Lessons from my dog

Learning how to manage stress, all inspired from dog training lessons!

We rescued Hans last August, and little did we know we were inviting a disobedient, shoe-eating pup into our lives. After coming home to various chewed up objects around the house, we decided there was certainly a need for dog training to help Hans become calmer, more settled and better behaved both inside the house and on his walks. Not only was he feeling stressed, but as you can imagine it was stressing us out a tad too. The most recent training he’s been attending has had a great impact on his behaviour- and has also given me some inspiration as a coach, which I thought I’d share!

The main area Hans needed his training in was socialisation, as he tends to get nervous on walks, to the point where he barks loudly at other dogs or people that approach him. As a dog owner, we have to look out for and be aware of body language in our dogs that shows they’re nervous such as their tail moving to an upright position, or their fur standing on edge on their backs. When we are aware of their heightened nerves and stress levels, we move them or distract them so that they are focusing on something much less stressful. This helps us to manage the situation, making the dog relax and slowly build up their ability to only focus on the calming parts of walks. 

So how does this relate to us humans? 

Well, we may not have another person watching our body language in stressful situations to remove us from the cause of stress or help us desensitize our fears. But we can build our own awareness of: 

  • What situations cause us to feel stressed or nervous
  • In what way do these situations impact upon our physiological and mental state 
  • What is it about those situations that causes us to feel stressed

Being aware of the themes and patterns in our behaviour towards stress, means that we can create our own strategies to refocus our attention onto something much more calming. And just like Hans who chooses to sniff the floor rather than barking when another dog is approaching him, this will become your natural reaction to future ‘stressful’ situations that arise. 

Another interesting theory I learnt through the training which is helpful and applicable to Hans, but also useful for myself and others is something called ‘stress stacking’. The theory suggests that there are numerous stressful incidents during a dog’s walk which cause him to feel heightening levels of stress throughout. For example, during his walk he may have a dog without a lead run past him and then a fast cyclist go by unexpectedly, etc. However, the dog doesn’t react to these incidents, they only react later on when walking closely past a group of loud people. We as owners are confused as to why it’s only at this point that our dog has barked/reacted; he’s had plenty of other stressful experiences which haven’t caused him to react. This is due to stress stacking. Although from our perspective we may think the dog has not recognised all of those stressful experiences, the real answer is: he has. All of those incidents that have happened throughout his walk have caused a small level of stress which has stacked up, to the point where the fourth or fifth incident (or seventh or eighth depending on how stressful these incidents are) has caused the dog to react. The stack of stress has become too much and the dog has had to release that stress and warn off the perceived danger by barking.

I drew similarities between this and a typical day in the human, working world. And I wonder if you too draw similarities. Let’s look at a typical day in the office; you may miss the train or face unexpected traffic on your way to work making you worry about being on time, then you log onto the system to find 100+ emails awaiting your attention, perhaps a member of staff has called in absent so your workload is now through the roof and then maybe you have a tricky client making changes to the outline of a project you’re currently working on. Yet, it’s not until we open the door to our home and trip over the shoes left scattered in the hallway that we ‘react’ and let out our emotion by shouting at a loved one, for example. The incidents throughout the day have stacked up, although we may have moved on from them as quickly as possible, they’ve still stacked up meaning by the time we get to the fifth or sixth stressful incident that we release that stress by shouting.

If we can become more aware of these stressful incidents throughout the day, maybe there’s a chance we can prevent an outburst. With dogs, as owners we help with reducing the amount of incidents the dog finds stressful by adapting their environments, such as taking them for a walk in a quiet field where you’re less likely to find cyclists or dogs walking in close proximity. Unfortunately, we can’t always take ourselves out of a situation, such as our dogs can. But we can increase our ‘self-care’ to ensure we feel less overwhelmed by stress. 

So what can we do to help ourselves?

1. Stop and breathe- Let go of the tension built up from one or more of these incidents by allowing yourself a couple of minutes to breathe and feel those thoughts about the stress drift away. Then when you’re at a more neutral point, you can continue through your tasks with a clearer head. 

2. What are you grateful for?- Is there anything about these incidents that you can be grateful of? For example, with the member of staff being absent, can you be grateful that you managed to keep up with the workload, despite being one man down? Or did this situation enable you to use your great leadership skills to empower and support your team to continue with their workload effectively? Choose something to be grateful for and turn this stressful event into an achievement.

3. ‘In five years time, will the causes of this stress still matter?’- Ask yourself this question. It helps us to gain a fresh perspective when we are in a time where all we can focus on is how bad something is. This may help you to let go of some of the stressful incidents. 

If we can put these into practice and increase our awareness with a little self-care, we may be able to prevent the outbursts of emotion when we reach the top of our stress stack.

If you’d like further information on how we can support you and your team with your workplace wellness, then contact us.

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