Because there are so many causes and so many contributors to stress in dogs, there are many varied ways of alleviating it. From changes as simple as an adjustment in diet to as complex as finding the most effective anti-anxiety medication, knowing the right course of action isn’t easy, but here are some avenues to investigate.
There is much truth to the tenet: “You are what you eat”. Dogs need to be on a high-quality diet for their best physical, behavioral, and emotional health. Many dogs thrive on a raw diet, but if you’d prefer using a dry food:
• Look for foods that have a meat source (e.g. “chicken”) first in the ingredient list.
• Because a whole meat (e.g. “chicken”) contains a lot of water, it’s ideal if the second or third ingredient in the list is a specific meat meal (e.g. “turkey meal”). If the only other animal protein is much later in the list, it does not actually contain much animal protein.
• Avoid foods that contain by-products (either specific or general) early in the ingredient list.
• And avoid corn at all costs! Corn is a simple sugar, which no dog needs. Some dogs fairly vibrate when there’s corn in their diet.
Another much loved tenet is: “A tired dog is a good dog.” No doubt you know from your own experience that physical exercise is a great stress reliever, so include exercise in your dog’s daily routine. The morning is especially important for a dog who is going to be spending the day alone while you’re at work. Even during the dog days of summer, there are indoor exercises you can do to stretch and strengthen your dog. Check with your vet about how much exercise is appropriate for your dog.
One reason there is such a prevalence of behavior problems in pet dogs is that they have so little mental challenge; they need to have work to do! Providing them mental calisthenics through training and by using puzzle toys (such as the Kong toy) can be a great way to employ our dogs.
Anxiety and playful feelings cannot exist in the same organism at the same time, so if you can elicit playful behavior from your dog in what might be an otherwise stressful situation, you can reframe that situation. For instance, some dogs are concerned about car rides, but if you can begin to associate their favorite game of fetch with tennis balls, first near the car, then perhaps through the back seats of the car, then in one open back seat and out again, etc, gradually increasing the stimulus of the experience of a car ride, you can decrease the anxiety associated with it. This is called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Tricks that Calm
Training a dog to do a naturally occurring behavior on cue can be very helpful, particularly when that behavior is one that induces a happy, calm state. As a human example, don’t you find it difficult to stay mad at someone after they make you laugh? Just the act of laughing affects your emotional and physical state. Blinking is another such a behavior.
At the start, reinforce for just a lazy eye, where the lids droop just a bit, not even a full blink. You’ll find that your dog starts to soften her eyes and blink more often. You may even notice her starting to look sleepy!
When blinking becomes a frequent and intentional behavior, give the verbal cue “Blink!” and reinforce when your pup responds by blinking. Now, with good cue control, you have a way of influencing your dog’s state of mind by affecting calm rather than anxiety.
On Thursday, there will be a follow-up article on more ways of calming an anxious dog. So give a peek back!