The big A word; anxiety!
It seems to be the word on everyone’s mind when it comes to the heavy paced world we live in today. A world that is filled with unpredictability and poor controllability makes for a world that can be very stressful for human beings, particularly those predisposed to it (almost 15% of the population). Now imagine that you existed in this world, but this time you were not human, but instead you were an animal whose entire existence depended on a human. That is what I call stress! And, it is no wonder that as we suffer from anxiety, our dogs follow suit. Sadly, in many ways, our dogs suffer even more so because they are never fully in control no matter what they do. Their welfare is entirely up to us.
In my role as an animal behaviourist, anxiety is the most common cause of unwanted behaviours. So, when training your dog to be better behaved, whether that be walking alongside you on a lead, reducing their barking or not digging up the backyard, it pays to ask yourself ‘why’ they are doing it in the first place. How is your dog feeling? What sort of temperament does your dog have? Are you pushing their limits? Are you observing the signs of anxiety? To me, the most important and successful approach to dog training is applying empathy. If we start to ask ourselves why our dog is suffering and what part we are playing in it, we can start to understand how to resolve issues and move forward.
So, to get you started with some practical assistance, here are 10 tips that will help to change the way you see your dog as well as help change the way your dog sees the world.
I always talk about this place, which is critical to the wellbeing of your dog. Everyone deserves to feel safe, particularly when resting, or in times of uncertainty. Ensure you have a warm, quiet place near you that your dog feels safe in. This place cannot be accessed by children and is a place where your dog will instinctively turn to in times of need.
When a dog is busy focusing on something positive, they are more confident. Allow your dog to find their food through treat dispensers and practice fun obedience games with them. The more purpose they have, the better they feel inside.
Positive Focus Games
There are so many great mental games you can play with your dog, that don’t require much preparation or time. Hide n seek, scent detection games, tricks and obedience challenges are all opportunities for your dog to focus and have their focus reinforced through your attention, praise, food and play.
With physical exercise comes a release of great brain chemicals, that can make us feel more energised and positive. Any chance you have to get your dog moving within their limits, take that opportunity. Dogs (and humans) need physical exercise every single day, so make sure you find the time to invest in this essential part of your routine together.
Keep this consistent and predictable as much as you can. Moving to a new house, travelling, or even changing your working hours can leave your dog unsure of what to expect. When life is unpredictable, anxiety naturally creeps in. The more consistent your routine is, the more relaxed your dog will feel.
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Don’t forget to have fun with your dog! Sometimes half an hour of physical and mental play in the backyard together is better than a run around the block. Don’t be afraid to mix up your dog’s exercise regime and keep things interesting for you both. The more play you engage in together, the better your bond will be and the more positive your dog will feel.
Change the Association
If there are things you have identified that your dog is anxious about, consider changing your dog’s perception of the anxiety provoking stimulus. For example, if they are anxious around other dogs, apply empathy and find a distance they are comfortable and positive at, and offer them high value rewards for looking at another dog. Please only attempt these sorts of behaviour changes under the guidance of a qualified and experienced behaviourist, or veterinary behaviourist.
Patience and Time
Slow down and breathe. Sometimes, it takes a while for a dog’s anxiety to settle and that is perfectly fine. We all learn at different paces and our thresholds for stress are varied. Get to know who your dog is and work within their limitations rather than your expectations.
Leading on from the last tip, start to think more from your dog’s point of view and their capacity to deal with their anxieties. Move your expectations closer to your dog’s limitations and work together to achieve a common goal. Sometimes, you may not achieve the goal you set out to. That doesn’t mean that you have failed, but rather the goal post was not positioned properly in the first place.
In combination with behaviour change, some medication can be effective in contributing the alleviation of anxiety. Always discuss this with your trusted behaviourist or veterinarian prior and make a decision on what is best for your dog.
Lastly, research into mental health in humans shows a correlation between diet and depression/anxiety. A low carbohydrate and low protein diet can contribute to poorer mental health as much of the serotonin (the neurotransmitter linked to improving anxiety and depression symptoms) is made in the gut. Without good gut health, there may be a risk of poorer health elsewhere. Although humans and dogs have different dietary needs, it helps to consider that what you are feeding your dog may be contributing to how they are feeling in both body and mind. It helps to always think a little outside the square.
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