Canine Resilience - What Does It Mean And How Can You Create It?

What is resilience and how does it apply to your dog? In shorthand, canine resilience means that a dog can cope.

Emotional and psychological resilience for your dog is defined as the ability to remain flexible in emotional response or behaviour despite pressure from the environment, sometimes through long periods of time. Maintaining a good level of well-being and avoiding distress.

The basis of resilience is adaptivity. Therefore, positive socialisation is so important for puppies, because it builds their ability to adapt based on many different situations throughout their development process. A well socialised puppy that has learned about everything from loud noises to different types of people and animal will have a naturally learned resilience.

All dogs have resilience that they draw on every day. Environmental changes that the dog can cope with are examples of their resilience. For example, my rescue Yorkie will cope with being clipped by me in the home, but after being attacked in the park, she is less resilient outside the home and becomes scared very quickly. She’s resilient in the place she feels safest and less when in a scary place. Her resilience is individual to her, and this is the same with all dogs (and people).

Another example is our most reactive dog, he’s extremely sound sensitive and will bark at every trigger, in fact everything. However, he arrived with us after being picked up on the streets and is very easy to handle physically. He is resilient with touch – probably because he was handed around as a puppy – but he’s not resilient around sounds.

Some have much more resilience than others and your own dog’s behaviour will be undoubtedly based on his ability to cope, on his ability to stay strong and calm in his current environment.

A Metaphor

Imagine a small rowing boat on the side of a lake. There are rocks around the edge of the lake and the water is high. A storm comes and tosses the boat around but because the water is high, the boat doesn’t hit the rocks and when the storm fades, the boat is intact.

Now imagine the water is low and the rocks are visible in many places on the surface of the lake – when the storm comes, the boat is likely to be bashed off the rocks and broken in many places.

If we assume that the water is resilience, the boat is our dog and the storm and rocks are his life’s stressors, we can see how the resilience level will either help the dog through the storm - or allow for damage to the dog’s emotional and psychological health.

If we rise the water level as high as it can possibly be, the storm may not even toss the boat around at all. If we raise our dog’s resilience to as high a level as it can possibly be, we empower them to live in this world which they currently cannot cope so well with.

Resilience has been studied for some time by psychologists and doctor considering human health and well-being. Whilst few studies have taken place on the resilience of dogs, we can still learn from studies on the topic and in many ways use them to better understand how to help the worried dog.

Just as we can understand an individual’s behaviour through the process of careful observation and information gathering, we can also understand their resilience to an extent. To do this we need to consider the following three points:

Trait Theory

Trait Theory

Trait theory assumes that an individual is naturally resilient as part of their overall nature.

This specific theory is linked to genetic inheritance and how the chemistry in an individual brain works. In studies on serotonin - with people - it has been found that some people have a variant of the gene 5HTT and naturally produce more serotonin, thus are more able to stay calm and relaxed during stressful times.

Other people have been found to have a variant of the 2-adrenoreceptor gene, leading to excessive production of the adrenaline. Meaning that they may respond more to any stress trigger in the environment, than others.

In addition, whilst we know that people (and dogs) have a capacity for neuroplasticity within the brain, the exact capacity to form new neural pathways – for people – is also considered an individual trait based in part on genetic inheritance.

As with nature and nurture though, only some of an individual’s behaviour has a genetic base. There are many other factors that make a personality. Or in this case specifically, the ability to cope.


Protection as a contributor to resilience – in people – is the receipt of parental warmth.

When a child is fully parented with protection from stressors as they grow, they are thought to become naturally resilient as they reach adulthood. This is a baseline of growth in secure circumstances.

In canine terms protection can be considered excellent breeding, and excellent socialisation through the early growth and sensitive periods. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of scope and capacity for that to go wrong. Everything from puppy farms to early isolation can lower the dog’s resilience through deprivation of protection.


Learning resilience is the third possible point that makes up an individual’s coping profile. Stressors and triggers are experienced then used to build and gain confidence until a higher level of resilience is created and the ability to cope is greatly improved.

Learning to cope in a way that builds greater resilience to stressors is not a case of throwing a dog into an environment though and overwhelming them until they cope. This is a process called flooding and which causes an acute stress response and in the long term a chronic stress response.

Nor is it a matter of pushing them into situations to teach them to bounce back. This approach would cause trigger stacking and probably long-term stress.

Improving a dog’s natural resilience is about carefully managing exposure to their stressors, at a level they can cope, then gradually increase the stressors in proximity whilst naturally building the dog’s ability to cope.

Resilience can also be fluid throughout the dog’s life. For example, a dog that was once bold and strong earlier in his life may develop joint issues in later life. If he gets a knock by a dog he may start to show reactive responses to other dogs – these other dogs are linked in his mind with a painful experience.

Resilience and individual ability to cope is always present for a dog.

The water level may rise and drop. At some points the water may be low when a storm comes, or the dog may be emotionally stronger when all is calm, but over time with practice and care, we can lift the height of the water by empowering our dogs. To learn how, check out my book on Amazon by clicking the picture to the left.

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