How Will Stress Affect Your Dog This Christmas Holiday?
It’s that time of year, the borders are open, travel is once again on the cards in time for Christmas, and families everywhere are making a break for it. This means many of the dogs everywhere are about to make a visit to the local boarding kennel, and for some it will be for the first time.
The question is, have you prepared your pup for this temporary change of scenery?
The word stress conjures a negative emotional response in many people, especially when we are applying it to their pets.
Truth be told, for our dogs and for us, there are healthy levels of stress (eustress) that can serve an important function towards driving other behaviours. Stress only starts to become a problem when it is chronic, and there is no reprieve for the individual experiencing it (distress).
At the latter level, stress can begin to affect just about all aspects of life from emotions and behaviour through to physical health.
Emotional and behavioural symptoms exhibited can include anxiety and difficulty in settling, increased vocalisation, pacing or destructive behaviour, lethargy, and a lower tolerance for the people and dogs around them.
A physical expression of stress we see often in affected dogs is gastric upset; loss of appetite for food and water, reduced urination, vomiting and diarrhea. Depending on the level of the dog’s stress there may even be blood in some of what they are passing.
Ongoing chronic stress can eventually lead to changes on a cellular level as a general state of inflammation increases, causing a cascade effect towards conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, skin allergies, IBD, behaviour disorders etc.
As professionals in this industry, we have spent plenty of time in and out of various training kennels, boarding kennels, shelters, and dog day cares. The number of dogs that will present with the range of symptoms described above with seemingly very little in the way of triggers is pretty astounding.
Why is this?
Human life in general is pretty fast paced these days, throw in a global pandemic to upset the normal world order, and many humans are buzzing with stress. There is research to suggest that the emotional state of people in the household can have a direct effect on the emotional state of the dog or dogs.
While fresh food feeding for pets is on the rise, the majority of cats and dogs are still being fed a highly processed diet of dry and/or tinned food day in and day out. This is a huge contributing factor to levels of inflammation in the body and a bit of stress can easily aggravate this internal state to the point we see Poo-nami’s on the horizon.
When working in a facility that caters purely to pet boarding (no training included), it really becomes abundantly clear just how many people still believe that all a dog needs to navigate through life successfully is a quick stint at puppy school (most of which are woefully inadequate) and an overabundance of free love and affection.
A lack of training and a home life that provides little to no structure or clear direction is a recipe for stress in the majority of dogs. You don’t have to have the world’s next obedience champion, but teaching certain behaviours and boundaries, and being consistent in those rules that fit your home and lifestyle, make for much happier dogs who then understand what is expected of them and know who they can look to for future guidance.
Genetics also play a role here. In rescue dogs we don’t often have the luxury of knowing what the parents were like and what traits they might have passed on to their offspring. On the other hand, there are also plenty of unscrupulous breeders who are doing the wrong thing by the dogs in their care and the people who come to them looking for their future family member.
So, what do we get when a dog with potentially weak genetics, surviving off a highly processed supermarket diet, with little to no training and a bit too much freedom to do as it pleases at home, comes to visit a boarding kennel for the first time?
The answer to that question can vary. Sometimes dogs surprise us, they are pretty resilient animals after all.
A good quality boarding facility is going to take thorough notes on the dogs diet, medications, and notable behaviours prior to it checking in. From this they will usually make recommendations as to the type of accommodation and activities that dog may benefit from during its stay.
If the owner mentions digestive upset being common for the dog, they will usually encourage you to bring your own food along to make the transition easier on the dog. However, much of this is reliant on owners providing this information to the people that will be caring for their dog, and there are many people that for some reason don’t think to bring it up at all until a problem has already occurred and the facility is contacting them in response.
At the end of the day, no matter what qualifications you have in dog behaviour, training, or health, just because you work at a “dog kennel” or “dog day care” does not make you magic. There are systems in place in these environments that are utilised in response to any signs of stress on the behalf of those animals in their care, but for a dog like the one described above? The one that is already anxious on drop off because its owner was crying and refusing to let go of the lead after check-in (it happens more than you might think), the one with no confidence or independence training, that has come in with a big bag of Baxter’s dry food for breakfast and dinner?
That dog is likely going to experience a cascade effect of stress and is going to be feeling less than crash hot in a short amount of time. More often than not, a distraught owner will then leave with their pet and be imagining all the horrible things these people must have done to have made their perfect angel so distressed. Most probably never stop to consider the countless hours the staff have actually spent away from other people’s animals in their endeavours to reduce stress on your one dog.
Boarding and Day Care facilities absolutely have a duty of care to their guests; but as the dog’s pet parent, owner, guardian, or whatever you want to call yourself, you also have a duty of care to that animal.
What Can You Do To Prepare Your Dog?
- Train your dog.
Seek the assistance of a knowledgeable and qualified trainer who can help you understand your dog’s weaknesses (they all have them, no one is perfect). They can give you strategies for increasing your dog’s confidence and independence, and for reducing stress and anxiety.
- Consider switching to a fresh food diet and help your dog shed excess kilos.
Honestly, the amount of sugar and preservatives in even the “top of the range” dry foods is crazy. Your dog doesn’t need that junk, and they will be feeling and behaving like a whole new dog with the addition of even just a small portion of good fresh produce to their bowl. Keeping your dog at an appropriate weight will also reduce inflammation.
- Prepare Carefully
When bringing your own food ensure you are very clear about amounts to be fed and the timing of feeds. The same goes for medication.
When bringing pre-packaged meals, consider how stress or heightened periods of activity might influence your dog’s metabolism. A cup morning and night might suffice at home, but it is smart to provide some extra food just in case your dog is eating well, but drops some weight.
You may also want to provide your “cup”. For some this means the literal measurement, but for others it means a scoop of their dogs food in a mug at home. If this is the case, don’t be surprised if your dog loses weight. A real cup does not hold the same amount as a mug.
- Consult with your veterinarian.
If your dog is highly anxious and you have no choice but to leave them at a kennel or day care facility, seek assistance from your vet. They may be able to prescribe medication that will take the edge off of your dog’s stress if you find yourself in an emergency situation with no time to prepare your dog for the trip away from home.
- Discuss short term stay options with your facility of choice.
Most kennels do not have a minimum stay requirement outside of peak holiday periods. At a quiet time of year, you could drop your dog for a day care visit or for an overnight stay, and make sure you ask for feedback when you collect them so you know if there is anything that needs to be addressed before a longer visit becomes necessary.
- Take off the rose-coloured glasses and really consider what is best for your dog.
There is that saying that everyone thinks they have the perfect dog, and none of them are wrong. We all love our dogs, but few of them are perfect in every way. If your dog has had little to no preparation for something like this, they have a history of being highly anxious or easily stressed, or are severely geriatric and are experiencing physical and cognitive decline, you may need to consider other alternatives.
Have them cared for by an in-home pet sitting service. Have them board with a willing family member or friend. Look at dog friendly holiday options and consider taking your pooch out with you. There are so many alternative options out there these days, it is important you consider the well-being of your dog when deciding who will care for them.
If you expect that all work done to acclimate to the kennel environment starts when you have dropped the dog off, you are setting them up to be woefully unprepared for their Christmas holiday. Do the right thing for your dog, and the right thing for the people who are caring for them, and actually prepare your dog with confidence and independence training before you go away.