CANINE TRANSITIONAL STRESS: The psychology of processing change
Updated: Sep 13
As you hurry to pack for vacation, all the familiar implements of traveling come out of the closet -- the luggage, swim trunks, suntan lotion. In the meantime, the dog is freaking out.
This canine excitement is referred to as "transitional stress." This is the residual effect of any change in a dog's environment. This stress can trigger manageable levels of excitement, or, in more severe instances, it can completely wreck a dog's sense of stability and send them into a fury of aggression.
It is quite normal for dogs to experience transitional stress -- humans as well. Changes in our environment cause certain hormonal and neurological responses in the body that prepare us (and them) for "flight or flight." In particular, the release of adrenaline, which triggers an increased heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation, and changes in blood glucose levels. And your dog's panting? They're probably not thirsty. That too is a respiratory response intended to push more oxygen to the brain and muscles for survival.
As sensory-based learners, dogs can be particularly sensitive to transitions in their world. Their acute sense of smell, sight, and a keen sense of "what's normal" can be dramatically impacted by even the most slight changes. In our practice, it is not uncommon for us to work with dogs who experience extreme transitional stress simply because a child walked out of the room; or because a piece of furniture was moved. Think about your neighbor coming over for a visit. Do you think your dog is only joyful to see them? Or could they be experiencing a more complex set of emotions? Joy and stress are close cousins...
How dogs cope with transitional stress is highly individualized. Some dogs can mediate their own stress levels due to a more amicable, natural-born temperament. Whereas more active and engaged dogs might struggle.
We commonly work with dogs who find change to be difficult. And we have effective therapies designed to help dogs to cope and process change in healthy ways. Some of these modalities include:
Grounding, using a dog's senses to draw them back into a present and pleasurable state.
Boundaries, setting limitations for movement and decision-making.
Routine-building, falling back on a known set of events that are predictable and non-chaotic.
Attachment therapy, shoring up an uncertainty in the structural integrity and security offered by a well-functioning family.
If you have a dog who struggles with transitional stress, know there is help. Please do not hesitate to reach out and consult with one of our canine behavior consultants. We can explain what is happening, why it is happening, and develop an effective action plan to help.