Stressed Dog? Where’s the proof?

I wrote this post when I was in Kongsberg. I sat in the cold cottage and reminisced over warm Mandal and the people with the warm hearts who hosted me. I was learning a lot in Kongsberg as well and had to write out my lessons from Mandal before I forgot them. But I had to wait all this time to get the necessary permissions. So here is my long overdue recap of Mandal.

My learning was largely in two main areas:

  1. Insights into running a boarding facility. Here is a rather elaborate post on the subject.
  2. The Pulse Project

In this post, I will focus on The Pulse Project. Being an engineer, this project fascinated me the most! A lot of what I have been learning from Turid has struck me as true at a very intuitive level. But the Pulse Project put so much of it down in hard cold numbers. In my mind, this is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to understand our animals and do right by them. It is the closest I have seen to an “idiot proof” method to understand what our dogs are feeling. And I got information about it directly from the horses mouth – Agnes, my host in Mandal and lady behind this project. She and her husband Geir gave me a very enthusiastic demonstration of the project.

At the crux of it, the project, through some smartly pieced together equipment, measures the pulse of a dog, as the dog goes about doing normal stuff. It can be quite addictive. The most intriguing observations:  Touch a dog and it’s pulse shoots up. Yup…that’s right! Get the dog to concentrate on something and pulse plummets. And not just a simple drop – we saw close to a 65% drop!!!

To understand what a high pulse does to a dog, we could try it on ourselves. Often times, when I am at the gym, doing cardio, I watch my pulse closely. As my heart rate increases by 70% of normal, I can barely hold it there for a few seconds. I let myself to cool down again, and try exercising harder to increase my heart rate again. It’s exhausting. I am able to repeat this 5 to 6 times and then I am really burnt out.

Several every day activities bump the pulse of a dog up to almost double. That is 100% increase. This spike happens not 5 – 6 times a day, but perhaps even 50 – 60 times a day! Obviously, such frequent spikes in heart rate cannot be good for any living being, let alone the furry cuddly little puppy that we love so much, right?

I suggest a simple exercise. I have a list of activities that spike up a dogs heart rate. Try to calculate how many times a day your dog is subjected to these. And I warn you- the list WILL shock you.

  • Walk straight up towards a dog

  • Bend over a dog, like when petting or putting on a leash or removing a leash

  • Commands / Requests (however you do it, when you ask them to do it)

  • Playing fetch
  • Playing tug
  • Waking up a sleeping dog
  • Petting an excited dog
  • Talking to an excited dog

If we think about it, that’s a lot! Yeah…our dogs really are very sensitive creatures. And the most shocking of all: It’s really really hard, if not impossible to guess how stressed a dog really is. Dogs are surprisingly stoic.

Does this mean we completely distance ourselves from our dogs? The short answer is, absolutely NO! I have gone through quite a transformation in the short time I have been here, constantly learning to be more “polite” and it does not feel like I am any less affectionate to the dogs at all. My dogs often walk up to me and ask to be petted. That’s perfectly fine. But I’d think twice about waking a sleeping dog or petting a resting dog, or calling my dog. Here are some suggestions on more “polite” alternatives. By being “polite” I still get to interact with my dogs, but in a way that they appreciate it, rather than just tolerate it.

Actions that Increase Pulse Alternatives
Walk straight up towards a dog Walk in a curve towards a dog
Bend over a dog
 Kneel next to a dog

Commands / Requests (however you do it, when you ask them to do it) Give them an opportunity to use their own brains

 and figure things out
Playing fetch or tug Nosework / brainwork

In essence, it’s all about the attitude. It’s a little less of “me boss, you dog” attitude and more of “we are both adults, we are friends” attitude. You would not really command your friends all the time, ask them to drop whatever they are doing and come to you all the time, insist on hugging them all the time, waking them up when they are sleeping etc…right? Acknowledging dogs as adults makes it the transformation easy. Just requires us to make a slight adjustment in our perspective and approach.

Of course, they are adults with a lovely sense of humor and quite in touch with their inner puppy. So we don’t have to fear a dour boring adult and think we need to talk to them as if we were in a board room. Nope! We are talking of a fun, happy, jovial, childish adult, who is immensely fun to be with and we can have lots of fun as well. Just respect canine language a bit and things will be balmy!

So…the good and the bad news. The bad news: There is FAR too much we do on an every day basis that is driving the average pulse way above average in dogs. Good news: This project helps us identify all that we are doing and can be doing and helps us make better decisions for our dogs.

If anyone is interested in working on the pulse of their dog, to identify how stressed their dog is and what are stress reducing activities on their dogs, please do send me a message.

And last but not the least, a word of caution. As with most powerful tools, this too can be misused, knowingly or unknowingly. Agnes, the person behind the project is an extra ordinary woman, who takes utmost caution to ensure that the dog is not put under duress just for the sake of study. Such precaution is without doubt mandatory in a project like this. As the project draws more interest, it becomes mandatory that this aspect is kept as top priority at all times.

Here is a sample video from The Pulse Project that shows the effect on the pulse of the dog. In the first part of the video, the dog starts getting very worked up about someone in the other end of the room. Notice how much the dogs pulse goes up. Then the instructor does something that is seemingly benign. She deploys a technique called “Splitting”, where she stands between the dog and the source of stress for the dog. And….well….watch for yourself. Happy stress free bonding with your dogs 🙂


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