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