Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Considerate Canine: Relaxation

Lowcountry Dog Magazine
by Cindy Carter

You are lying on a comfy bed taking deep, relaxing breaths, receiving a gentle massage and the cares of the world are receding into the background. Does this sound like a wonderful spa, where you are pampered and your every wish is indulged? No, this is the world of a dog that is learning to relax.

Okay, that image may be a little over the top, but dogs, just like humans, need to learn to relax. We humans tend to over-react and to not think clearly or reasonably when stressed or out of sorts. Why should our dogs be any different? While we don’t know exactly how dogs process or feel emotions, there is no doubt that they do have emotions and respond to them. Stress can play a major role in the lives of our dogs just as in our own, it affects the physical, mental and emotional well-being of our pals. Unfortunately, they don’t have the verbal language skills to communicate with us, so it’s our job to learn to recognize the canine signals of stress.

Our dogs give us so much, while asking very little in return. It is our responsibility to learn to communicate with our dogs, providing them with a safe environment in which to live, work and thrive. Many of us, unless we have a very high strung, possibly reactive dog, never consider that relaxation is important. After all, what do dogs really have to be stressed about? They take naps, go for walks, eat well, maybe play agility, rally or flyball, it’s a dogs life, right? We see our dog hanging out on his bed and think, what a great life. But is it really, if every time he hears a noise or senses a change in the environment, he feels compelled to jump up and investigate. Maybe the missing piece in this dog’s life is the ability to relax.

What about the normally well behaved, well trained dog whose skills take a turn for the worse when he is in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, human and/or canine? Is this a dog that just refuses to do what is asked of him or is it possible that he cannot respond because he is worried or stressed? Maybe your dog reacts to fast moving objects, the UPS truck or even the vacuum cleaner, by barking or chasing the object. Or your dog is at the other end of the spectrum, when something or someone new is introduced, he shuts down, unable to interact with others. In many cases, it is stress that makes a dog unable to respond promptly or correctly when the environment is highly charged or confronted with changes.

So what can you, as a devoted and loving caretaker do to help your dog learn better coping skills? A good place to start is learning to recognize signs of stress and helping your dog learn to relax.

These are some of the more common stress indicators, but you always need to see the behavior in context, after all a yawn can simply be a yawn.

lip licking
look away ( head turns)
stiff body
dilated pupils
sweaty paws
tail and ear carriage
There are many other signals but these are fairly easy to spot.

Now, what to do when you see your dog offering these behaviors in a way that is indicative of stress.

1) Remove your dog from the situation

2) Teach your dog to relax

3) Teach your dog a different response

4) Change the emotions behind the response

We can’t discuss everything on the list now, but removing your dog from a stressful situation is important, regardless of where you are in your training plan. If your dog is stressed by children, bikes, strangers, other dogs, or loud noises forcing him to remain around these triggers only does harm. It is rarely a good idea to “let the dog get over it”. Constant exposure to a scary thing typically results in a dog becoming more stressed and fearful, possibly even aggressive when he feels trapped. If you are afraid of snakes, would being locked in a room with several snakes make you feel better or more afraid? Of course, there are ways to help our dogs be more comfortable in certain situations, but that discussion is for another time.

Take a deep breath and learn some great techniques to help your dog relax.

Always start working in a quiet, low distraction area, preferably a place that your dog is comfortable and work for a very short time. Have him sit or lie down on a mat or doggie bed, don’t force him to lie down unless he wants to, remember this is about relaxing. I am NOT a Tellington TTouch practitioner nor a doggie massage therapist, but I do use some of their techniques to help dogs learn to relax. Using slow, light touches, begin to massage your dog. It is best to use only your fingertips, little or no pressure and keep both hands in contact with your dog. If you are touching your dogs back, be sure to go the entire length of his back, including the tail (even if it is not there). The ears and muzzle are very important areas as well. If your dog is reactive or barks a great deal, TTouch tells us to use a counter-clockwise motion. Be aware of your dog, if he is uncomfortable with your touch, stop. Our purpose is to help your dog associate gentle, calming touch with his bed or mat. In that way, the mat, eventually, will become a cue to relax.

Now, the actually work of teaching relaxation. Dr. Karen Overall, a respected behavioral veterinarian developed both the Protocol for Relaxation and Protocol for Deference, designed to teach dogs that being relaxed and calm is what earns them rewards.

Many dog owners have been taught to have their dogs sit or down for everything, work to earn. Dr. Overall has carried this a step further. In the Deference Protocol she teaches dogs that being calm while in a sit or down is the behavior that earns a reward. So instead of having your Border Collie sit for the ball to be thrown, he must sit and relax to get the ball tossed again. Hard to teach, yes and no, it depends on the dog and the thing they are trying to earn. Do you start with the ball, no, you start with something of low value so the dog is successful. Is it worth the effort, yes, definitely. Once he has begun to associate being calm with getting what he wants, he will learn to calm himself as he starts to get over aroused.

The Protocol for Relaxation has changed many dogs lives for the better. It is a series of exercises designed to be used over a period of time, gradually increasing the distractions around the dog while he remains calm. After each step, the dog is rewarded with a small, maybe not terribly exciting treat. The mat used for relaxing touch is the perfect place to do these exercises, again creating an association between the mat and relaxed, calm behavior. The exercises start out very simply and increase in difficulty, at any time the dog becomes anxious or excited, you stop the exercise and start over, at a different time, at a point your dog was still able to relax. The protocol begins with having the dog simply sit while you count to 3 and give a treat, count to 5 and treat, count to 10 and treat. As you progress through the exercises, you may be hopping from foot to foot, going outside the door, ringing the doorbell, the whole time Rover is calmly processing things happening without reacting. Can you see how these exercise will be useful in daily life?

I hear many clients say that their dog knows how to hold a sit or down/stay with things going on. But -- this in not proofing a stay, in fact, Rover has never once been told to stay. This is all about helping your dog relax in the face of distractions. It also teaches great self control.

Another technique for teaching relaxation is to teach a dog to take a breath or hold his tail still. We capture these behaviors when the dog offers them, then put them on cue. Teaching a dog to take a breath works exactly the same way that it does for us. The intake of a deep breath gives both species a chance to take in oxygen and pause long enough for our brains to begin to work instead of react.

You may wonder why it makes any difference if your dog is relaxed. If your dog is over threshold, reacting to something in the environment, he is not thinking or even hearing you. At this point, he is using the instinctual part of his brain, not the thinking part, which is where we need him to be. Being in a constant state of stress or anxiety is bad for your dogs health, as well. How do you feel after a particularly stressful day? Imagine living with that stress constantly, with no way to relieve it or even let someone know that you need help.

It is our job to be advocates for our dogs health; physical, mental and emotional. Learning what causes stress and teaching our dog the skills needed to cope and relax is our job as their caretakers.

Cindy Carter, CPDT-KA
Mindful Manners Dog Training

No comments: