Lessons About Stress

There’s a saying in the dog world that I just love, “You don’t always get the dog you want, but you always get the dog you need.” Layla has taught me some pretty heavy lessons, and I’m very grateful to her for it. That said, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and make her better. She will never be a normal dog, and some days that makes me very, very sad.

HeadshotWe’ve had a tough couple days, and I’m pretty discouraged. It’s frustrating to see her suffer so much. The black and white version of dealing with stress in dogs (or any organism, I suppose) is very clear. If something stressful happens, allow the body to return to normal. This will take time, but just sit back and prevent anything stressful from happening during recovery, and you’re golden. In real life, this can sometimes be impossible. Suppose it takes 3-4 days for Layla to return to ‘normal’ (for her) after a stressful event. During that time, something as innocent as being startled by a woman wearing a hat who walks past the car can cause another reaction when she’s blown over threshold, resulting in another spike of stress hormones which are released into her body. Then something else happens. Then another thing. Soon her body goes into a constant state of arousal, ready to deal with anything. It’s a constant state of ‘fight or flight,’ but with nothing there to attack or run away from.

This is where we’re at tonight, and it makes me heartsick. Layla is not a normal dog. She will never be normal. I need to remind myself of this and do the best I can to provide a supportive structure from which she can view the world, and safe places to go when she just can’t deal anymore. I need to be there for her without asking anything of her that she can’t give, and I need to help her when I can and step back when she needs me to. I need to realize that when she’s stressed like this, she doesn’t want to be touched and won’t seek out affiliative contact. This isn’t a critisism of our relationship nor does it have anything to do with how much she loves or trusts me. Her nervous system is just saying “Enough,” and even a simple pat or scratch is too much for her to process until things settle down. I need to sit back and allow her to come to me when she’s ready. And she will be ready again, and will come snuggle with me again in the morning and melt into my lap, tucking her head under my arm in that way that makes me feel all gooey.

So, what brought us to this point?

Nothing specifically that I can put my finger on, or perhaps lots of little things. There wasn’t one sudden event when I thought to myself, “Layla’s stressed.” Instead, it’s just crept up on us, as it usually does. There was the lady in the scary hat who walked past as we waited in the car, which visibly startled Layla and made her jump. Then the two small kids running past, which caused her to alarm bark with that pointing tail set and wide eyes I’ve come to know so well. After that, the car alarm went off, which completely panicked her. But she seemed to recover from that, sitting in my lap and pressing herself close until the trembling went away. Later when I stopped at the pet store, she seemed anxious to come in with me. But then there was a big exuberant dog who was staring at her from across the store. Later that night at home, I did a brief shaping exercise with her, which she was successful at. My dad was upset about not finding something and was grumbling and cranky, and I snapped at him. Layla went and lay in her chair, away from all the commotion.



That night was the first clue that she was seriously over threshold. One thing that’s happened recently is that she’s learned some coping mechanisms, and doesn’t outwardly show stress as much. Rather than pacing frantically, she lies quietly in her chair, which has become a safe place. It’s easier to ignore the effects of stress when she’s not as outwardly upset. But then she reacted to a sound outside, and I sent her to her crate. Duke was standing in between her and the crate, and she ran up to him and bit him hard on the ear. This is the first time she’s redirected like this on him, and it wasn’t a little bite. There was only one small puncture, but it was bad enough to require a vet visit because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. After attempting to glue the tear multiple times only to have it break open again, the vet ended up putting in one stitch and then glueing the wound as well.

And then today, there was more stress. At this point, the stress hormones are starting to make Layla visibly ill. Anxiety medication prescribed by the vet behaviorist helps a lot, and I dosed Layla a couple times with the Xanax today on top of her regular daily clomipramine. But nothing can cover the panic she feels at hearing trick-or-treaters coming to the door. Besides the Xanax, I also brought treats and some of the Control Unleashed games on board to get her though the evening. She survived, but it wasn’t ideal. Locking her in a quiet room wouldn’t have been any better: making her feel trapped would just heighten her stress.


Layla will just need a quiet environment and lots of "alone time" until her stress level recede.

So, here we are late on Saturday night. Friday, she bit Duke. Today, she’s thrown up twice and has diarrhea. She’s also having an especially bad reaction to a tick I pulled off earlier today. She’s always been allergic to ticks, but this is about the most swollen I’ve seen a tick bite. Usually the abscesses are about half the size of a pea. This one started off as a pea and has swollen since then. The skin is red and oozing, and the ball under the skin is almost marble sized. I have allergy meds on board, but clearly her weakened immune system just can’t deal with one more violation. And, is the tick one of the reasons for her heightened reactivity and stress level the past few days? It’s kind of a chicken and egg question. I don’t know. Dr. Overall mentioned that allergies can worsen a dog’s reactivity, and the chemistry of histamine seems to support this. But there’s not much that can be done to alleviate the allergies, since steroids are not an option. And she’s allergic to the preventative spot-on treatment as well, so even prevention becomes difficult. What else can we do?

So, this is the downside to living with a dog like Layla. I wouldn’t give her up for the world. When I look back at how far she’s come, I know that we must be figuring some things out between the two of us. She really has improved, and I just need to remind myself of that when she has a setback like she has the past few days. Things will get better again, and we’ll keep figuring out how to avoid these setbacks in the first place.  But it will still be painful for me to see her like this when she does become stressed, and I’ll look forward to when she comes back to being my snuggly little dog again. We just need to ride out the next couple days and keep things quiet.



Filed under Layla

5 responses to “Lessons About Stress

  1. Crystal (and Maisy)

    “Dr. Overall mentioned that allergies can worsen a dog’s reactivity, and the chemistry of histamine seems to support this.”

    Could you expand on this just a bit? Is it the state of being allergic itself, when an allergy flares up (I have noticed a correlation between increased itchiness in Maisy and her reactivity), or is there something about using antihistamines that increases reactivity? And speaking of, do you give Layla a daily allergy med, or just use it as needed?

    • Hi Crystal,

      Here’s what Dr. Overall said about allergies, “Layla also has food allergies. It is unclear from the records whether these have GI or dermatological manifestations but food allergies can make animals much more reactive and much more anxious. This is not surprising given the neurobiology of histamine and its effects.”

      Basically, histamine (which is the amine released by mast cells and basophils in the body during an allergic reaction) has a lot of different roles. One that I didn’t know about and still don’t know that much about is as a neurotransmitter. It has all sorts of different jobs, including keeping you awake and alert (this is why ANTIhistamines may make you drowsy). It can also suppress the neurons that protect against convulsions, stress, drug sensitization, and some other stuff I don’t understand. It may control the mechanism by which learning and memories are forgotten. Changes in histamine or histamine receptors in the brain and spinal chord have been found in schizophrenics.

      Basically, I think the take-home message has to do with dogs who have some constant stress on their body by continuous low-level allergies. This may explain why Layla is less reactive on raw than she is on kibble. I don’t know whether the kibble processing just makes the food harder for her to digest or whether perhaps the ingredients in the kibble are exposed to other ingredients she may be allergic to (perhaps the equipment also processes a chicken-based food?). Environmental allergies would do the same thing, I think. Higher-than-normal levels of histamine in the body on a regular basis may change important things such as the ability to concentrate or to sleep soundly.

      If all this is correct (and it might be totally wrong, I’m not that great at the medical stuff), then antihistamines are going to help to some extent. The problem is that antihistamines only block one of the types of receptors for histamines (H-1), so that’s why you only get partial relief. I use them as needed for Layla and go back and forth between diphenhydramine and clorpheniramine. I also do a lot of environmental management and prevention: wiping her off with a baby wipe when she comes inside from lying on grass, frequent baths, omega 3 fatty acid supplements, making sure she’s sleeping on polyester rather than cotton, etc.

      One thing that surprised me was that putting Layla on the daily anxiety med actually helped with her allergies. I’m guessing this had a lot to do with her overall stress level: when her stress level lowered, her body was better able to deal with the allergies. I’ve since heard of other dogs having the same response. She’s still very allergic to a lot of things, but she’s less likely to flare up over, say, seasonal allergies than she would have been a couple years ago. It’s interesting how it’s all connected.

      Wow, leave it to me to write a novel in response to a couple little questions! I would suggest searching the web on “histamine” and “neurobiology” or “neurotransmitter” if you want to learn more. I like the goodsearch.com search engine, you can earn money for charities like the Rabies Challenge Fund as you search!

      • Crystal (and Maisy)

        I’m glad you did! It’s very interesting! Maisy also has both environmental and food allergies. Interestingly, when she is exposed to a food allergen, she is more likely to have a reactive response- so that’s right in line with what you’re saying. Of course, according to the blood testing, she has a greater allergic response to food than she does to any of the environmental things she’s allergic to, so that also makes sense.

        It makes a lot of sense that there would be a correlation between allergies and reactivity, both from the constant low-level stress on the body, as well as the histamines acting as an “alerting” agent.

        Maisy gets Claritin (loratadine) daily. That does a good job with the environmental allergies, but doesn’t do much for food allergies. Thankfully, those are easier to avoid. We tried Benadryl (diphenhydramine), but it didn’t do much for her allergies AND made her even more hyper. We also do the management stuff you suggest: omega 3s, frequent baths, etc.

        Anyway, thanks for all the information. I hadn’t really thought much about the correlation between allergies and reactivity. I also find it interesting that allergies tend to improve when on an anti-anxiety medication. I don’t think Maisy is to the point that she needs anti-anxiety medications, but I’ll keep that in mind in case her allergies get crazy, since I really don’t want to do steroids.

        Hope Layla is feeling calmer, and better, soon!

  2. Hey Sara,
    Bummer about Layla’s bad weekend.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and personal post.

    I think it’s easy to overlook the residual problems of stress, and while we have had some real troubled dogs here in the past, we don’t really right now.

    A couple of my pups here do have some trouble eating and keeping weight on due to anxiety and reactivity. They’re also susceptible to diarrhea and vomiting despite their apparent lack of allergies. I’ve never really thought of the residual effects of this though and really appreciate your thoughts.


  3. Hi Sara,
    I can totally relate. *I* suffer from that quietly escalating stress- it sneaks up on *me*! So if you didn’t notice straight away that Layla was getting stressed, well I’m one up on you. 🙂
    It takes a lot of practice to get your awareness to stay “on” all the time so you can pick up the clues as they happen so that you can do damage control from that point. You’ll just keep getting better at it. With me, the lag between noticing the stress and going back over what happened to find the trigger started at about a week after it happened (gee, why am I so upset… oh, my friend said something to me last Sunday…)
    I’m now down to minutes most of the time, a day at most. Amika was lucky: her human had had prior practice in being aware of potential triggers as they happened. All I had to do was apply it to her, and then decide how best to give her ‘time off’ to recover after the first triggering events before the next triggers could happen.
    Oh, and ditto on the histamines and stuff. I’m not sure, but I think claratin made me depressed when I tried it a couple of weeks ago! I looked it up and found out histamines are neurotransmitters, and that allergies can predispose people to depression as well as the other way around. And like anxiety meds, sometimes antihistamines work opposite to expected on emotions.
    Give Layla a stuffed kong from me, and tell her she’ll feel better soon.

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