So there we were, me and my troubled dog. Why was she like this? What could I do to help her? After the somanyeth book that proclaimed yet another way of “fixing” a dog with such issues that didn’t really help me, I started going to seminars. TTouch was the first, and I was not too happy with it. The second one turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, it explained everything, opened my eyes and turned our world upside-down and inside-out. This one-day seminar was “Stress in training” by English dog trainer and chairwoman of the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe, Winkie Spiers.
So, what was so revolutionary about this seminar? It was the first time I encountered a different point of view in living with your dog. It’s not about: “What do I want from my dog and how can I get it from her?” It’s about: “What does my dog need in life and how can I give it to her?” The rest would follow … I had always realised that by taking a dog into my household, I become responsible for their well-being. But until then, I had never fully realised what that entailed. After this seminar, a lot of things changed in our home. Be warned, this is a long article 😉
We had an introduction to the subject of stress in dogs. Every time a dog (or a human, for that matter!) experiences a stressful event, adrenaline circulates in their bodies, and if the stressful event lasts for more than 10-15 minutes, adrenaline stops and the stress hormone cortisol comes in its place. What is experienced as a stressful event is entirely subjective, the argument “this is normal, it shouldn’t be causing me/you any stress” does not count. Cortisol takes a couple of hours to leave the body, but if that dog now experiences a stressful event several times a day, it never quite runs out. This is called chronic stress, and it has disastrous consequences, such as digestive issues, bad quality of sleep, lack of concentration and impaired ability to learn, anxiety and/or depression, cardiovascular diseases, pain (such as headaches) and more. It was clear to me right away that this affected not just Dana but also Corey … and myself. So we needed to break the cycle of perpetual stress, for all of us, and take the time to heal.
I learned that a puppy needs about 20 hours of sleep each day and an adult dog about 16. And that that sleep needs to be social sleep, not alone but in a group, so the dogs can feel safe. And that dogs are polyphasic sleepers – they sleep, they wake up, they go lie somewhere else, they fall asleep again. That’s the natural way for them, and it’s just not possible to do this if the dog is sleeping in a crate, in a separate room behind a closed door. So we changed the way we sleep, allowing the dogs in our bedroom, and we got rid of their crates. Corey made full use of that right away. He has been my loyal foot warmer every night since then. Dana chose to sleep within sight of us, but initially not in the same room. The door was open so she could come in if she wanted to.
This set-up helped us tackle two problems at once: the dogs slept better, feeling safe around us. More rest = less stress. Also, since I was accessible to her, Dana was able to alert me whenever she needed to go outside during the night, to pee, poo or eat grass (to help digestion). A huge relief for her. Albeit not for me. I didn’t have a full night’s sleep for about a year after that, until we discovered and cured her digestive issues. I didn’t fret about the lost sleep. I wasn’t exactly thrilled every time she woke me, but getting up every night – sometimes even more than once – was preferable to having a stressed-out dog in the house.
Another way of getting the dogs more sleep is to not have too much activity, and to make it a point not to get up when they’re sleeping, if at all possible, so as to not wake them.
I never realised this until Winkie mentioned it, but once you know this, you cannot stop noticing. We tell our dogs what do ALL the time!
Do this, don’t do that, walk right next to me, pee only when I tell you (!), stop sniffing that pole, sit here, lie down there, play with this dog, don’t approach that dog, sleep in that tiny space, don’t eat until I tell you to, come here and let me pat you, go away now. WOW! That is a lot to handle, especially since so many of the things they are told to do go against their nature.
If you’re told what to do all the time, how can you learn to act in a way that is both appropriate and satisfying during a difficult situation? It has been proven that lack of choices can lead to learned helplessness, which in turn leads to depression. Not what we want for our dogs!
So we started maximising our dog’s choices. Pick which chew they wanted to chew on, pick whether they wanted to go left or right during a walk, let them sniff however long they wanted to sniff. Let them choose where in the house they want to be, never tell them where to sleep. Let them go outside to do their business whenever they showed me they needed to go.
On a side note, I just had to interrupt writing this blog post because Dana asked to lie on my lap for a while. How could I ever say no to that? I’d be doing myself a disservice, I enjoy it so much when she chooses to be close to me. On this same note, I want to mention that even before Dana came to us, I did not believe in dominance. It is an important subject, but it does not figure in Dana’s story. So I would never deny my dogs anything for fear they might take over the “pack”, whatever that might mean. Another thing that doesn’t figure at all in this story is punishment. I’ve never believed in it and never intentionally used it. [/side note over]
Of course not all choices are theirs to make. They can’t eat their meaty bones on the sofa (ew!), and sometimes I just don’t have time to do something with them whenever they ask me for it. Sometimes the dogs they want to meet up close is showing signs of avoidance, so in order to protect the other dog, I will deny my own the chance to interact. That’s just life, you can’t always get what you want. But it’s always made clear to them in a gentle way.
I don’t tell them what to do, I ask them to do something, or not to do it. And even though they don’t understand the words “please” and “thanks”, I use them when interacting with my dogs. They serve as a reminder to me that I can’t take me dogs’ compliance for granted. “Dana, please go inside” when she had a pee pee break in the garden and I need to get back to work. “Thank you, Corey, we heard” when Corey is barking to alert us about something. If Dana really feels she isn’t done being outside right then, I won’t make her. If Corey really feels he needs to continue barking, he can. However, if Corey feels that he isn’t done licking the cutlery in the dishwasher, I will insist 😉
Another source of stress is not feeling safe. A good way of feeling safe is knowing what is going to happen next. So we started establishing routines. If the same thing happens every day at a certain time, or in a certain way, we all know what to expect and there is no need to stress. If I drop a couple of treats on the ground every time we get out of the car, nobody needs to get so excited that they jump into the lead. If I tell them “I’m going to toilet” every time I’m going to toilet, they know that they don’t need to get up. Nothing exciting is going to happen.
Safety for a dog is also: having your trusted human or a trusted fellow canine around. Having your human act with calm determination in a difficult situation. The latter remains a working point for me until present day. Though I’ve improved much over time, I still have more to learn in terms of not stressing. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is for my dogs, and for all dogs.
Dogs have evolved to be opportunistic scavengers. They eat what they can get, wherever and whenever they can find it. So it’s hard on them if they need to eat the same thing every day (i.e. the same old kibble and nothing else). Luckily, we didn’t need a big change in this department, we were already feeding our dogs raw, with a great variety of tastes, textures and nutrients.
I learned that chewing on and licking things has a calming effect on dogs, so we made it a point to give them something to chew on (bones, high-quality dried animal parts, but no rawhide) or lick (frozen Kongs) as often as possible, taking the calories of this into account when calculating the portions of regular meals.
I learned that repetitive exercise, such as fetching a ball over and over, or running beside a jogger/bicycle can cause stress. This makes sense, because the element of choice is removed. In a game of fetch (chasing a ball), the hormones take over and the dog simply keeps on doing it until the human stops throwing, or until the dog is physically incapacitated. When running together with a human, the dog has to run to keep up, and again, it lasts until the human stops or the dog drops. This can cause injury as well, which in turn leads to stress. In our case, we never did any running, and we stopped the games of fetch.
As an owner of an Australian Shepherd, I was repeatedly told that my dog needed TONS of physical exercise. It would make her tired, and she would calm down because of that. But I had tried that, and it simply didn’t happen. If anything, she became more wound up. For a long time, that didn’t make sense to me, because I knew that during physical exercise, endorphines are released, which should make you feel better. Until I read this article by Sarah Stremming about the fact that exercise can be tiring (which is a good thing, within reasonable limits), but it can also be taxing (which isn’t a good thing at all). That’s just it: for Dana, being out and about has always been taxing. To her, the world was scary and overwhelming at the time, and still is sometimes. The taxing element has always been stronger than the tiring one. Consequently, it makes much more sense to take her on small outings, in quiet places that she can handle. This provides less physical, but enough mental exercise, while not stressing her unduly.
Sniffing makes dogs calm down. So we do treat searches every day and our dogs love them. Just hide some treats around the house, or toss some in the grass in the garden, and the dogs are tired for a while.
We also do other kinds of mental exercise, but I will mention those in the coming instalments.
So these were some of the basic concepts that Winkie planted in my mind. I deepened my knowledge about these subjects through books and other speakers and dog trainers, and the changes we made had significant effects on our daily lives. Another thing I learned was that it takes about 10 months to a year to undo the effects of chronic stress starting from when the constant bursts of stress abate – which is something that doesn’t happen right away, even if you try. I will be talking about the first effects we experienced and about some more of the things that we did at the beginning of our de-stressing process in the next instalment.