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Stress in Performance (Working) Dogs: What We Can Learn from Fukushima

A search & rescue dog sniffs a bush on a dirt path

Studies show that dogs that have experienced stressful or traumatic events can show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Claudia Bensimoun author of Stress in Performance (Working) Dogs: What We Can Learn from Fukushima

Dogs that experience stressful or traumatic events can carry psychological trauma. Walkthrough any post-meltdown Fukushima dog shelter in Japan and one will see the most common behavioral problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. (PTSD)

Dogs, like people, can feel stressed, confused, and unloved. Many dogs that were abandoned in the Fukushima exclusion zone after the past nuclear crisis has had to survive many devastating effects: high radiation levels, lack of food, freezing temperatures, and sudden changes in their environment and family unit.

The numerous meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 not only caused a humanitarian crisis, they created the worst-case scenario for all pets as well. More than 100,000 people had to be evacuated from within the 13-mile radius.

Dogs were left feeling traumatized. Today, researchers have evidence that the Fukushima event was so devastating for the 5,800 dogs that were registered in the area that, when tested, these abandoned dogs displayed many symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in people.

According to Miho Nagasawa and colleagues who compared behavior patterns and levels of cortisol in the Fukushima rescued dogs, they found evidence that dogs do indeed suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD)."We received stray or abandoned dogs from rescue centers in the Fukushima Prefecture. During re-socialization training and health care, we accessed the behavioral characteristics and the urine cortisol level of each dog and compared them with those of other abandoned dogs not involved in this earthquake. The dogs from Fukushima showed significantly lower aggression toward unfamiliar people, trainability, and attachment to their caretakers: also, urine cortisol levels in the dogs from Fukushima were 5-10 fold higher than those in abandoned dogs from another area of Japan. These results suggested that the dogs from Fukishima suffered from an extremely stressful crisis." Miho Nagasawa says via Nature's Scientific Report.

Behavioral and Neuroendocrine Stress Responses

Nagasawa and his colleagues expected that the Fukushima dogs might still be under chronic stress and show behavioral and neuroendocrine stress responses that would be attributable to the environmental conditions post-Fukushima. They then proceeded to compare research data from disaster-affected dogs and those from Kanagawa, a non-affected area in Japan.

The results showed that the Fukushima dogs' urinary cortisol levels were highest on the day of arrival and then declined significantly after the 8th day, while the Kanagawa dogs showed no significant changes in urine cortisol levels over time.

These strays also demonstrated difficulty with learning and developing an attachment to humans. "The dogs from Fukushima showed significantly lower aggression toward unfamiliar people, trainability, and attachment to their caretakers." Miho Nagasawa says via AAAS. Science Now

Impaired Learning and an Inability to Bond

Impaired learning and an inability to bond were two of the post-traumatic disorder symptoms displayed by both dogs and people. Although the Fukushima dogs seemed to improve with time, these dogs still remained anxious and more stressed than other dogs. They were not as friendly as other dogs.

Miho Nagasawa and his colleagues say that it still remains unclear whether the greater stress in the Fukushima dogs resulted from experiencing the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake in 2011, the strange and sudden disappearance of all humans, or the length of time it took to rescue all the abandoned dogs in Fukushima.

Understanding Some of the Signs of Stress

In order to recognize the signs of stress in working dogs, one must try to visualize the external stressors in a performance dog's environment. Although it is impossible to measure levels of stress, it is certainly possible to measure certain stressors in a dog’s environment.

Understanding some of the signs of stress in performance or working dogs that may include panting, yawning, avoiding eye contact, shivering, licking, tacked tail, general restlessness, muscle tension, zooming around the ring, and avoidance of the handler is key to improving overall performance in dogs. While many handlers are familiar with some of these stressful behaviors, it may be interesting to note that many of these behaviors were found in the post-meltdown Fukushima dogs in Japan.

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Emotional Stress

In working dogs where speed, accuracy, and timing are so important, many of these dogs sometimes display signs of stress when in a new environment. Emotional stress can affect any working dog at any time. When a dog is nervous before a competition, muscle glycogen stores and energy may become depleted. This in turn may cause uncontrollable panting, which then results in respiratory problems, dehydration, and a disappointing performance.

This often happens to dogs during transport to dog shows and during their stay in exercise pens or crates.A small amount of stress can be beneficial; nonetheless, one must be able to control the dog’s environment prior to competing and also hone in on understanding the symptoms of stress in working dogs. Working with each dog’s individual personality and seeing what the stressors are for that particular dog will help aid in future performance results.

Some veterinarians will go as far as prescribing anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants. This combined with the work of an understanding trainer is found to help dogs desensitize from situations that they find stressful.

By taking the time to pinpoint and understand your dog’s stress triggers, and using a well-rounded approach to improving his response to these triggers, you can help him deal much better with life’s ups and downs.

First published in The World Cynosport Rally & The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)

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Meet The Author 

Claudia Bensimoun author of Stress in Performance (Working) Dogs: What We Can Learn from Fukushima

Claudia Bensimoun

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance journalist and author, and specializes in veterinary content, and eBooks. She's a long-time feature writer for Animal Wellness magazine, Fido Friendly magazine, and the United States Dog Agility Association. In addition, Bensimoun has written for numerous pet websites, magazines, newspapers and online publications. Her interests include wildlife conservation, animal welfare, disaster/humanitarian relief, veterinary research, and veganism.

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