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Stress Series: What can we do about stress? (Part 3 of 3)

Part 1 of our stress series examined the definition of stress, while Part 2 looked at its causes and symptoms. The most important question when discussing stress, however, is what can we actually do about it? There is no magic remedy for stressed dogs. Stress cannot be removed through training or lots of exercise. We need to identify as many stress factors as possible, and reduce or remove the number of these that the dog is regularly exposed to. We also need to consider what our dog needs in terms of mental stimulation, exercise, sleep, companionship, diet and lifestyle to ensure that he is happy and healthy. The first thing to do is to take away the possibility for our dog to react. For example, if our dog lunges at dogs or people who are too close, we need to avoid situations where we cannot offer the dog an alternative. We can start by going to wide open spaces where we can be far enough away and curve in ample time to allow the dog to learn. We continue doing this, gradually reducing the distance, until the dog is able to cope. Another example will be at home – every time we get up to go somewhere (even just to get a cup of tea) we should use a hand signal (a relaxed palm facing the dog low down - not a ‘stop’ or ‘sit’ signal). This tells the dog that there is nothing to worry about so he does not need to move. To build his self-confidence, we need to give our dog choices within set boundaries. By boundaries I mean making sure we do not have a free for all without any manners in place. We need to make sure we teach our dogs to be polite, show them what is acceptable, whilst making sure that we are consistent. A curious dog is a healthy dog.

We should not control him all the time. Before asking the dog to do something we should ask ourselves why? We control so much of their lives - we decide when, where and for how long they exercise. We usually control the speed at which they are allowed to walk; when, where and what they eat; with whom they live; when and where they pee and poo. Dogs are the only animal on earth not allowed to choose when and where they can toilet! We need to spend much more time observing our dogs to become aware of how they feel in different situations without expecting them to fit into our world all the time.

We should be a good parent and protect our dog at all times. We need to observe him and watch his calming signals. How does he react when we cuddle him, when we have visitors or when we get ready to take him out for a walk? Does he bark, pant or lick his lips? Observing him will allow us to identify if things are getting too much. Equally, we should not be over-protective towards him. He will need to be exposed to different places and situations to learn to cope with life.

Many dogs do not get enough good quality sleep. Puppies need around 16 to 20 hours sleep a day and adult dogs 14 to 18 hours. We need to make sure that wherever they sleep they feel safe and nothing can interfere with them. Unless absolutely necessary we should not disturb a sleeping dog. Dogs are what is known as ‘polyphasic’ sleepers – they will choose somewhere to sleep for a while before getting up and moving somewhere else. This is normal and instinctive behaviour so we need to give our dogs enough choices: sofas, beanbags, rugs, sheepskins, blankets and different types and sizes of dog beds spread around the house. For proper REM sleep they need to be able to lie flat so space is very important. Dogs are social animals. They normally like to sleep with company. Occasionally, especially in multi-dog households, they may need to have the opportunity to sleep alone and in peace, should they want to. Mental stimulation is NOT the same thing as physical stimulation. Many preach ‘a tired dog is a good dog’, but most of the time you will just end up with a very fit dog who is understimulated mentally. Balance is the key and we therefore need to look at our daily routine – how much, how often and what type of exercise?

We should allow our dog to be with other dogs. The best way to do this is to have regular social walks, which don't involve lots of rough play. Whether our walks are with others or not they should be gentle, long lead sniffing walks in different and new places at a slow pace. We walk much too fast and don't allow our dogs to check their pee-mails often enough! Assuming it is safe, we should allow our dogs off lead time as well. We can sit and enjoy the view and allow our dogs to use their natural curiosity. This is much more beneficial than a brisk walk or mad running around, chasing sticks and balls or each other. We have a tendency to walk our dogs for too long – 30 to 40 minutes a day for a grown dog is more than enough. It is worth noting that the breathing pattern for sniffing is different from normal breathing. Normal breathing is suspended while a dog is sniffing, which means a panting dog is unable to engage its sense of smell as effectively. A dog that is racing around or stressed will not be interacting with his environment nearly as well.

We can introduce our dog to enriched environments both through different objects in our house and different areas when out walking. We should not just have walks in the park, but should also visit car parks, fields, farms, street walks, beaches etc. Our imagination is the limit. We can encourage our dog to search for objects. Again this can be done in the house, the garden or when out on a walk but we need to monitor and make sure the stress levels remain low. If our dog is searching in the house or an enclosed area, he can do this on his own. If he is outside, you can use a long lead if recall is a concern.

We should endeavour to have something for our dog to chew for an hour or two every day. Licking and chewing is a normal and instinctive behaviour, which makes the dog feel good. It is good for his teeth and is very calming. Chewing on food related things such as raw bones, antlers, pizzles, cow hooves, filled Kongs, carrots, rawhides, beef ears, dried sweet potato etc. are all great depending on what suits the individual dog. We can do treat searches, brain games and organise gentle obstacle courses for him. We can use the natural environment to climb over or under, to balance, to weave etc. and when in the house we can use kitchen chairs, tables and anything we can think of.

We can introduce our dog to tracking. To start we lay a track with something for the dog to eat at the end. Initially, the dog sees the track being laid over easy terrain and over a short distance. We allow the dog to smell something belonging to the person, and allow him to track until he finds his food reward as well as either the person or something (large to start with) belonging to the person. As our dog gets better at this, we can increase the difficulty. A food reward should not be used more than 2 or 3 times. Tracking is done with the dog on a harness and long lead. We simply follow the dog at a relaxed pace and allow the dog to use his nose. We need to look at our dog’s diet – is it appropriate and healthy? This may change with age or due to things such as illness or whelping. We could take our dog to visit a fully qualified osteopath to check for stiffness in the body, even if there is no obvious sign of pain or discomfort (I recommend a yearly check-up). Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP), massage, Tellington Touch (TT), Dr. Bach flower and herbal remedies as well as homeopathic treatments have also been seen to help. Although there are no scientific studies to support their use, some owners have observed positive changes in their dogs. If you believe there is no fundamental reason for your dog to be stressed, it may be a good idea to have the vet check the thyroid and test for hypothyroidism. An expert in this area, Dr Jean Dodds stipulates that “hypothyroid patients have reduced cortisol clearance, and the constantly elevated levels of circulating cortisol mimic the condition of an animal in a constant state of stress, as well as suppressed TSH output and production of thyroid hormones. In humans and seemingly in dogs, mental function is impaired”. In Conclusion We should always remember that the key to a happy and healthy dog is balance. Too much or too little of anything is not good so we should not overwhelm our dog - most of the time just let him be and allow him to make choices. This will create a relationship based on mutual respect, love and trust with no place for gadgets, punishment or violence. Sources and recommended reading International Dog Trainer Education, 2012/13. Turid Rugaas On talking terms with dogs: Calming Signals, 2006. Turid Rugaas Barking, the sound of a language, 2008. Turid Rugaas My dog pulls- What do I do? 2005. Turid Rugaas How to handle living with your dog, 2009 Winkie Spiers Understanding the silent communication of Dogs, 2011. Rosie Lowry The Canine Kingdom of Scent, 2012. Anne Lill Kvam Playtime for your dog, 2006. Christina Sondermann Stress in Dogs, 2007. Martina Scholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt Sally Hopkins ( Bones would rain from the sky, 2002 Suzanne Clothier Bonding with your dog, 2009. Victoria Schade Inside of a dog, 2009. Alexandra Horowitz In defence of dogs, 2011. John Bradshaw The emotional lives of animals, 2007, Dr Mark Bekoff, PhD Why zebras don’t get ulcers, 2004. Robert M. Sapolsky Adrenal fatigue, the 21st century Stress Syndrome., 2001. J. L Wilson ND, DC, PhD. The Canine Thyroid Epidemic, 2011. W. Jean Dodds, DVM Marina Gates Fleming is a canine consultant working in Belgium.

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