Source: Australian Dog Lover
What to change in your home life to decrease your dog’s overall stress level
Owning a reactive dog is a challenge that makes life tricky in many ways. You might have to prepare every walk in detail (where to go – how many other dogs and people to expect – where to escape if your dog crosses his threshold), have a meticulous plan in place if you need to leave your dog with a sitter or put your dog in a room at the other end of the house every time company comes over.
The stress of the dog pairs with the stress of his owner, and together you can quickly get into a spiral of being anxious and somewhat on edge most of the time.
While no dog trainer has a magic approach that will make your dog’s reactivity disappear, there are a number of small but impactful changes you can implement in your daily life to lower your dog’s general stress level. Reactivity is very much enhanced by existing stress, so making a deliberate attempt every day to reduce your dog’s stress will be very helpful.
A Holiday from Stress
In reactive dogs, we should strive to give them a holiday from stress as much as possible. Of course, in many cases we cannot prevent them from encountering their triggers every now and then.
However, dogs actually “put up” with a lot of small stressors every day that we might chalk up to normal life.
Think about your dog’s day-to-day behaviour:
Is there anything happening around the house that irritates him? Is there an easy solution to avoid these situations?
I, for example recently had a client whose reactive dog was really triggered by construction vehicles that drove by the house every morning at 8am. He started his day already jacked up on adrenaline from this morning stress, and every encounter with triggers later in the day was made worse by it.
For him, we made sure that she put him into the room furthest away from the road well before 8am with something to chew. This small change completely took care of the “morning truck tantrum” and made the dog’s rest of the day much more relaxed.
Chewing is a vastly underappreciated activity for adult dogs. While every dog owner realizes that puppies need to chew a lot, we tend to not be as mindful when it comes to providing ample chewing opportunities to grown-up dogs.
Chewing (and licking as well) are very calming activities for dogs. In fact, we often see reactive and stressed dogs attempt to self-soothe by licking their toes, chewing on their feet or even giving themselves hotspots as they nibble away at their skin.
I recommend that every dog that struggles with reactivity and anxiety chews for at least one hour every day, better two or more. If you try this, you will usually see a change in your dog’s overall demeanour within a week.
Perfect chew items are hollow rubber toys such as from the Kong brand or similar. You can fill them with any kind of puree (you can use soaked kibble, raw food, pureed pumpkin, yoghurt …) and freeze them.
That way you have a refillable, affordable chew option always available for your dog.
In addition to providing these every day, it can be useful to give these to your reactive dog after he has experienced a triggering episode to help him calm down.
Scatter-feeding is a highly effective way to calm dogs down and provide them with low-key mental exercise.
Sniffing itself is very relaxing for dogs – just a few minutes of sniffing can lower your dog’s heart rate by 5-10 bpm!
We can make our dogs sniff by scattering their food instead of giving it to them in a bowl. When you scatter your dog’s food, make sure to actually cover a rather large surface with it. The most common mistake I see in owners who try this is that they put all the food into one place. Spread it out! You can pretend that you are putting out wildflower seeds.
The more ground you cover, the more your dog will need to use his nose to search for the food, and the more he sniffs, the calmer he will get.
Nosework actually is a quite tiring activity for dogs, and this will not only relax your dog but also tire him out without the “high” dogs get from physically challenging exercise (such as playing fetch).
Dogs that are always a bit on edge and anxious tend to not take regular naps. As carnivores, they are not made to stay awake for hours on end.
Most dogs do best if they are awake for about 3 hours and then take a nap. If your dog is always on the move, he will get more cranky and easily irritated as the day goes on.
Some dogs do not know when it’s time to relax and are not good at settling down by themselves.
If you have a dog that likes to go-go-go, make sure that you give him quiet times for napping.
This might mean having him in one room, an exercise pen or his crate for the nap. Dogs that are allowed to go in and out at their choosing should be kept inside when it is time to nap – being outside all day can be so stimulating that they are unable to settle down.
When you have a reactive dog, it is easy to see the dog and any interaction as always connected to the reactivity. It is extra important to make time for you to simply enjoy your dog and his company, without worrying about his difficulties. Find routines that you both enjoy and strengthen your bond.
Maybe this is playing frisbee in the yard, teaching your dog manner and tricks. Maybe it is brushing or massaging your dog at night while you watch TV. Maybe it is challenging him with food puzzles and watching him work his brain.
The exact kind of activity does not really matter – it is only important that you get to connect and enjoy each other’s presence.
A Trusted Dog Sitter
Having a reactive dog can mean stressing out over any situation in which your dog might need to be without you. I highly recommend to try and introduce someone you trust to your dog who can take over if needed.
Even if it takes a few weeks or months to make sure that your dog is comfortable with this new person, the time you invest into this now will pay off very much in the future. Whether you might have a work, health or family emergency or you simply want to take a trip for a few days – not having to worry that your reactive dog only feels safe with you will be a huge relief.
Once you have a trusted sitter, you can also use the help of them if you ever feel like you need a break from the stress and reactivity. If you are less stressed, your dog will be as well!
Find Safe Zones
Walking your reactive dog can be a struggle if you are constantly looking out for potential triggers and preparing yourself to calm down your dog in case he crosses his threshold.
The good news is that chances are there are safe zones for walking your dog not too far from you – if you know where to look! Explore trails or industrial zones in your area.
You will probably be able to find places with no other people and dogs that allow you to walk without always being on guard.
You might need to get a little creative and think outside the box of “usual walking paths”.
One of my clients for example asked a local school if he could walk his very reactive dog on the school grounds in the afternoon and evenings – the answer was yes – giving them a safe place for relaxed walks.
Take It One Day at A Time
As a dog trainer, I know how hard it can be to own and live with a reactive dog. Hang in there – you are doing amazing and your dog is very lucky to have you. Don’t be too hard on yourself (I meet so many owners who are always blaming themselves for their dogs’ behaviour!).
It is okay to have bad days and days in which your dog crosses his threshold. Take care of yourself and try to reduce your dog’s stress little by little on a daily basis.
I wish you much luck and success.
written by Steffi Trott, Spirit Dog Training, November 2020 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).
About the writer
Steffi Trott is the dog trainer at SpiritDog Training (and a hopeless dog enthusiast!).
She has studied dog training with European trainers such as multi-world champions in agility and European Open winners Silvia Trkman, Polona Bonac, Martina Klimesova and Anna Hinze as well as US trainers like Kim Terrill and Daisy Peel.
She has a personal interest in dog cognition and behaviour and keeps up to date with all scientific publications on the matter.
She has been teaching dog training to thousands of clients both locally (all over New Mexico) and through online lessons since 2013.
She has 4 dogs of her own that she – of course – trains every day and also participates in competitive agility.