Stress Reduction & Building Independence
Todays blog is brought to you by Errol, now our eldest dog, who is seen here advertising his latest favourite treat, Scrumbles Calming Nibbles. He takes product promotion VERY seriously... more about those later! I've been taking on a lot of Separation Related Problem (SRP) clients lately, not a surprise as the pandemic has changed peoples routines quite dramatically, and many dogs are finding things hard to cope with. Along with this, many owners are seeing far more of their dogs during the day, and realising their dogs do experience a fair bit of stress, or lack independence.
As ever there is a lot of duff information out there, advise to shut your dog away from you for portions of the day so that they get used to, or remain used to being separated from you for example... well if your dog hasn't got a problem this won't really achieve anything and could build frustration, and if your dog does have an issue, this isn't the right way to address it either. Another phrase I hear a lot is 'well life is stressful, we can't remove all stress so why bother, they just have to get used to it'. It is absolutely true that life is stressful, and we can't remove all of it, and we must cope with some of it and some of it is useful, and a natural part of being alive. But to deal with stress properly we need to understand it, and humans are really quite poor at doing this for themselves, and so it's not at all unusual that we are very poor at recognising what causes stress for our dogs. When we ask the question 'what is causing my dog stress' and actually look at things from their point of view and properly observe our dogs, it's actually pretty easy to see what we can alleviate for them, and what we can't, and therefore, what we can do to mitigate the effects of stress we can't prevent. So what might cause stress for dogs, here are some of the more obvious things: People shouting Door slamming Other dogs barking Loud sounds on tv Fireworks Thunderstorms But have you thought about some of these... The weird experience of owners shouting at sports games or at people not actually present via headsets for MMO games The presence of food the dog cannot have Food dispensing toys such as kongs/puzzles that the dog gets frustrated by and cannot easily complete Watching prey species such as birds or cats through a window Walks along busy roads with traffic whizzing past Training sessions that are highly reinforcing, that end suddenly without warning Being trapped by being held on a short lead These things can quietly be building huge stress in your dog, and that stress may well not exhibit itself in immediate behaviours, but have a generally negative effect across your dogs entire day/week. Here's another thing not widely known about the stress hormones (mainly cortisol and adrenaline)... They carry on going UP for around 20 to 30 minutes after the event that triggered them has ended. They can take hours to days to drop back down to a normal baseline. Now think about your dog again... imagine you've missed him getting frustrated after a training session that seemed really positive and successful, ended abruptly... imagine you've had an hour on your game, shooting bad guys and shouting at your friends via your headset... Now you take your dog for a walk along a busy road... and you are baffled as to why hes not listening, and shouting his head off at the Chihuahua on the other side... Your dog started his walk stressed to the max, way over his normal baseline for stress hormones. The events earlier in the day did that, and then the addition of being trapped on the lead and exposed to that infuriating whizzy traffic pushed him even further... the Chi on the other side of the road is the final straw, but very commonly, people assume 'ah my dog doesn't like Chihuahuas' and not 'my dog is overwhelmed with stress throughout the day and can't cope with LIFE now'... So what can we do? We can be mindful... you've probably heard that a lot, but the starting point is being mindful, being aware of these things. Once you are mindful, you can start to limit the things you can - for example, you might ensure your dog is elsewhere being entertained by someone else when you play games, or you could try not shouting! You could try giving him longer to decompress from stress before you train or walk. You could walk in quieter places. There are also activities that undo stress - for most dogs, sniffing out scattered food in long grass or via snuffle mats can really bring them back down, sniffing is something dogs find very calming and satisfying (so is licking!), so scattering some treats or biscuits in the grass or a mat can work wonders. You could play the backpack game, where you pack up some interesting items, snacks and toys into tubs, load them into a back pack.. then find a small quiet space (indoor or out) engage your dog with a little heelwork or something simple, and then sit down and investigate the contents of the tubs together, slowly (you can even do this just by letting your dog investigate as you slowly unpack your shopping!). You can massage your dog, slow and gentle strokes that he likes, or groom him if he enjoys that, or even simply sit with your dog whilst he chews something (again if he likes that) or just watch some tv whilst sitting together. There are also, food supplements and treats that can help your dog calm down.... but wait.. Before you go down the route of trying out supplements and calming treats - examine your dogs diet. I do not claim to be a canine nutritionist, however if your dogs diet is filled with grains, cereals, fillers, sugars and E numbers... it is fairly logical that this is not ideal for a carnivore, and not good for anyone aiming to reduce stress and generally be happy and healthy. Without disappearing down the rabbit hole that is canine nutrition... Here's a few simple checks you can do. If it is a complete food, check that: Real, named meat, is the single largest ingredient AND when you add up any carb content such as potato/sweet potato/oats/rice etc, that the meat content remains higher than the carb content. Short ingredient list. Specifically named ingredients. So as an example the food in front of me right now has this list: 60% Chicken (33% freshly prepared, 23% dehydrated, 2.8% chicken fat, 1.4% chicken liver).... this is good, its specifically named so they cannot substitute anything else for that, and we know its chicken, its not chicken meal, or chicken derivatives. Great. They now break down the other incredients... 19% brown rice, 13.5% oats, 3.6% alfalfa... Whilst the grain/cereal content isn't fabulous, whats great here is that its specified, so they can't change that composition without listing the change, and the total percentage of grain/cereal is still significantly less than the meat content. The cereals/grains used here are not the worst either from a digestive point of view. This is a food I would feed from time to time, but not all the time (however I feed a raw diet, so I wouldn't feed any kibble all the time!) This food also has very few ingredients and as they are all specific ingredients rather than generic, ie 'Chicken' and not 'poultry meal', 'oats' and not 'cereal meal' I know this company isn't chopping and changing its ingredients according to which products are cheapest at any given time. Compare this to another food label I have in front of me... 26% Chicken and Meat Meals (6.5% Dried Chicken*), Rice (22%), Maize, Barley, Poultry Fat, Poultry Gravy, Beet Pulp, Linseed, Minerals, Seaweed (0.1%), FOS (0.1%), Yucca Extract (0.01%) 'Chicken and Meat Meals' means we don't know, and it will likely vary from one batch to the next, exactly what is in that - the manufacturer can alter it as suits their finances. It's 26% and that looks good, but, only 6.5% of that is dried chicken, the rest could be mostly turkey one month, mostly feathers and beaks the next... Now look at the cereal/grain content - Rice is listed at 22% so it will always be 22% rice, but we don't know what percentage is Maize, or Barley, only that it must be less than 22% as ingredients must be listed 'largest single ingredient first'. It could be that its 2% maize and 1% barley, but it could be 21% maize and 20% barley, which would make this food 63% cereal/grain, and only 26% meat/poultry. Another key ingredient to note here is the beet pulp, this is a filler, it is indigestible to dogs however it also is a by product of the beet sugar industry and it contains sugar and tastes sweet... It is basically poo. Both these foods are claiming to be natural, good ingredients, quality foods, in fact one is a very well known brand name that even tiny children will have heard of... but they are not remotely equal in quality! So, before you go looking for calming treats and supplements, do examine the food you are feeding, is it the best it could be? Now if you have done that, this week we have been testing Scrumbles Calming Treats , across our five (now sadly four, old age though, not the treats!) dogs. Scrumbles kindly sent us a pack to try out, along with some others from their range (chicken flavoured dog food and dental treats, and watch out for a blog on cat treats later!)... I have tried a variety of calming supplements and treats, and these seem to win on palatability, despite looking a bit dry and boring, EVERYONE said they were delicious and asked for more. This is something of a miracle in my house as the oldest girl had v few teeth and wasn't keen on crunchy things, the next oldest similarly is now lacking teeth but he kept asking for more. The younger three are less fussed on texture, but are picky about flavour and these treats smell quite strongly of lemon balm, and as these three are total fruit/veg refusers I did think they'd decline... but nope, scoffed in seconds. Do they calm them down.... I think so, but in all honesty, one pack across five dogs does not really constitute a cast iron test. Notably the pack does not give you a limit on how many you feed your dog per day, which would suggest no active ingredient that can be overdosed. However, they enjoyed them, appeared less bonkers than normal, the ingredients are fairly good (30% turkey, sweet potato, gram flour, rapeseed oil, chamomile, lemon balm, slippery elm, glucosamine), and the packages are compostable which is a nice touch. They are certainly worth a try in addition to being mindful about stress, reducing stress and sensible feeding of good quality foods. So... I promised some 'Building Independence' and I have waffled on for several cups of tea by this point... but you can't start building independence until you have a relaxed, happy dog! Assuming you do now have a relaxed, fulfilled, happy dog.. here are a couple of games you can use to build confidence/independence.. Beginner level: Find your food. Hold your dog or puppy back, have someone place a bowl of food the far end of the room, so your dog sees it put down, they then return to you and your dog, and you release the dog to go to the food. Your dog or puppy goes to the food, eats it, is rewarded for making the choice to go away from you to get a reward, and as you stay put whilst they eat, their confidence is increased that you will still be there when they look back or return to you. Variations: Put the food further away. Put the food just behind a sofa or door so that your dog now eats with just his head/shoulders out of direct sight of you. Put the food sufficiently out of sight around a doorway or behind furniture that your dog has to go completely out of sight of you to find it. Put the food in another room entirely.
Put the food several rooms away (you may need to show your dog where it is initially, the idea is not that your dog hunts through lots of rooms to find it, but that they are happy to choose to be away from you to eat). Once you get to the stage where your dog is totally out of sight, its a good idea to set up a camera to observe, check that they are eating calmly and in a normal fashion for them, and not snatching up mouthfuls or dashing back between mouthfuls to check where you are - if this is the case, scale it back to an easier level. Expert level: Find your Puzzle In almost exactly the same way, you set up a puzzle toy for your dog to go and complete in a room on his own. Ensure this toy is simple and does not cause your dog frustration, we want him to experience the success, and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle and getting the reward by himself. Again, use a camera to check how he is doing the puzzle! Variations: Several puzzles in one room. Several puzzles in different rooms. Puzzle outside, humans stay inside. Both these games are very simple, the beginner level is best for puppies, and dogs who have never done anything like this before. The expert level is particularly useful for very clever thinky dogs who are likely taking confidence from their humans. At all times, ensure you are not creating frustration, and that you remain where you were when your dog left you - this is not an opportunity to distract your dog whilst you leave the building!