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Managing Stress in Reactive Dogs Positively

Reactive behaviour in dogs is often a manifestation of underlying stress and anxiety triggered by various stimuli in their environment. 

Trail SniffersCamille Hartnett is driven by a profound passion for rehabilitating and nurturing relationships with dogs who struggle with reactive behaviours. 

Her own journey with her Bull Arab Cross, Jeffrey, highlighted the importance of early socialisation and learning periods for canine development. Jeffrey had a tough start to life and due to early trauma, he missed some very critical learning and socialisation periods when he was young. 

He is dog-selective and struggles with fear-based reactivity towards unfamiliar dogs. His behaviour is the reason that Camille left Veterinary Nursing and went on to study Dog Behaviour and Training so that she could learn to better understand and communicate with Jeffrey.

“From encountering unfamiliar dogs to loud noises, reactive dogs may exhibit behaviours such as barking, lunging, or aggressive displays as a response to perceived threats. Understanding the impact of stress on reactive behaviour is crucial for pet owners to effectively manage and address their dog's behavioural issues.

How does your dog respond to stress?

A large part of my work involves teaching pet owners to recognise the signs of stress in their dogs. By identifying early warning signs of discomfort, such as excessive panting, whale eye, pacing, or avoidance behaviours, owners can intervene to alleviate their dog's stress and prevent escalation into reactive behaviour. 

However, it's essential to also consider the physiological aspects of stress that may not be immediately visible.

Inside a dog's body, stress triggers the release of hormones known as glucocorticoids, which initiate a cascade of physiological responses:

  • Adrenaline is typically the first hormone released in response to stress, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate to prepare the body for action. This immediate response, often referred to as "fight or flight," enables dogs to respond to perceived threats effectively.
  • Cortisol, another glucocorticoid, plays a crucial role in fuelling the body's cells with energy during times of stress. While cortisol levels rise in response to stress, they are also regulated by a feedback loop mechanism that helps maintain balance within the body. However, prolonged exposure to stress can disrupt this feedback loop, leading to chronic elevation of cortisol levels.
  • Aldosterone, another hormone released during stress, regulates blood pressure and water balance in the body. Dysregulation of aldosterone can contribute to the onset of heart and kidney diseases, further exacerbating the physiological effects of stress on the dog's health.
  • Testosterone, a sex hormone, also impacts behaviour and muscle development in dogs. Elevated testosterone levels may result in an increased readiness for aggression, particularly in stressful situation
While the body's stress response is adaptive in the short term, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on a dog's physical and mental wellbeing. 
Prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to various health problems, including high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, reproductive disorders, and mood changes. Moreover, stress can interfere with learning and memory processes, making it challenging to modify reactive behaviour effectively.

Understanding the physiological effects of stress is essential for pet owners to recognise the importance of managing stress in their dogs. 

Strategies to manage your dog's stress

One common strategy is to incorporate "cortisol breaks" into a dog's routine, allowing them time to decompress and relax. 

These breaks typically last between 24 to 72 hours, during which stressors are removed from the dog's environment to allow cortisol levels to return to normal.

Dogs enjoying scent work as part of
Trail Sniffers' enrichment sessions
During cortisol breaks, pet owners can engage their dogs in calming activities such as interactive play, scent work, or puzzle toys

Providing a low-stress environment and minimising exposure to triggers can help reduce the dog's overall stress levels and prevent escalation into reactive behaviour.

Moreover, stress can have long-lasting effects on a dog's physical health, affecting internal organs such as the heart and kidneys. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular problems. Additionally, prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol can impair immune function, making dogs more susceptible to infections and diseases.

It's important to understand that stress doesn't just affect a dog's physical health but also their emotional wellbeing. 

Dogs experiencing chronic stress may exhibit mood changes, including increased irritability, anxiety, or depression. These emotional disturbances can significantly impact the dog's quality of life and their ability to form positive relationships with their owners and other animals.

Camille Hartnett walking her dog Jeffrey
Recognising the signs of stress in dogs is the first step towards effective management. However, it's equally important to address the underlying causes of stress and provide appropriate support to help dogs cope with challenging situations.

This may involve modifying the dog's environment to reduce triggers, implementing behaviour modification techniques, and providing mental stimulation and enrichment activities.

One effective strategy for managing stress in reactive dogs is the concept of "cortisol breaks." 

Cortisol breaks involve removing stressors from the dog's environment for a period to allow their stress hormone levels to return to normal. 

This could mean temporarily avoiding situations or environments that trigger reactive behaviour or providing a quiet, safe space for the dog to relax and unwind.

During cortisol breaks, pet owners can engage their dogs in calming activities to promote relaxation and mental wellbeing. 

Jeffrey is a big fan of the Super Feedy
puzzle feeder bowl and reversible lick mat
This may include gentle exercise such as decompression sniff walks, interactive and decompression toys such as
LickiMats and snuffle mats, swimming, interactive play sessions between owner and dog, or training exercises that focus on building confidence and trust.

In addition to cortisol breaks, pet owners can also explore other stress-reducing techniques such as aromatherapy, massage therapy, or calming supplements
These complementary therapies can help support the dog's overall well-being and provide additional tools for managing stress in reactive dogs.

It's essential for pet owners to work closely with qualified professionals, such as veterinarians, vet behaviourists or certified dog trainers, to develop a comprehensive stress management plan tailored to their dog's individual needs. By addressing stress proactively and implementing effective strategies for managing reactive behaviour, pet owners can help their dogs lead happier, healthier lives.

Managing stress in reactive dogs is a multi-faceted endeavour that demands attention to both the physical and emotional aspects of the dog's well-being. By recognising the signs of stress and understanding its physiological effects, pet owners can take proactive steps to alleviate their dog's discomfort and prevent the escalation of reactive behaviour. 

Incorporating strategies such as cortisol breaks, enrichment activities, and stress-reducing techniques can significantly contribute to a dog's overall health and happiness.

Furthermore, providing opportunities for dogs to engage in natural behaviours like sniffing, digging, and exploring is crucial for their mental enrichment. 

The Dog Scentsory Garden in Woodville West is a scent-sational place for a sniffari -
Photo Credit: City of Charles Sturt

These activities not only help lower cortisol levels and promote relaxation but also fulfil the dog's innate instincts, leading to a more content and well-adjusted dog.

In Summary

Ultimately, effective stress management requires collaboration between pet owners and qualified professionals, such as veterinarians, vet behaviourist and certified dog trainers. Together, they can develop personalised stress management plans tailored to the individual needs of the dog, ensuring a holistic approach to their care.

By prioritising stress management and mental enrichment, pet owners can help their reactive dogs lead fulfilling lives, free from the burdens of chronic stress and anxiety. 
With dedication and compassion, we can create environments where our dogs thrive, fostering a happy and successful life for both dog and pet owner.

written by Camille Hartnett from Trail Sniffers, February 2023 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

References & Book Suggestions for further reading

  • Meet your dog by Kim Brophey
  • Doggie Language by Lili Chin
  • Don't Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor
  • The Cautious Canine by Patricia B. McConnell
  • Fired Up, Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

About our writer

Camille Hartnett and her dog Jeffrey
Camille Hartnett 
(Karen Pryor Academy Puppy Instructor Certification, NDTF Cert III Dog Training, Vet Nursing Cert IV, Animal Studies Cert II, 
 L.E.G.S.® Applied Ethology, Family Dog Mediation® Professional Course) ithe proud owner of Trail Sniffers Dog Behaviour and Training

She has dedicated her professional life to dogs and their guardians coaching them how to navigate, train and advocate for their dogs and their needs. 

When it comes to dog behaviour, her goal is to empower dog guardians with the knowledge, understanding and skills they need to create a harmonious, happy and loving relationship with their dog. She believes in nurturing positive and respectful relationships between humans and their dogs. Her training methodology reflects this philosophy and serves as a statement of support for a force-free, scientific and evidence-based approach to training.

You can follow Trail Sniffers on Facebook at and @trailsniffers on Instagram.

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