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Archive for October, 2015

Arousal And Recovery

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

No, I’m not talking about sex! The arousal in dogs that matters to pet owners and trainers is the sort that leads to hyperactivity, barking, jumping, over reactivity, and even biting. It can also show up as fearful escape, shrinking back and shutting down. On a physiological level, our dogs react in exactly the same way we do to events that trigger the body’s fight or flight response – a sophisticated chemical reaction of hormones and neurotransmitters that can save our lives. At modest levels, arousal improves performance and enhances learning. But at higher levels or over prolonged periods learning is impeded, fine motor skills deteriorate, and that brain chemical cascade starts damaging cells. Which brings us to the recovery stage. It takes time for the body to process and “dump” those brain chemicals once the crisis has passed. Depending on the dog (or person) and the degree of arousal, it can take several hours to several days for the arousal chemicals to subside and the recovery chemicals to rise to create a healthy balance. Once arousal chemicals are elevated, it takes less and less stimulation (triggering events) to elicit another reaction and each episode further elevates arousal. The interesting thing about arousal is that it feels good and the body can become addicted to the high it gets from those arousal chemicals – know any thrill seeking humans? Same idea in dogs.

For real recovery to happen we have to be able to turn off or avoid the things that trigger the arousal for long enough that the body can detox and find a healthy balance again. You know the importance of taking vacations and likely have a few relaxation routines for yourself. Perhaps you have learned to avoid checking your email before bed and screen your phone calls to avoid certain stress triggers. But how can you help your dog avoid his triggers and maintain a healthy balance of arousal and recovery? Like us, some dogs are addicted to the high they get from arousal. Others are extremely sensitive to their environment and get highly aroused by stuff that another dog would barely notice. They may bark at anything that moves, run the fence, or dive for cover at any sharp noise. These dogs are often rigid in their bodies, move too much or not enough, and may not sleep deeply through the night. It’s miserable and unhealthy for them to be on edge all the time.

Here are some ways you can help your stressed out pooch:

  • Reduce access to triggers – cover windows, close doors/windows, supervise yard time, take walks at quieter times of the day, change fencing/gates, use white noise to cover external sounds, etc.
  • Teach relaxation skills – “Relax on a mat” (Chill Out Fido by Nan Arthur) and Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol are a good place to start. Remember that dogs pick up on our energy too, so if you want your dog to relax you will need to relax as well. Breathe deeply, shake out your muscles, have a seat. Model relaxation for your dog.
  • Provide stress relieving activities – Chewing is one way dogs relieve stress so give them plenty of appropriate chew items. Rhythmic movement also helps so a brisk walk or trot for 15-20 minutes is a good idea, provided you can avoid triggers when doing so.
  • Engage their brains – Problem solving activities promote thoughtful concentration which helps tire them out in a non-arousing way. Examples include “find it”, food puzzle toys, hide and seek, and slowly working an obstacle course. Google “Sprinkles” for details on a new twist on a scent game. Your trainer can help you with a variety of games that teach your dog self-control.
  • Keep any training sessions short and non-aversive to avoid adding more stress.
  • Quality rest – Naps in a crate or quiet room may be necessary to help them achieve the deep REM sleep needed for recovery and cellular repair.
  • Quality nutrition – Food plays a critical role in how dogs feel as well as how they behave. Make sure you are feeding the highest quality, most natural food you can afford and avoid feeding anything (even treats and chews) with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.
  • Added support – TTouchⓇ, massage, a ThundershirtⓇ or Anxiety WrapⓇ, flower essences, Chinese herbs, acupuncture/pressure, homeopathy, essential oils, energy work, and the D.A.P. diffuser can all be useful aids in helping dogs relax. The nutritional supplements lactium and L-Theanine can help relax dogs with anxiety and sound sensitivity issues. Both are available in chewable form from your vet. In severe cases your vet may suggest anti-anxiety medication to be used in conjunction with your behavior modification plan.

Dogs with arousal issues can be a challenge to live with at times. But with proper management and stress reduction methods, most can lead much calmer, healthier and happier lives. Daily relaxation sessions are a practice that will benefit both you and your dog

The Art of Self-Control

Monday, October 19th, 2015

While I often hear people wishing their dog would “chill out”, mastering self-control is a two way street.  Dogs are opportunistic by nature.  Without training most will “throw themselves” at stuff they want.  This can lead to door barging, jumping on people, counter-surfing, etc.  However, humans are often guilty of poor self-control around dogs as well.  Commonly there are the “dog lovers” who are so focused on what they want from the dog (affection, attention) that they engage in excessive greeting (talking and petting) without regard to the dog’s behavior.  Another camp gets easily frustrated by the dog’s boisterousness or failure to respond promptly to a cue.  This frustration comes though in their voice and body language.  Both types of human behavior tend to whip dogs into more of a frenzy.   How can both dogs and humans learn to “get a grip”?

Humans

Just because we love dogs doesn’t mean we get to to interact wit
h them at will without regard to how they feel about the interaction.  Like any relationship, there are two sides to it.  We need to take a moment to (at least mentally) ask the dog “how is this for you?”  Remember that dogs do what “works” for them.  So if jumping, grabbing, bolting, stealing, etc. gets you up and moving and interacting with them, in some way the dog is rewarded for these behaviors and will continue doing them.  You may love dogs, but the attention you give may be working at cross purposes to your desires for good behavior.  Take a moment to consider what you want your dog TO DO.  What behaviors are you “paying for” with your attention?  Are those behaviors you like?  If so, great.  Keep up the good work!  However, if you aren’t thrilled about the behaviors you have been rewarding, stop paying the dog for them.  I’ve mastered the “can’t see you, can’t hear you” approach to poor dog behavior.  Stand up, fold your arms, lift your chin and wait for the dog to collect himself.  In some cases, you may have to leave the room and enter more calmly only when the dog has calmed.  As long as the dog remains calm you may look, touch, and talk, but do so in a way that promotes calmness – slow movements, soft voice, calm demeanor.  The instant the dog “loses it”, remove your attention only to return it when the dog has calmed.  Be patient if the dog is working out the problem of how to get your attention.

Dogs

They usually love us as much as we love them, but all that excitement, coupled with a human that attends to it, can really whip a dog up.  Remember, their behavior is often a reflection of what YOU do.  Practice specific self-control exercises with your dog.  “Wait” is one of my favorite.  It’s just a moment, but I ask for “waitSmooch 3mo” to exit the kennel, leave the house or car, and to eat meals.   You can also incorporate “wait” into the games you play and things like “getting dressed” in a harness and leash.  I use “wait” to mean “don’t move forward”.  The dog doesn’t have to “sit” first, but many find it easier to wait when sitting.  Gradually expand the difficulty of your “wait” exercises as your dog learns that showing self-restraint is the fastest way to get stuff he wants.  Other self-control exercises include the eye contact game and “leave it” games like Doggie Zen and It’s Your Choice.  You can ask for a small amount of restraint before giving the dog anything of value (access to a dog friend, walk, car ride, ball game, etc.)  The more consistent you are with your “works”/”doesn’t work” feedback to the dog, the faster he will learn self-control.  As part of self-control exercises it is important that your dog has a release word – a cue that tells him when he is free to “go for it” and “be a dog”.  Many people say “okay”, but I prefer “ding” or “break” as they are less common in our normal usage.  Choose what works for you.

When you mindfully reward behavior you like and refrain from inadvertently rewarding undesirable behaviors, both you and your dog will be happier and calmer.  This leads to more harmony, gentleness, and clear communication.

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