Looking after your dog’s mental wellbeing
This week highlights the importance of looking after your mental wellbeing, but what about your dog’s mental wellbeing how, can we help them?
Dogs are a great part of any family dynamic but it is important to help balance both their physical and mental wellbeing.
There are many dogs who can find the world a scary and stressful place to live and may be reactive towards certain things such as other people, dogs, traffic, noises they may be worried about been left on their own for periods of time. There is a huge scale of how this can affect dogs as every dog is different and may be affected in different ways including how they display their emotions. Behaviours displayed can range from bolting away from something, freezing, to barking, lunging or trying to bite the scary thing that is near them.
It can be very misleading when you see a dog barking and lunging at something and can look really aggressive or threatening but more often than not it is the dog showing that it can’t cope with the situation that they are in. If your dog is struggling with reactivity it can be really stressful for the owner too as we want our dogs to be able to navigate the world without feeling the need to react.
So how can we help our reactive dog?
It is important to look at why they are displaying the behaviour. There are so many influencing factors that could be driving the behaviour and it is important to look at the underlying emotions to what is going on with your dog.
It is often recommended to avoid the things that scare your dog, but this can be really difficult especially if they are worried about multiple things. However, exposing them to scary things in a way that they can deal with can help to create positive associations around it.
The easiest way to approach this is to create a diary and look at your dog’s base behaviour before training so you can look at how close can they be to the scary thing before they start reacting, how long does it take them to recover, what body language are you seeing? What do you do when your dog reacts? The diary means you can see the progress you are making when starting with a behaviour modification plan.
There are three things that naturally help relax a dog these are: Sniffing, chewing and licking incorporating these activities into your training will massively help your dog. They are so easy to incorporate too.
Give your dog regular breaks so that they can relax whilst they are out on their walk. Stress hormones, known as cortisol, can stay in a dog’s system for up to three days so if your dog has had a hard day it is worth trying to give them a break or day off so their hormone levels get a chance to recover. This can be done in many ways including booking a secure dog park so you can both relax together.
If a dog is reactive towards things, more often than not the owner will start tensing up as well, when they see things, they anticipate a reaction too. This can actually make the situation worse as the dog will pick up on their owner's tension which may make it more likely for them to react. Which makes it a vicious cycle! It is so important to be able to relax and help your dog if it needs it.
Build in behaviours to help give your dog space, like emergency U turns, as space will help. Yes, it sounds like you are avoiding the situation (which you are) however, the more a dog practices something the stronger the behaviour becomes so by creating space, we're trying to help the dog not perform the behaviour in the first place.
It is OK to reassure your dog! If your dog reacts it is important to remember that it is an emotion and you cannot reinforce an emotional response.
Do not correct your dog for displaying a reactive behaviour – It can be hard not to tell your dog off for displaying reactive behaviour and historically methods have shown that correcting the behaviour can ‘fix’ the problem. However, if your dog is scared of something and is corrected for it it can in fact make the scary situation even worse. Not only are they fearful of something, but their owner is also correcting them too which can amplify the situation for the dog. Some dogs may stop displaying the reactive response through corrections, but it does not change the underlying emotions that they are feeling.
There are many training techniques that can help with a reactive dog ranging from free work, T -touch, using relaxing and calming oils to help reset, and many more. Every dog is different so it may take a little exploring to find out which suits your dog the best.
If you are not sure what direction to go in please reach and ask any questions that will help you help your dog.