Pressure is calming. We know this: we swaddle infants, use weighted vests for children with autism, and hug grieving friends tightly. Cattle are loaded into squeeze chutes for ease of medical care, and fractious cats are wrapped tightly in towels for grooming or vet procedures.
Pressure can be calming for our dogs too. Slow, deep strokes calm most dogs down while quick, light pats are more likely to amp them up. There are several different commercial garments available that claim to calm stressed, anxious, and fearful dogs. The two most common are the Thundershirt and the Anxiety Wrap.
While there is little to no published research regarding the efficacy of these garments, anecdotal evidence suggests that they may be helpful for some dogs. That said, they will not (and should not) replace appropriate behavior modification or medication for severe anxiety. In addition, they do not work for every dog, and may actually make some dogs more upset.
It’s important when introducing any body wrap to observe your dog carefully. Be aware of the difference between a relaxed dog and one who has shut down. Some clients will report success, thinking that because their dog is lying down and not moving he has become less anxious. However, upon examining his body language we often realize that the dog is still just as uncomfortable, but feels inhibited by the new sensation of pressure on his torso and thus is unwilling to move.
Not sure whether your dog would benefit from one of these wraps? Try dressing him in a snug t-shirt, and observe his reactions. If he seems comfortable in the t-shirt, he will likely do well with the wrap as well. The Thundershirt has a money-back guarantee, so if it stresses your dog you can return it to the store you purchased it from for a full refund. Make sure to try it on first when your dog is calm and relaxed, since you will not be able to accurately gauge your dog’s reaction to it during a stress-inducing situation.
If a Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap appears to help your dog, remember to use it regularly during pleasant, stress-free times so that your dog does not come to associate its use with aversive events. If you use the Thundershirt for car anxiety, for example, make sure to have your dog wear it occasionally when he is working on a stuffed Kong toy at home, or he will learn that it always predicts frightening car experiences and may begin to dislike it.
Have you ever used a shirt or wrap for your dog? What were your experiences? Please share your stories in the comments section below!