It was something a dog trainer said to me while I was interviewing her for my podcast that stuck with me for days. She had mentioned that she believes stress layers itself in dogs, and when it builds up to certain levels, it can affect training for days. It wasn’t much of a leap to believe that stress, then, could also influence hunting performance.
Her statement led me down an internet rabbit hole to suss out a canine researcher who could really speak to an expert level on canine stress. After some research, it seemed like I could do far worse than reaching out to Jessica Hekman DVM, PhD, who has spent years of her life digging into the effects of stress on dogs.
Her early research focused on stress in hospitalization of dogs, and she has now expanded that to include canine genetics and the development (or underdevelopment) of certain parts of dogs’ brains that are related to stress. In the realm of of knowns and unknowns, this type of research has a lot of runway left and could influence how we breed hunting dogs a decade down the road.
It has also yielded some interesting findings about stress. It turns out that some dogs are predisposed to suffer more from the effects of stress than others. This is likely due to genetics, and for reasons probably due to canine evolution, means that some dogs get over stress quickly while others don’t. A fight with another dog, for example, might ruin a specific retriever for days, causing an erosion in performance in the field or in manners at home.
Other dogs might shrug off the same toothy skirmish within minutes and not show anything other than very short-term effects from it. That might seem pretty simple and intuitive, considering humans are wired similarly. The difference, however, is that we often don’t seem to fully understand what is stressing our dogs out and how long that stress can affect them.
We just see normal dog behavior, and then we see dog behavior that might seem a little off, but probably don’t think much of it. Our dogs can’t explain to us that they are having a bad day because another dog had them by the throat this morning, or that we yelled at them for not working through a retrieving drill properly. Or that they were put into a dark duck blind with three unfamiliar dogs, five strangers, and then all hell broke loose as the guns started going off and chaos ensued.
While we might not see the symptoms of stress and anxiety fully manifest themselves, they are there to some degree. If you’ve got a timid female Lab, this might mean for a few days things won’t go too smoothly and it’s your job to reset her with some confidence building work. If you’ve got a male Chessie that could shake off getting hit by a semi if it meant he could keep hunting, then you might not have much to worry about. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t assume your dog is shrugging off stressful events simply because it’s easy to believe that’s what they do.
While going back and forth with Hekman on this topic I ended up asking her what the most stressful things are that a dog might encounter in everyday life and she answered without hesitation by saying, “Being left alone. Separation from us is a huge stressor.” This speaks to their desire to be with us, of course, but also to their evolution as a pack animal.
When we bring that puppy into our lives we establish a new pack with them and when the pack is intact, they are likely to be content. When we leave them alone, that pack dynamic has dissolved and it’s not easy for our dogs to handle. It’s also not possible for us to always be with our dogs, either, but it means we should think about the stressful things our duck dogs might deal with and prepare them, just as we would train them for a new hunting experience through confidence-building baby steps that result in controlled exposure to new tasks, environments, and challenges.