lips and nose, turning their back and sitting down, or simply jumping up on you and offering a snuggle. Hard as we try, it is next to impossible to fool them about our feelings. If your canine partner is working on calming you, s/he is not effectively working on the assigned task!
This dog is alert and working.
This dog is showing concern - squinting eyes, furrowed brow, tense muscles, no motion.
This dog is also concerned - lowered tail, ears in different directions.
This dog has now become more concerned with lowered tail, head and ears.
This dog is panting, lowered tail, curved body posture, squinted eyes with dilated pupils.
Dog is walking in arc, lowered body, low tail, heavy panting, dilated eyes.
This dog is very stressed. Lowered body posture, panting, lowered tail, dilated pupils, arched body, head turned away.
What to do
So, I observe my dog feeling the stress, what can I do? This is going to depend on the circumstances of the environment, but the issue must be addressed prior to continuing a search! Here are some suggestions:
Take a break –
this may be complicated if you have to go through decon to leave the area, but you can also stop and break where you are. However, a total scene change is far more effective.
Use calming signals –
stretch (in the form of a doggy play bow lightens up to atmosphere), yawn, blink your eyes, look away rather than direct eye contact with the dog, and take several deep breaths and sigh
Relax yourself –
free your mind of all the business that's running through and think of something pleasant, let your muscles go into relax mode, but maintain a confident posture
Reassure the dog –
vocalize to the dog that they are great and all is well etc. Carry on a conversation in a light hearted, soft and reassuring manner - the voice can be very calming - just don't overdue it, they will figure that out in a hurry and you risk making their stress become rewarding for them.
Forget about the others on site or what they may think regarding you or your dog being stressed. Honesty with yourself, your canine partner and all others involved in the search effort is the quickest route to respect all around. All of us, whatever species, become stressed occasionally.
Training for stress
It can be very valuable to do some training with stress control in mind. In fact, I would say it’s critical. This will help you and the dog learn to cope together and prevent you from exceeding either of your thresholds for stress too quickly.
Put a calming word into your training vocabulary (I use ‘all’s well’). Use it frequently when everything is relaxed and safe. Use it at home, out and about, during trainings, until the dog realizes that it is the cue that everything is fine. This becomes a great tool when you are pushed to work a stressful area, as you can reassure the dog and yourself because it has become conditioned for both of you.
Do training exercises with the prime focus on observing canine body language with regard to stress. Purposely set up an exercise that is overly stressful but quite brief and easy with regard to the location of the targeted scent source. Remember, the object of the exercise is to observe reaction to stresses and not the successful location of the appropriate scent source. Responsibility lies with recognizing stress as it unfolds and successfully dealing with such stress—even if that means not completing location of the scent source!
This is something that is very difficult for the handler—particularly with other teams present. We humans tend to feel that success equals finishing and looking good to others. Set all the extraneous issues aside—put on emotional blinders and focus exclusively on the learning experience with your partner!
As you learn that your partner finds specific things stressful, begin an effort of planned desensitization to those things. Progress slowly to conquer the stress trigger completely and make sure it is not a problem in any area or environment. With desensitization exercises, going slow is the fastest way to meet your goal :)
Outside of specific scent training exercises, be conscious of your dog in all situations. Watch, pay attention to what incidents cause reactions with a stressful outcome. Make notes, define the triggers, and then make a plan and work through each one adequately.
Remember, stress is cumulative. You will not be effective if enough is amassed and you don’t break and leave the area for rest and to regroup. The saying “I can feel it in the air” is very appropriate when working a dangerous and hectic site. Everyone’s stress level adds to another’s, so be aware that it is critical that you break when either you or the canine is above threshold. Often when you arrive on a site, the stress level is already at the stage that you can ‘feel’ it. Dogs feel it too!!
© Rita Martinez, CPDT, 2004