Stress and tension can be as much an issue for dogs as for humans. By understanding what’s causing his stress, you can be better equipped to help him relax.
Stress comes in two forms: good stress, such as when you are newly in love or starting an exciting new job; and bad stress, which is brought on by fear, worry or anger. Either way, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and other chemicals into the bloodstream, causing the heart, lungs and blood pressure to “stand on the gas” and get ready to take action. When this happens, other things start to shut down. Digestion is slowed or inhibited, the immune system is depressed, and even growth, as in a puppy, can be stymied to conserve energy in case he needs to flee or fight. This same process also happens during aroused play.
Of course, the stress response was never intended to keep running for days on end. It evolved to help animals protect themselves or to flee from danger. This is not always an option when dogs are confined by leashes, doors and fences, or when the same stressors keep presenting themselves day after day, perhaps in the form of the mailman or visits to the dog park.
Constant adrenaline rushes can deplete the body of natural chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins, that help the dog calm down and relax. This depletion eventually generates physical and mental fatigue, which further stresses the body and mind and can even lead to muscle and brain atrophy if allowed to continue.
Stress reduction tips
There are a number of simple ways to reduce stress in your dog’s life.
- First and foremost, reduce your own stress! Learn to breathe deeply around your dog and allow him to actually hear your breath. This will help both of you relax.
- Respond, don’t react. Even if your dog just destroyed your favourite pillow, the solution calls for calm. If you pay attention to mistakes, you will get more of the same. It’s far better to take a deep breath and plan to manage or prevent these situations in the future.
- If you haven’t already done so, switch your dog to a high-end diet without corn, wheat or soy. This will help calm him from the inside. Studies also show that lowering the carbohydrates in your dog’s diet can help slow him down a notch or two.
- Add environmental enrichments to your dog’s world. Things like toys containing food (Kongs stuffed with treats, for example), pits for digging, wading pools and mental exercises such as clicker training and search games can help your dog re-channel some of his energy rather than do the things that drive you crazy.
- One of the simplest ways to encourage calmness is to reward it whenever you see it. If you see your dog resting quietly, take the opportunity to reward the behaviour. You can simply smile and say “good dog” in a quiet voice, walk by and drop a treat at his feet, or both. Make sure your voice is calm and resist making eye contact. This will give your dog the message that all he has to do to get your attention or a food reward is to kick back and relax!
Learn canine body language
You will really help your dog travel the road to calm behaviours by learning to understand and use the language canines understand best: body language. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has studied the physical behaviours and body language of dogs for many years. She coined the term “calming signals” when referring to the displacement behaviours dogs use to communicate with other dogs and humans. Unfortunately, humans don’t always grasp the meaning of these signals, which only adds to their dogs’ anxiety. “Nobody understands me,” is the underlying message from many dogs.
The most frequently used “calming behaviours” seen in dogs are:
Sniffing the ground
Scratching as if they have fleas, when you know they don’t
Shaking like a wet dog
Yawning — wide, sometimes shaky yawns
Multiple eye blinks
Averting eyes — not making direct eye contact
Doing something else – it might look like you are being ignored
Dogs use these behaviours to tell us and other dogs that they are uncomfortable or trying to resolve what is going on.
To further help your dog relax, you can “mirror” many of these calming behaviours back to him. For example, try yawning several times when your dog seems anxious. Don’t cover your mouth, since you want your dog to see the gesture. Most dogs will yawn back and start to settle down. For this approach to work, you need to detach yourself when you mirror these behaviours. Don’t make eye contact, and don’t touch or talk to your dog.
Balance is essential
It’s natural to assume that the more exercise you give your dog, the calmer he’ll become. In actual fact, trainers and behaviourists see many dogs that are “out of control” even though they’re getting lots of exercise each day. Many experts are now saying that balance is the key to keeping your dog in good physical condition. That way, you don’t add extra stress by over-taxing his body or encouraging high arousal states of play, both of which are capable of triggering a stress response. Providing a balance of mental and physical exercise is proving successful for many dogs that were once unable to get their impulses under control.
Stress affects us all, and our companion animals are no different. Recognizing it and implementing stress-reduction techniques not only helps dogs live longer and healthier lives but also strengthens the incredible canine-human bond.