Defining and Refining the “Cortisol Vacation”
The dog training community is full of information, rules, and guidelines that have been passed from trainer to trainer, even from generation to generation. In the past, this was an effective way of passing knowledge between trainers and on to clients, based on what seemed to work at the time. Today, however, as information becomes more available and shareable, we must ensure that we critically assess information and the evidence to be confident that we are providing our clients and their dogs with the most up-to-date, most accurate information possible. At the same time, no matter how much knowledge we gain, we must remember to pay attention to and treat the dog in front of us, rather than giving in to the temptation to overextend conclusions from research and potentially create incorrect or misinformed rules to guide us. We must also be willing to recognize that information that we previously knew to be true may very well be proved to be inaccurate or incomplete as further research is done. To quote from one of my current favourite books, Burnout, “Research is the ongoing process of learning new things that show us a little more of what’s true, which inevitably reveals how wrong we used to be, and it is never ‘finished’.”1 This is exactly what makes being a science-based trainer so exciting and why we must constantly be learning, questioning, and researching methods we use and guidelines we follow.
An example of a relatively common guideline that I’d like to focus on is the “cortisol vacation” that has been circulating for years. Many trainers recommend and advocate for a cortisol vacation: a period of time (from a couple of days to several weeks or months) for perceived stressors to be removed from the lives of stressed dogs to allow their stress hormones (namely, of course, cortisol) to return to normal. I myself have advocated for and implemented such cortisol vacations in the past and quoted the information that it takes 24-72 hours for stress hormones to normalize. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I had hoped to cite some of this information that I found I was unable to find any evidence that this information is based on scientific findings. (Cue cortisol spike on my part!) So much is yet unknown about how mammals’ bodies react to stress, and so many answers start with that ever frustrating phrase of “it depends”; however, there have been a number of studies that provide us with enough information that we should, at the very least, question the cortisol vacation as a hard and fast rule and attempt to better define and understand it if we are going to continue to utilize it.
The general theory behind the current cortisol vacation strategy is sound. It is common knowledge that it is difficult for an animal to learn when they are overwhelmed with stress, that prolonged stress has a negative impact on the body, and that it may be necessary to remove one or more stressors from a dog’s life for a period of time. However, it is time for us to check the claims made by proponents of the cortisol vacation against the evidence that is currently available to us and refine the definition and guidelines of it. Recommending a cortisol vacation because it’s the rule shouldn’t be seen as best practice for a multitude of reasons. Aside from the practical impossibilities of continuously measuring stress hormone levels to determine the level of stress a dog is experiencing, stress hormone levels are not a good single metric when considering a dog’s welfare. The stress response is incredibly complicated and also remarkably well-regulated by the body itself in the majority of individuals. Some stress hormones (epinephrine and norepinephrine, for example) are designed to enter and exit the bloodstream very quickly.2 Other hormones are designed to act over a longer period of time, although we should be careful as to how we define “longer term.” Cortisol, for example, has been shown to leave a dog’s system 30 to 60 minutes following a stressor.3,4 As we begin to look at longer-term stress and its effects on the body, the immune system becomes involved, adding another level of complexity. To complicate things even further, individuals respond differently to stressors and to stress-related hormones.4,5 Finally, cortisol levels in blood and saliva may decline over time, even if the dog is exposed to chronic stress.6 It is also important to note that cortisol is involved in regulating many bodily activities outside of the stress response and that you will notice varying levels throughout the day, such as in the morning, following meals7 and even after events that can be termed as positive stress (for example, after time spent at a dog park).8 Because we cannot tell how high a dog’s cortisol levels are based on how they are behaving, the key to helping these dogs is not to strive to reduce stress hormones but instead to identify and remove the stressor itself and to teach the dog how to cope moving forward. Additionally, because of the intricacies of the stress response, we must be incredibly careful to not mistakenly oversimplify and overextend the information.
And so, with this in mind, how do we adapt our treatment of stressed dogs? Instead of assigning our clients the arbitrary task of lowering their dog’s stress hormones with the undefined cortisol vacation, there are more tangible, more scientifically backed steps that we can take with our clients to better help their dogs.
Educate our clients on how their dog communicates and what their dog’s body language is saying, especially in regards to what the dog finds stressful. I worry that too often we throw out tidbits of information to our clients regarding canine communication as we rush to get to the meat and potatoes of actually working on a problem behaviour or implementing an arbitrary, traditional “rule,” when an in depth, intensive study into canine communication would prove more helpful. The key point to stopping the stress cycles is to identify and remove the stressor. If our clients are able to understand how their dog communicates and accurately recognize these signs of stress, they’ll be better prepared to remove their dog from stressful situations and/or remove the stressors from their dog’s life and prevent these cycles from even beginning. Because different dogs communicate in different ways,6 observing and identifying the client’s dog’s specific communication style is crucial.
Decide with the client whether a cortisol vacation is necessary, and clearly define it for each dog. Personally, I’d even go so far as avoiding calling this a cortisol vacation and would lean toward calling it something along the lines of a “trigger avoidance plan” to be clear about the exact goal that you and the client are working toward. This plan should be based on the individual dog that you are working with and the definition may even vary throughout the time that you spend with the dog. Perhaps a dog-reactive dog’s trigger avoidance plan is simply avoiding walks at times and along routes where they see other dogs. Perhaps a dog who is displaying more generalized stress needs to have a more restrictive plan in place where additional possible stressors (car rides, dog park, etc.) are removed. Whatever plan we develop with our clients, it must remain focused on the dog in front of us and we must remain open to adjusting the plan as needed.
Based on the dog’s initial behaviour, develop a tracking system for the clients to utilize. Not only will this help the clients accurately see the progress that their dog is making, but it will help determine whether the trigger avoidance plan is helping and when it can be changed and/or ceased. How and when we progress through the plan must be based on the individual dog rather than a commonly recommended timeline.
Consider whether it is possible to increase the availability of choice and control to our clients’ dogs. The idea of providing dogs with choice and control in varying situations is not a new one, although we are seeing it morph into different versions as time progresses. We’ve seen this in the transition from applied behaviour analysis (Friedman) to The Bucket Game (Patel) to Bond-Based Choice Training (Jennifer Arnold). The idea and practice of giving dogs choice and control in their lives is not simply based on a nice ideal, but rather has been backed up by numerous studies over an extensive period of time. In a 1983 study, dogs who had control over shocks that were administered experienced fewer negative side effects than dogs who had no control. Additionally, dogs who experienced the shock following a predictor (i.e., a sound) experienced fewer negative effects.9 Beerda et al. echoed these findings in 1997.4
Consider the addition of a dog-appropriate and even breed-appropriate outlet for stress. Interestingly, additional studies have shown the benefits of having an outlet for stress and frustration.11 Instead of only removing stressors from a dog’s life, giving them an outlet for stress that they experience can be incredibly helpful. In a study on rats subjected to a series of low-grade shocks, Jay Weiss discovered the rat to be significantly less stressed if, after the shock, it was able to gnaw on a piece of wood, run on a wheel, or eat or drink something, or incidentally, if given the opportunity to bite another rat.11 Anecdotally, I think we all know how much better we feel after the opportunity to throw something or to take part in strenuous exercise or even to shout or yell when we are feeling stressed or upset. For dogs, we might consider encouraging them to release stress by shaking a stuffed toy, playing a round of tug, or sprinting for a couple of hundred metres. By showing our dogs that they have a reliable stress release that they can turn to, we are both inviting them and training them how to destress as they need to.
Enlist extra help. If, after all possible stressors have been removed from the dog’s life, they are still displaying signs of unusually high stress, it is time to contact a veterinary behaviourist for additional assistance. Unfortunately for some dogs, the body requires assistance regulating stress and hormones. For some animals, no amount of reduction of stressors for any period of time will provide this regulation; for others, any return to the minimal stressors of everyday life will prove too much. Fortunately, awareness of this has increased and we are seeing more and more options being introduced and advocated for in the veterinary world.
The current cortisol vacation provides a good framework and starting point as part of a larger behaviour plan, but it needs to be defined and explained accurately and adjusted as additional information becomes available to us. Further, we must be so careful when quoting unbacked evidence, such as the common claims that it takes 24-72 hours for stress hormones to regulate or that chronically stressed dogs require four to six weeks to “detox” from stress. As seen above, the stress response is incredibly complicated, and these statements are far too generalized and lack the necessary evidence for us to pass them on to our clients. Most importantly, it is our job to treat the dog in front of us and adapt our methods and techniques based on what they need, rather than relying on prescribed “rules” that have been passed down through the industry. We as trainers are navigating an interesting and unregulated world of science, old wives’ tales and plain old falsehoods all mixed together and being presented as fact. It is our duty to our clients and to their dogs to remain skeptical and to demand and search for evidence for every claim, whether it is for a product, a training method, or an ideology. Only then will we dispel the myths and move forward having made decisions based on scientific evidence and facts.
- Nagoski, A and Nagoski, E. (2020) Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. NY: Ballantine
- Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-related Diseases, and Coping. NY: W.H. Freeman.
- Vincent, I.C., Michell, A.R. (1992) Comparison of cortisol concentrations in saliva and plasma of dogs. Research in Veterinary Science 53:3, 342-345.
- Beerda, B., et al (1997). Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 58:3-4, 365-381.
- Mormède, P. et al (2007). Exploration of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal function as a tool to evaluate animal welfare. Physiology and Behavior 92:3, 317-339.
- Hekman, J., Karas, A., Sharp, C. (2014). Psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs: Cross species comparisons, implications for healthcare, and the challenges of evaluation. Animals 4:2, 331-347.
- Godoy, L., et al (2018). A comprehensive overview on stress neurobiology: Basic concepts and clinical implications. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12.
- Stephens, M. (2012). Stress and the HPA Axis : Role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol Research Current Reviews 34:4, 468-483.
- Dess, N. K., et al (1983). Immediate and proactive effects of controllability and predictability on plasma cortisol responses to shocks in dogs. Behavioral Neuroscience, 97(6), 1005–1016.
- Weiss, J. M. (1971). Effects of coping behavior in different warning signal conditions on stress pathology in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 77(1), 1–13.
Luisa Depta is the owner of Ascent Animal Training and lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, three dogs, turtle, hedgehog, and poison dart frogs. Luisa is a professional behavior consultant with a special interest in working with fearful animals and a passion for sharing her knowledge through writing. Follow Ascent Animal Training here on Instagram and here on Facebook to learn more.