On average, people spend 2 and ½ hours stressing each and every day. Studies have shown that we are all susceptible to stress, particularly when combining a career, relationship and lifestyle is most novel. Life throws everything at us as soon as we reach adulthood, and the older we get, the more overwhelming it can feel.
High levels of stress and anxiety can compound into poor health, with good eating habits and exercise routines most commonly falling to the bottom of our priority list. Life can be tough and at least half of us are reporting to have or have had an experience of overwhelming stress and anxiety. It seems that with this knowledge, humans are the ones who are struck with the highest cases of poor mental health amongst all sentient animals. I would have agreed with this statement when studying animal science at university many years ago, but then I got to know another species who to this day, I believe suffers far more than we do. These animals are our dogs.
Not only are dogs faced with daily stressors such as finding warmth, food, water and companionship, this stress is usually completely uncontrollable. It is the owner who decides on the dog’s daily fate; whether they will eat, explore, be comfortable and engaged in life, and often there is nothing that dog can do about it. Now that’s what I call stress!
As a canine behaviourist, I want to reshape our view of dog behaviour and start looking at our own behaviour first! We are usually the major cause of our dog’s stress and anxiety, because we are the ones controlling their environment. If our dog is afraid of thunderstorms, we are the ones who decide if they will be allowed inside for safety. If our dog is anxious around other dogs, we are the ones who decide how they should behave when faced with an unruly lab at the local park. We seem to inadvertently set our dogs up for failure and as a result, we have what I would call the most stressed canines in history!
Whilst we all love our dogs, we need to be open to giving them love from their perspective and one of the first ways to do this is to be able to recognise the signs of stress and anxiety in our dogs. Here are some tips to help you get to know what your dog’s really thinking.
1. First and foremost, ALWAYS put your dog in a situation where they feel positive rather than anxious.
Don’t set them up for failure if and when you can help it.
2. Read the body language.
Look out for;
Tail between legs
Yawning, nose licking
Piloerection (hair standing up on back)
Lunging, growling, barking
Pulling on lead towards or away from something they are afraid of
Mounting another dog or object
3. Create predictable and positive routines for your dog.
The more your dog can predict when good things are going to happen, the more confident they are. For example, mat training can help reduce the separation anxiety in dogs, but gradually increasing the amount of time they stay on their mat. Rejoice and reward the amount of time they stay there by returning to them and giving them lots of treats. This becomes a safe place for them that they enjoy being on and can predict the consequences of.
4. Seize the good moments.
Stop focusing on the stuff you don’t want your dog to do. When we gravitate towards the unwanted behaviours, our relationship can break down, making our dog feel stressed and anxious. Focus on the 50 things your dog does that are good. There are when your dog is;
5. Exercise your dog more often each day.
Exercise is shown to increase positive chemicals in the brain including endorphins, seratonin and dopamine. These are natural feel good chemicals that help to reduce stress and anxiety. Both dogs and people are positively affected by exercise. The more physical and mental exercise we do, the better we both feel. When are more positive, our relationships benefit as well.
Once we understand how our dog is truly feeling, we can begin to provide them with the love and care they need. When your dog learns that you are listening to them and responding to their emotions, their behaviour will change and their happiness will increase. And what’s even more encouraging, so will yours!
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