How Much Stress Is Too Much Stress?

The Canine Learning Stress-O-Meter Infographic

In the force free training world (aka positive reinforcement), we try to minimize the amount of stress our pets experience during training. But in order to answer how much stress is too much stress, we must first understand a little bit more about “stress.”


Types of Stress

There are two types of stress an individual can experience.


Eustress: n. moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer.


Distress: n. extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain.


Distress is caused by unpleasant experiences or situations. Individuals experiencing distress over a long period of time may experience a lowered immune system as well as psychological fallout such as depression, lethargy, disinterest in engaging with the world and lack of appetite (to name a few). It is considered detrimental to learning as well as overall quality of life.


Eustress, on the other hand, occurs during happy, exciting activities. It is beneficial to overall quality of life. Eustress is actually a necessary component of learning new things because it triggers the brain to pay attention to input which allows new information to be stored into long term memory. This is as true for you as it is for your pets. That’s right –  some stress is necessary to learn. So, when we’re teaching our pets new skills, we don’t want to avoid all stress, we just want to ensure it’s the right kind of stress.


So How Much Stress Is Too Much Stress?

To a large degree, that is up to the learner. Think back to your classroom days. Were you comfortable taking tests? Did it feel like a reasonable challenge to assess your current knowledge and understanding? Or does the mere mention of “test” send your heart racing and a feeling of panic and foreboding through your entire body? I share this analogy to help you better understand that the same activity may be a totally appropriate level of eustress for one individual but cause real distress for another.


Further, the same activity may trigger eustress in a given learner at one time, but cause distress at another. Take my dog, Hagrid, for example. He loves learning tricks. And the first several times we work on a trick in a training session he is fully focused and clearly trying to work out what I’m asking. He remains engaged with the activity even though it’s not entirely easy. This is an example of eustress at play. There’s a challenge to the game, but it’s a fun challenge. Now, if I switch gears and increase the criteria before he’s mastered the current challenge, he may become very frustrated and enter a state of distress. He may start to talk to me (yes, he talks to me in little grumbles and whines whenever he wants something). He may offer momentary look-aways when I give the cue for the trick. Or he may start to offer all sorts of other skills he knows in his effort to be successful and get out of his state of growing distress.


At this point, I have a number of options. I can reduce my criteria back to a place where Hagrid was more successful and then build my criteria for his trick in smaller increments. Or I could change gears altogether and ask for other skills that he’s more proficient in so that he can be successful, and then when he’s relaxed back into his eustress, I can return to the task of the skill I’m actually working on. These are my two most common responses to when Hagrid, or any dog I’m working with start to show signs of distress during training.


Another option is to push through. Insist that he keep at it. Ask repeatedly, and either ignore wrong responses, just reset to step one and start over (and over and over), or give a no-reward indicator to communicate that his offered behavior was not what I was asking, and so we are going to reset.


There are many trainers who will do that last option of pushing through, without regard to the dog’s efforts to communicate their growing distress. This process may sometimes work. But far more often, we see the frustration build for the dog. We see an increase in their distress signals from appeasement behaviors such as lip-licks and look-aways to displacement behaviors such as yawning, scratching or sudden intense interest in the smell of the floor or other objects in the room. If we persist, we are likely to see one of two major distress responses. The dog may become defensive and start lashing out with more intense vocalizing or even snapping at you. Or we may see the dog shut down and stop working altogether.


It’s important to understand the signals our dogs are trying to communicate to us so that we can better help them succeed. A little bit of stress, especially eustress, is not only OK to experience, but good for learning. But prolonged stress, and especially distress has the opposite effect. For more information about what behaviors indicate it’s OK to continue working and when you should take a break or change your approach to the training process, reference our Stress-O-Meter infographic above.


Now that you know how to recognize how much stress is too much stress, get out there and teach your pup some new skills! If you need more help in understanding stress signals and what they mean, please seek the advice of a force free or certified Fear Free ™ trainer.


Happy training!

Jody Epstein Author Bio Pic

Author - Jody Epstein

Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.