How Full Is Your Dog’s Bucket?
When a dog’s Stress Bucket overflows, they can have big reactions to seemingly little things.
As the saying goes, this is a case of ‘the straw that broke the camels back’. If the bucket is full, even a drop can cause it to spill. When their Stress Bucket spills, many dogs act out in loud or aggressive displays, but other dogs will shut down, go still, or hide. Dogs display stress in many different ways; if you are unsure, consult a professional trainer with credentials and education in the field.
If water keeps being added and no water is removed, eventually the bucket will overflow. This is when we see big reactions. If the water level is kept high, we see many reactions, seemingly to small triggers. Some dogs live with their Stress Bucket near full, other dogs have very small buckets. Some dogs have Stress Buckets that drain quickly, and others drain very slowly.
Filling The Bucket
Intuitively, we understand that stressful events add water to the bucket. Examples:
- Vet visits,
- Scary visitors if your dog is afraid of people,
- Seeing other dogs if your dog is afraid of dogs
- Chronic health issues
There is good stress and bad stress. Sometimes we unintentionally add water to the bucket, thinking we are emptying it. Examples include activities that keep your dog in a highly aroused or adrenalized state. Common activities that add water to the Stress bucket:
- Doggy Day Care or play dates
- Chuck-It or other high intensity sports
- Agility Lessons
- Going for a run on a short leash
Dogs with small buckets or buckets that fill quickly and drain slowly often can’t handle much stress before reacting. They require a lot of decompression to stay in a good mental state. Other dogs have large buckets and seem to be able to go with the flow, no matter what is happening around them.
Draining The Bucket
Activities that promote natural movement, sniffing, and chewing can help empty the Stress Bucket. Examples:
- Long hikes off leash or on a long line where your dog can move naturally over longer periods of time
- Sniffy walks
- Eating meals from Snuffle Mats, Stuffed Kongs or Toppls
- Scent games
- Scatter feeding in grass or brush
Enzo is an 8 year old Border Collie with a large bucket that drains slowly. He needs A LOT of free movement exercise to decompress. He can handle incredible stresses that many dogs couldn’t, but he really needs those long walks with freedom of movement to be mentally well. If he is racy on the walks, I use a long line to help him relax. He requires a lot more of this than even my 3 year old Border Collie.
Riker is a 7 year old American Eskimo. He has a small bucket that fills up quickly. Riker needs a lot of quiet time resting and free movement in order to be well. I limit his trips into town for city walks or training classes to once, maybe twice a week. Any more activities, and he can’t decompress enough to empty his bucket.
How Much Is Needed?
Your dog decides what they need. We can make some guesses based on breed, age, and history, but the only way to know is to adjust the activities for a few weeks then evaluate how your dog is doing. If you are struggling with behaviour issues, I suggest you journal your dog’s activities, training sessions, how they eat their meals, etc. Watch to see if there is a change when you increase or decrease various activities over a 2 or 3 week period.
What extra considerations do we have in a multi-dog home? Some dogs can spend 24×7 together and all is well. Others need breaks from their furry siblings. Watch for signs of stress such as one dog hiding under furniture or not wanting to play. Other more overt signs of stress can include resource guarding or actual fighting between dogs. Be sure that older or less confident dogs have safe spaces and breaks from more exuberant house mates, and reach out for help if you feel some of your dogs need help learning how to get along.