The benefits of stress

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

Last year a modest soccer team, Alcorcón, gave Real Madrid a proper ticking-off. Alcorcón won 4-0 and a new idiom was coined in Spanish language to celebrate the event: “el Alcorconazo”. Analysts agreed that one of the main reasons for this unusual defeat was that Real Madrid was too relaxed, whereas their rivals did their best. In fact, people blamed Real Madrid players for not being sufficiently stressed, unlike their rivals, and ready to confront the competition.

It is typical that whenever we speak about stress in relation to dog training, or more generally in relation to dogs, we emphasize its negative consequences. However, we regularly forget to mention the numerous benefits stemming from this adaption mechanism. Due to this biased view stress is becoming one of those “evils”, full of harmful consequences, something necessary to avoid at any price.

However, research has shown the many benefits of stress when it is correctly managed. In fact, if stress was not beneficial it would not have developed as an adaptive mechanism in the first place. It exists because it works and it helps in the assessment of many different situations and in dealing with them.

Nowadays we know that stress is not only convenient but essential in order to succeed in sports and to achieve artistic creation, that it enhances enjoyment and eliminates the dependency from external reinforcers, and that it is an indispensable element for personal growth in each of us.

We should take into account that stress is an individual and internal process. Its causality can be modified, thus there is no fix relationship between cause and effect: what stresses some dogs, may leave others unaffected. To put it in more simple words: Stress is not something that happens TO the dog, but something that happens IN the dog. It is important to bear this consideration in mind while training and not to consider those factors generating stress as if they were fixed. Stressors are dynamic and that is why one of the worst strategies to deal with them is to systematically avoid all stressful situations. This way the dog will progressively become more and more sensitive, and hence the stress response will progressively be triggered by stimuli of a lesser magnitude.

But then, how should dog guardians deal with stress? Given that it is an internal process which can be modified, the most useful and effective strategy consists of teaching dogs to manage it so that they will not trigger the stress response in relation to stimuli which do not represent an actual danger. This progress has a great potential for alleviating the situation of dogs with phobias and those who are particularly sensitive.

Once the dog has learnt how to manage the stress, we will not just be able to avoid its detrimental effects, but also to exploit its many benefits.

Stress has several benefits for dog training provided it is correctly managed:

  • Strong implication and compromise with the work. The dog enjoys the activities to the maximum.
  • Self-reinforcement, due to the correct activation of stress mechanisms the dog experiences the activity as reinforcing in itself, what makes the use of external reinforcers superfluous.
  • The dog has more fun because enjoyment is directly linked with stress. Most of the activities that we find enjoyable give rise to stress too (eustress), and this relationship holds also in the opposite sense: we enjoy those stimuli that trigger eustress in us.
  • Reduced latency (i.e., increased speed), the responses offered under stress are faster and more assertive.
  • Attention training, stress contributes to focusing all the attention on important issues. As a consequence there will be automatic improvements in relation to:
    • Concentration.
    • Skills to ignore trivial stimuli unimportant for the task.
  • Improvements in resilience, defined as the capacity to resist stressful situations without suffering negative effects and to overcome such situations positively. In other words, it seems that it is necessary to train with stress in order to avoid its negative effects.
  • Dogs develop the feeling of controlling the situation at issue, and hence the negative elements that they may encounter are managed proactively and perceived as something that they can overcome. As a result they become more self-confident.

However, in order to exploit these benefits without falling into the negative side, it is crucial to be very strict in fulfilling the following requirements:

  • Provide a clear and quick response to the stressful event, the solution to the situation should be immediate and easy to reach for the dogs, either because they know it perfectly or because they can easily deduct it.
  • Provide only short activation periods. If we extend the working session for too long two results are likely, either the beneficial effects will disappear or the dog will become “addicted” to working under stress and we will not be able to do without it to maintain the quality of the training. In both cases we will face the problems we already know stress causes.
  • Provide enough time and leisure activities for the dog to recover. Stress is designed to provide its benefits when it is activated for brief periods of time and occasionally. Therefore, it is very important to allow the dog go back to normal after the activation period. One simple way to do this is to let dogs practice their favorite activities (e.g., running in the countryside off-leash).
  • Ensure the good physical condition of the dog so that the additional arousal does not give rise to tensions or muscular problems that prevent the dog from enjoying it. Stress is physically exhausting. Therefore, no benefit will be achieved if the dog is sick or in poor physical condition.
  • Activate your dog only occasionally, not in every single training session. It is quite easy to be tempted to forget this recommendation after witnessing the many and important benefits deriving from stress, both for the training and for the general quality of life. A skilful trainer may obtain high performance from dogs at the price of making them addicted to stress. However, any benefits for the quality of life of the dog will completely vanish and the stress will show its detrimental side.
  • Autonomy, the results of combining stress with a strict training style where even the smallest mistakes are immediately corrected are devastating. For the dog to feel control over the situation and the stress to have benefits it is of paramount importance that the responses are perceived with a certain degree of leeway, not as something exact and that cannot be changed.

The benefits of stress are becoming so popular that some interesting models for simulating stress are being proposed. This would allow us to reach the benefits without taking the associated risks. I had included the explanation of these models (as well as its tentative application to dogs) in the original draft of this article but my webmaster reckons that my articles should not be longer than two pages and you have already read three. Hence, I will publish this as a second part in a few weeks. Hope you enjoy it!

I promise you that I will write about our work at the Zoo soon. However, I owed this article about stress to Eliseo Rodríguez

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