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Change of environment and stress in dogs

dead pigWhen dogs experience major changes in their life, they often experience stress and show it in a number different ways.  Today, Ace killed his six-year-old (toy) pig. His beloved pig that he begged everyone to throw for him, or just cuddled up with on any given patio chair to gently squeak. We’ve built him a whole group of pigs over the years, not one of them even slightly damaged. He had loved them all and would often build a ‘pig pile’ at the base of his chair, or hoard them under the patio stairs. But today, he totally eviscerated his oldest one.

We are moving homes. Today, we emptied out the basement and made countless trips to the charity drops, piles in the garage and piles of trash. The dogs followed our every move, staying as close as possible to us. I knew this move would be very tough on them, but anticipated more stress reactions from my rescue than from Ace. Ty the rescue is licking more, glued to me and frantic when I leave. Ace has expressed his emotions mainly by blocking the door when I want to go and barging through – despite the manners that he’s had over all his 7 years. But today, I saw just how stressed he was when I saw him destroy a toy for the first time in his whole life. As I relaxed in the hot tub after a long and stressful day (yup, drink and a soak is my idea of relaxing!), he lay on the grass and killed his pig.

People often share pictures of their ‘bad dogs’ that have destroyed something, the dog looking appropriately shamed. What the dog is actually showing is a reaction to the owner’s displeasure, not an understanding of what they did was wrong. Stress and anxiety show themselves in different ways in different dogs. One may self-harm with excessive licking, another may get destructive of things, while another may try desperately to follow their owner and damage doors and windows to do so.

Stress can cause indoor accidents as well, and I’m fully anticipating these. Adrenaline and cortisol have an effect on the internal organs, which can cause both uncontrolled urination and bowel movements. For this reason, my dogs are now being contained when I go out, so that they aren’t frantically running about, making accidents of kinds more likely.

An excellent means of helping dogs handle new and stressful situations is an increase in exercise. The brain experiences a rush of stress hormones, called glucocorticoids when we exercise. Why is that good for stress levels? In the long run, exercise trains the brain to better deal with stress. In studies, animals who exercise more are less anxious in stressful situations, are more likely to find a solution to a problem, such as a maze, and are less likely to lose track of the goal.  We’re now heading out for a big run, to help them cope better when I leave.

Anticipate what your dog is feeling, don’t just react after the fact. Holidays and their commotions, departure for vacations, back to school are all disruptions that can bring about new and unwanted behaviours if not managed well.

Exercise benefits for Anxious Dogs

Exercise and the high anxiety dog

 Lucinda Glenny MSc Animal Welfare, HBSc Psychology, CPDT-KA

Anxiety is a feeling of unease or fear of occurring events. It can cause panic attacks, which make     the body seize up and activate the peripheral nervous system’s “fight or flight” mode. This causes increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breath, tension in the chest, increased blood pressure, and ultimately fear. When in this state, animals are not able to think or act clearly and cannot process information appropriately.

How does exercise help alleviate these symptoms? There is often an odd sense of happiness that occurs after exercise, which is primarily caused by endorphins. Endorphins act on the same neurological centers as opioids, which improve our tolerance to stress and pain. In addition to endorphins,   the brain stimulates the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which play a key role in making us feel better.

Many studies have found the positive correlation of increased exercise for human and animal subjects and  a reduction in outward signs of anxiety.

Exercise stimulates neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the main center for the control of mood, by a chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Studies have shown that the hippocampus in depressed women is 15% smaller than in those without depression. Therefore, by stimulating the growth of the hippocampus, the symptoms of depression and anxiety should, theoretically be diminished.

When people or animals first start to exercise, the brain experiences a rush of stress hormones, called glucocorticoids. Why would that be good for stress levels? In the long run, exercise trains the brains to better deal with stress. In studies, animals who exercise are less anxious in stressful situations, are more likely to find a solution to a problem, such as running a maze, and are less likely to lose track of the goal.

Exercise makes us smarter and improves ability to cope with stress!

Walking three hours a week for only three months generates so many new neurons that you can measure the difference in brain size. That’s because exercise increases the level of neurotrophins, chemicals that promote the creation of new brain cells. Exercising regularly also enhances memory and the ability to learn new tasks, whereas stress impairs neurogenesis and can impede the ability to learn.

Anyone that has been through a divorce or lost a loved one can tell you how hard it is to remember or learn new things during a stressful period. It’s believed that a combination of the reduction in neurogenesis, cell loss and changes in remaining cells can disrupt the thought processes. Of course, this takes time to happen, so usually it’s only prolonged stress that has major effects on the brain. Luckily, regular exercise can combat these negative effects, boost brainpower and reduce stress levels. In reference to anxious dogs, these same factors can aide in leading your dog to remain in a calmer and more confident state.

For most dogs we generally recommend a long walk to help tire them out – but for the HA dog, this can actually increase the problem. Try to find ways to physically tire your dog before walking them – ball tossing in the yard, tag in the house, fetch up carpeted stairs are all ways to use up some of that excess energy. It’s not surprising that the breed types that we see many difficulties with are ones who have a lot of energy.

By tiring your dog prior to subjecting them to the triggers, they will be more able to manage the situations appropriately.

In order to obtain the best results, animals should be exercised vigorously, on a regular basis. Also, combine it with a proper diet and positive encouragement. The most substantial improvements in mental health are made with a combination of exercise, medication and behavioural therapy.