What is anxiety?
It’s always helpful to have a clear definition of what we are talking about. Before we get into a definition, it’s important to understand that you can have healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy anxiety is a survival instinct. A wild animal without any anxiety about danger would not last long.
Unhealthy anxiety is hell for your dogs (or cats, or bunnies etc.).
Anxiety: intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about normal every day or common situations. Anxiety can be normal in stressful or dangerous situations. Anxiety is harmful when it becomes excessive, all-consuming and leads to abnormal or pathological behaviours.
Dr Edward’s definition of anxiety: My definition is very simple. As I understand it, anxiety is simply arousal that is stuck on or excessively triggered by non-harmful, everyday stimuli. In anxiety, your pet’s sympathetic nervous system is turned ON. Your animal is in fight-flight mode – and often if they can’t then discharge this arousal by fighting or fleeing, they get stuck! Their whole nervous system gets sensitised, so their resting state is in arousal rather than where it should be (relaxation).
Chronic anxiety is a lack of ability in your dog (and sometimes in cats too) to be able to regulate themselves from healthy arousal back into healthy relaxation.
Relaxation is where your pets should live most of the time!
Healthy relaxation is so, so important for well-being – and your pets should be in this state for at least 90-95% of the time. Especially with dogs, there is a belief that a lot of high impact, high arousal play or activity is needed to keep them happy and healthy. And in addition to this (I think because we are monkeys), humans love to raz up and excite their dogs, to stimulate them into an aroused and excited state of being- e.g. playing ball. (I also see this behaviour a LOT with people who compete in agility – they bring their dog to a fever pitch of arousal before their run. This is not great for the dog!)
Relaxation is something that it’s important to teach your dogs from an early age. Wild dogs spend a lot of their time resting, sleeping in their dens, in between hunting. They naturally learn how to relax well. Relaxation is something that every dog needs training in. More about how to do that in a moment!
In our modern society, the humans seldom know how to relax and switch off. There is so much pressure, always TV’s going with shocking and confronting news (or movies etc), long days in stressful jobs… It’s impossible not to bring that home, and your pets are super sensitive to your stress and anxiety. It triggers a similar response in their bodies.
I see a lot of dogs (and other animals) who are continually aroused, anxious, unable to switch off. Not only does this lead to a whole lot of undesirable behaviour, it often leads to a dog who is totally addicted to their human. A dog who uses their human as an emotional drug!
Let me explain…
You get a little puppy. She’s so damned cute! You love her to bits, so any time anything upsets her in the slightest, you pick her up and cuddle her until she feels all better and calms down (i.e. regulates from arousal to relaxation).
This is a natural nurturing response, BUT if you always do this, if you never give your pup the space to self-regulate from arousal to relaxation, they never learn how to. This is when they can get stuck in a chronically anxious, aroused state.
Are you your dog’s favourite drug?
Also- the only way dogs like this know how to regulate back to relaxation is to come to you for attention. They come and jump on you, you pat and hold them, this touch regulates them back towards relaxation. I say ‘towards’ because they can seldom reach healthy levels of relaxation, even with your help.
This is a harmful addiction – because your dog is emotionally dependent upon you – they simply cannot relax in a healthy way without your presence and touch. However- if in the beginning, with your pup, when there was a loud noise that scared them, if you simply stood with the pup and gave her time to process and regulate herself towards relaxation, you build a totally different, healthier dynamic with your dog.
Here’s what you can do to teach your dogs to relax, to self-regulate
- Skilful intentional touch – With the Whole Energy Body Balance method, you can learn how to connect hands-on with your pets in a way that triggers a deep, body level relaxation response. This touch medicine can teach dogs how to relax and switch off remarkably quickly! Here’s a testimonial from a WEBB student: “Jager is a 3yr old mix breed from Alice Springs who had an extremely tough start to life. When he came to me he had a lot of serious medical issues and behavioural issues also. After lots of medical treatment and finally getting on top of his issues he was then suffering severe anxiety and was in a constant state of arousal which then triggered more health issues. I tried all the behavioural drugs to no avail things were looking hopeless that’s when I saw the Healing Vet on Facebook and I instantly did the masterclass and then the online training. I started working with Jager and discovered he didn’t like being touched but with persistence he came round then the changes started to happen slowly he relaxed and his arousal was less every day. Within a couple of weeks he was constantly calm no arousal and was happy and content. I was amazed at how quickly this helped him and now he lives a full happy life. If it wasn’t for WEBB I don’t know where he would be today it’s changed his life and mine.” Gina Squire
- Do plenty of calming play and activity – scent work is particularly good. You can use snuffle mats, scatter treats around your yard or home.
- Reward calm, quiet behaviours. Go and give your dogs a gentle pat every time they show relaxed behaviours.
- Crate training can be a big help. When you train a puppy to love being in their crate, they then have a safe haven to go into and relax. If they get anxious or aroused later in life you can pop them in the crate and give them an opportunity to self-regulate to relaxation.
- Give your young pups space to be independant. In fact, don’t always let them come to you for comfort. Set boundaries so they have time and space to self-regulate to relaxation without your assistance and support. Be with your pup, but don’t let them be all over you. Be beside them as they find their own way through stress and frustration. Don’t always save them!
- Have clear boundaries! Humans are generally awful at healthy boundaries with their dogs. You should be able to communicate by body language alone to make it clear when your dogs need to stay out of your personal bubble, and when you want invite them in for cuddles. You should be able to ask your dogs to stay out of your bubble, and they happily respect that without pushing in. This helps anxious dogs so much!