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Does Your Dog Need a Cortisol Vacation?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.

Does Rover need a cortisol vacation?

Does Rover need a cortisol vacation?

You may have never heard about a dog cortisol vacation, but maybe Rover desperately needs one. No, this doesn't mean it's time to pack your belongings and head for an expensive trip to the Bahamas with Rover, nor does it mean you have to board your dog in one of those expensive pet resorts with hundreds of five-paw amenities. The truth is your dog can have a comfy cortisol vacation right now, in the comfort of your home. First, let's take a look at what this means.

What exactly is cortisol? Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It's normally released in response to hormones released from the brain in stressful situations. This hormone helps you gain that extra energy so you can react best and deal with any challenging issues. Typically what happens is the body increases its metabolism and frees up glucose levels for extra energy. While the occasional isolated case of cortisol increase may be helpful, such as when a dog is stressed before entering the agility ring, chronic, prolonged stress with high cortisol levels may cause problems in the long run to both the body and mind.

But what kind of stress affects dogs? It's not like Rover needs to balance his checkbook each month, worry about bills, and deal with a needy boss who wants him to meet deadlines on a constant basis! Well, it turns out that dogs may lead quite stressful lives. Whether your dog is taken every day to daycare for long periods of time, competes in trials for several days in a row or lives next to a reactive Rover, chances are, he may be stressed and his brain may be flooded with cortisone.

Fact is, it takes some time for cortisol levels to lower after your dog has been stressed for some time. This is what a cortisol vacation is for: helping your dog learn how it feels to relax and reaping the benefits that comes with it. The first time I ever heard about a dog cortisol vacation was when reading about Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed program for behavior changes in dogs. In the next paragraphs we will learn how long a cortisol vacation should be and how to help your dog reap the benefits of it.

What Happens During a Dog Cortisol Vacation?

So how do you put your dog on a cortisol vacation? You simply minimize your dog's exposure to common stressors. Your dog definitively doesn't feel good if he is always on edge and in a hyper-aroused state. This means you'll have to first learn how to identify signs of stress in your dog, and next you'll have to identify what triggers stress in your dog so you can minimize exposure to those triggers. Following are some examples of things you can do.

  • Covering windows if your dog is reactive to people or other dogs passing by.
  • Walking your dog at a time when there are little or no triggers.
  • Taking a break from sport competitions.
  • Limiting excited, over-the-top games/ temporarily avoiding visits at the dog park.
  • Reducing visitors to the home if this upsets your dog.
  • Investing in effective dog calming aids.
  • Keeping your dog's mind active with some fun puzzle games, nosework and some composed training.

If you think your dog will miss his pals at the dog park or will feel bored, think again. Most dogs will adjust just fine and will be actually happy as they get a feel of what it feels to be totally relaxed. How long should a cortisol vacation last? Control Unleash recommends at least one month.

Yet, a cortisol vacation doesn't end here. If you want to work on helping your dog learn better coping skills, you'll need to continue working him so he can learn how to better face his fears. This is done by keeping your dog at all times under threshold, and at the same time by desensitizing him and counter conditioning him to his triggers. Teaching your dog to face his fears in a systematic way, will help him better learn how to cope and better deal with life's every day triggers. Ask the help of a force-free behavior professional to show you how.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 09, 2013:

Many older dogs do not appreciate the rambunctious energy of puppies. Sometimes, it helps to keep the puppy separated for some time to drain its energy through walks, play and training and then reuniting him with the older dog. This way the energy levels may match up better and the pup may feel more ready for a nap.

instantlyfamily on September 09, 2013:

Interesting read, indeed. I believe my older dog Fluffy, may be stressed ever since we got a new puppy last year. The new puppy grew to be 3 times the size of Fluffy. The big puppy is constantly trying to get Fluffy to "play". I think Fluffy get stressed by it.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2013:

Lol Wetnose, thinking about it, I think a cortisol vacation would benefit me too!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 08, 2013:

My dogs are doing just fine. Sounds like I am the one who needs a cortisol vacation LOL.

Great hub.