Stress and Your Show Dog

Learn to identify signs of stress and prepare your dog for the next show

Stress is a factor for all of our show dogs. The travel, being around strange dogs, being handled by unknown people; all of that contributes to stress. For an outgoing dog, much of that may be “good stress” — just like winning BIS at AKC/Eukanuba would be good stress for you. For a dog who is not so outgoing, that stress may be “bad stress,” leading to unwanted behaviors and possible health problems.

With stress, there is an immediate release of adrenaline. For a top show dog, that may be the extra spark that says “here I am!” For a dog that is stressed in a bad way, as in anxious, worried and concerned, that extra adrenaline surge may lead to stress-type behaviors. Adrenaline, sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” hormone, has a short lifespan. Its effects tend to last only minutes.

Following adrenaline, the longer-lasting and acting stress hormones are the glucocorticoids such as cortisol. These hormones may stick around for days in a highly stressed dog. If your dog is stressing out on the show circuits, he may never totally get down to normal levels of these hormones.

Stress can be reflected in medical conditions and signs. The complete blood count down at your veterinary clinic may show signs of stress. Eventually stress can affect many organs, including the heart, kidneys and liver. Skin and intestinal problems are sometimes related to stress. Cancers may have stress components behind them along with other factors.

What are signs of stress and how can you minimize stress in your dog out campaigning? Signs of stress include:

• Yawning
• Whining
• Pacing, not settling down
• Not eating well
• Breakdown in housebreaking
• Biting or chewing himself
• Compulsive behaviors such as tail chasing
• Skin conditions, including demodecosis
• Withdrawing and not interacting
• Aggression

All of those behaviors can have other causes as well, such as fleas for biting or chewing. It is your responsibility, and that of your handler and your handler’s team, to identify any signs of stress in your dog. Many show dogs develop close relationships with their handlers and their caretakers. Those people will often have a “sense” that a dog is not doing well or is unhappy. Trust their intuition and if they feel your dog needs a break, take it!

Stress can be minimized for a dog out campaigning in a variety of ways. Having a set routine when possible is best for most dogs. Adjustments may have to be made, but following a set schedule as much as possible helps many dogs. Feeding times should be kept regular, though early ring times or Group judging may interfere at times. Always allow plenty of time for a dog to eliminate before heading to the ring.

Try to stick to the same diet and same water where possible. This simply keeps changes to a minimum and your dog’s system doesn’t have to adapt. It will also help tracking down the cause if your dog should become ill.

Keep your dog’s preventive care up to snuff. Discuss what vaccines are necessary or recommended for your dog and his lifestyle. For example, whether or not he needs leptospirosis vaccination may depend on if your retriever is working hunt tests as well as following the breed ring circuits.

Your Toy dog that is generally carried around at outdoor shows and put in a raised ex-pen probably won’t need the Lyme Disease vaccine as his chances of tick exposure are truly minimal. Provide preventive care for internal and external parasites. They are an unnecessary burden on your dog and an added stress.

Exercise has been shown to reduce stress in humans and certainly benefits dogs. A regular exercise program, adjusted to bad weather if need be, is excellent for a dog on the road. If possible, vary the actual exercise to reduce repetitive stress on joints. Swimming instead of roadwork may brighten up your dog’s attitude and will keep him fit with less joint pounding. Try mixing in a game of fetch if you have a safe place or even just a walk in a nearby park.

There are recordings of certain music (usually not rock and roll or heavy metal) you can play to relax your dog as well as aromatherapies that help to calm dogs. has scientifically studied music that helps dogs. It may help you calm down too!

Some dogs do best if they can sack out after a day at the show on a bed in your hotel room with you. That may mean inviting friends in for a pizza instead of dining out, but your dog’s welfare needs to come first. Look to see what lights up your dog’s eyes and attitude. It may be a favorite toy or a game of fetch early in the morning. Try to incorporate those favorite things into his day.

If your dog is traveling with a group of dogs, look at his reactions to the other dogs he is with. Handlers can tell you which dogs are buddies and which should be kept separated. Follow those companion choices in crate placement both in the travel vehicle and when setting up at a show.

There are dogs who thrive on travel and showing. They may be happiest out on the road. Other dogs, despite being gorgeous examples of their breeds, may really not enjoy showing. Those dogs may simply be happiest as the “pet” at home or the brood bitch whelping puppies. Try to evaluate the stress levels of your show dogs and make the choices that are best for them.

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