Relieving stress, for you and your dog
A while back—actually it’s been a decade now—I started having trouble sleeping. Many of you may also have battled this annoying, potentially crazy-making phenomenon. Either I couldn’t fall asleep, or when I did, I would wake up somewhere around 2 a.m. and wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. So I would start every day already feeling exhausted, somehow manage to drag myself through it, fall into bed at night and — you guessed it — not be able to sleep.
This went on for several grueling months, until I finally sought the help of a doctor who specialized in sleep disorders. He sent me off to a psychologist for counseling, taught me some relaxation techniques, drastically reduced my caffeine intake. After several weeks of this, I returned for my follow-up appointment with dark circles under my eyes, looking more like a zombie than a human, and the doctor cheerfully pronounced, “Well, you’re a teacher. You probably have general anxiety disorder.” He prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, and I’ve been sleeping well most nights since.
My point in sharing this not-all-that-out-of-the-ordinary tale is that we live in a world that seems to have a neverending number of anxiety-producing experiences and expectations that I fear impact us all, whether we want them to or not. Had I not been a teacher, I may not have thought of it as all that stressful of a profession. But you try managing 25 to 30 children, many of whom are already living in chaos in their families, while trying to impart knowledge to them with the great hammer of state test scores poised over your head. Trust me, you will experience anxiety. And I’m sure that’s true of many professions besides teaching.
Since so many of us share our lives with companion animals, does our anxiety impact them? I won’t be able to say if there’s a causal relationship — I’m anxious and therefore my dog is anxious as well — but I can tell you that managing anxiety in dogs has become a goal of both animal behaviorists and veterinarians. I doubt if anyone of my parents’ generation worried about dear old Duke’s stress level. But that was then, this is now, and times have changed.
Dog Fancy magazine now features a supplement called Natural Dog, and the spring 2013 issue included an article titled “Natural Stress Relief” by Cathy M. Rosenthal, which deals specifically with anxiety in pooches. Since my dogs are hardly strangers to stress, I found parts of it helpful.
Most of the time, I can manage my dogs stress-related problems by simply avoiding situations that trigger stress. Higgly Piggly, my admittedly neurotic Havanese, does not enjoy situations involving new people or new dogs. I’ve tried a lot of rewards-based training and desensitization, and he has gotten slightly less miserable when he is out and about with me, but he never truly enjoys himself.
So now I leave him home except for his daily walk around our familiar block, and he seems quite content. For Blarney, my corgi, people, even complete strangers, are always a sweet treat to meet and greet — unless they happen to have another dog with them, at which point all hell breaks loose. This has been a much more challenging behavior to deal with, as there are a lot of dogs almost anywhere you go, and a dog that is aggressive towards other dogs can be quite unpleasant, even if he only stand 10 inches tall. So we keep working on it.
The Natural Dog article separates doggy anxiety into three categories — noise, separation and social. The first, of course, is why many of us dog owners have come to loathe the Fourth of July — the, I guess, obligatory fireworks transform many a normally happy dog into a panting, quivering, panicking pooch. At least we don’t live in an area where there are a lot of thunderstorms.
Separation anxiety can cause some dogs to go bananas anytime you are out of their sight. I haven’t had a lot of experience with this, but I understand that truly anxious dogs can be very destructive of property and even harm themselves when left alone, so it can be a major challenge for their owners.
Social anxiety, like what I described with Blarney and Higgly Piggly, is probably the more taxing of the three types, as you really have to be vigilant anytime your dog is out and about, to make sure you avoid situations that would further traumatize the dog or, in Blarney’s case, anyone else.
The good news is that there are a number of anxiety relieving solutions out there that we perplexed dog owners can avail ourselves of. Some of them cost money, some cost time, and none of them are 100 percent guaranteed. But many of them do help.
You a start by simply increasing the amount of exercise Fluffy gets, a tried and true method to reduce stress in many species. Of course, trying to figure out how to find more time to exercise your dog may increase your stress.
But you can get creative. Fifteen minutes at the dog park can tucker out a pooch as much as an hour’s walk. Or maybe there is a dogless child in your neighborhood who could be trusted to take Fluffy for a romp around the block. I have friends who swear by doggy daycare as a sure means to transform an anxious dog into a sleeping one, and there is one in town now.
Many animal behaviorists recommend training as a way to help dogs manage stress — maybe because it provides mental stimulation, or structure, or opportunities to bond with you, or all of the above. But training does seem to help, and if plain old obedience training doesn’t grab you, seek out agility training or flyball or any of the canine sports gaining popularity out there. Apparently, what you’re training isn’t that important.
Although most of us would like to avoid giving drugs to our dogs, don’t rule them out categorically. Some prescription medications can really help a dog suffering from anxiety. You may also want to explore homeopathic anti-anxiety supplements. As with much of the still fairly new field of holistic veterinary medicine, there’s not a lot of research that says certain herbal or nutritional supplements really make a difference, but a lot of fairly smart people swear by them.
Besides these, there are pressure wraps you can purchase at most pet stores to wrap your dog much like you would swaddle a baby. You can also buy sprays and plug-in diffusers that are supposed to add calming pheromones into the air your dog breathes. And you may have heard of Tellington Touch (T-touch) which is a type of massage that some practitioners claim reduces stress in dogs. I admit these all sound like gimmicks, but the wraps and diffusers can be returned if you don’t think they are effective, and you can check out a book on doggy massage from the library — so it can’t hurt to try.
If your dog is truly suffering from anxiety, you might also enlist the help of an experienced trainer to deal specifically with this issue. These people know about desensitization and behavior modification strategies beyond the scope of a regular training class and might be able to give both you and your dog some welcome relief.
As I’m finishing this, I look up to see all five of my dogs passed out cold in their various beds — actually, two of them are in my bed. At the moment, the anxiety level among the four-footed members of my family appears to be pretty low. I, however, have to get this typed and sent to the paper. Maybe I’m worrying about their stress when I should be worried about mine.
Nancy Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.