We all know what stress is and how it affects us and those around us. The slow pace of Covid and the subsequent couple of years seems to be a thing of the past and life is back to normal and moving at a faster pace than ever before. Work is demanding, social events are in full swing, and it feels like there is never enough time in the day to get things done. To deal with these stressors, people may vent to a friend, have a glass of wine or go for a jog.
What we all too often forget is that our dogs can feel or become stressed as well. Moving, changing jobs or having a baby are major moments in our dog’s lives, not just our own, so in times like these we need to pay extra attention to see if our furry friends are showing signs of stress.
Stress represents itself very differently in pets than in humans and since they cannot verbalise when they are feeling stressed, we are left to look for subtle signs and changes in our pet’s behaviour. Signs to look out for are pacing, shaking, excessive barking, destructive behaviour, licking, panting and hiding.
So, while our pets may not be able to sit down with us and decompress with a G&T, there are a few things we can do to help them relieve their stress.
Have you ever noticed that after having an especially heated phone conversation or maybe even a disagreement with your partner that your pet is sitting in a corner shaking or hiding under the bed? Our pets might not understand what is going on but they can pick up on the energy. So if you are coming home highly strung and anxious, chances are your pet will start acting that way as well. Practicing some mindful self-care and relaxation techniques are essential to reducing life’s everyday stressors because you can’t take care of your pets, if you don’t take care of yourself first.
You are all probably tired of me going on about physical and mental exercise, but this the basis to a happy, healthy dog and can help prevent so many unwanted behaviours. Just like in humans, exercise triggers your dog’s brain to produce and release endorphins. Endorphins make your dog feel euphoric, calm and lower anxiety and stress. Remember, you don’t have to go on a 5km run for your dog to produce endorphins. Mental stimulation in the form of enrichment games, toys etc. do the exact same thing. According to experts a 20 minute ‘sniffari’ is equal to an hours walk!
If your dog’s stressors are environmental (loud noises, large crowds, other dogs), then simply avoid these situations all together. If you cannot avert the situation such as a drive in the car to the vet, then give your dog something else to think about. Just like you would give a child a lollipop when getting an injection, providing your dog with high value treats when meeting a new person or a durable chew while driving in the car will distract your pet and help ease their stress and anxiety.
The act of touch can be incredibly soothing for both you and your pet. It not only strengthens your bond, but it lowers the heart rate and releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone. There are various ways you can use physical touch to calm your dog. If your doggo is open to cuddling this is a great way for them to feel safe and secure wrapped in your arms, to help release tension and relax their muscles you can give your dog a massage and then something as simple as intentional petting can reduce feelings of anxiety. Long, slow gentle strokes from the head to the tail will have them in a blissful state of relaxation in no time.
It’s important to remember that every dog is different and they have their own preferences when it comes to being touched. Some may not like their heads or paws touched due to a past trauma so touching them there would have the opposite effect and actually increase their stress levels.
• A Safe Space
If your pet is highly anxious, having a safe space for them to retreat to when things are overwhelming is a must. See where they naturally gravitate to (under the bed, in a cupboard) and create a zone for them. Chances are it will be a covered, dark corner, so kit it out with a nice bed and comfy blanket and allow them to decompress in their own time.
For my cats, this is my cupboard. I have lost a few precious shelves to cat beds, but I know when they are scared, this is where I can find them.
• Calming Therapies
Fun fact: I am a firm believer in alternative therapies and use them on a daily basis for my pets. Methods you can employ to help calm your pets using in a natural holistic way are playing soothing music/white noise (there are actual playlists designed just for dogs), aromatherapy, calming supplements, even acupuncture.
A lot of essential oils are harmful/toxic to pets so please do your research thoroughly and consult with your vet before using any other treatments, especially if your pet is on prescription medication.