Written by Katie Kelly, CPDT-KA, ABCDT
When I was looking to adopt a second dog, one of my top priorities was to find a dog who was dog-social. I already had Minnie, my small reactive Shih Tzu, and I needed to make sure that she and my future dog could safely coexist. Having a dog-social dog would also mean a canine partner to join me at work, providing demonstration and help with behavior modification for my client dogs.
Finally, I found Jasmine. She was dog social, a good dog-sport prospect, and (most importantly!) she passed Minnie’s test. She was dog-social, alright. I found myself frustrated with many of the same problems my clients have with their dogs. Jasmine wanted to greet everyone! She would zip to the end of her leash and whine at any glimpse of a dog in view, and became very excited about people as well. This not only made her look intimidating to some, due to her pit bull type features, but it was extremely tough to go anywhere with her. I would repeat over and over to myself, “at least she’s social. At least she’s social. At least she’s social.” But there was more.
Animated beings were not the only things Jasmine got excited about. She would zoom in circles any time she touched a leaf, or felt the crunch of the snow beneath her feet. If I was out and about with Jasmine, she could never just stand still. If I stopped to talk to a friend, Jasmine would get fidget, pace, and whine until we moved on. At one point, when out on a walk, she got so excited about sniffing a tree that she zoomed around the tree multiple times until she broke the clip on her leash, and ran off in a frenzy. Gone. Thankfully, she found me again once she was able to calm down. During moments such as these, she began to worry me, as she appeared out of it, incapable of any sort of mental response. At that point, I began labeling her as “hyper-reactive,” meaning she over-reacted with hyperactive behaviors on a regular basis with everyday situations.
Eventually, after some conversation with my veterinarian, Jasmine was put on anti-anxiety medication. Once the medication took effect, I was able to work on teaching Jasmine to relax. This was life changing for Jasmine.
At first, I started in my home. I helped Jasmine realize that it was okay to go lie down on the floor like a normal dog, rather than feeling the need to seek out constant attention. Then I began to take the skills Jasmine was learning at home and apply them in our training classes. I specifically took the “Focus and Control” class, where the goal is to maintain connection, teach impulse control, and condition the dogs to relax.
One of the best parts about our “Focus and Control” curriculum, is that we teach dogs to drive to a mat, and lay down. Mat training is wonderful all by itself, but we also add a relaxed emotional response. The mat becomes a soothing comfort that can easily transport from place to place. This gave us the ability to take our training out into the real world!
I practiced relaxation with Jasmine everywhere: out in pet stores, café patios, out on walks, and at friends’ houses. She became much easier to take places. Whenever she began to escalate, I would begin some sort of relaxation technique, sometimes with the mat and sometimes not. Over time, I was seeing less and less reaction to the things that once overstimulated her.
While Jasmine is an extreme example, teaching relaxation is beneficial for every dog. Giving a dog the skills to cope and settle in everyday situations can prevent many behavior issues, such as anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. It is also beneficial to their overall health, as stress affects our dogs in the same ways it affects us humans. Lastly, dogs who can maintain emotional stability are much easier to train, as they have a higher capacity to process and retain information.
Today, Jasmine is off medication. Her daily overreactions now only happen on very rare occasions, and in those moments she is now easy to redirect. Her stable personality is perfect for day camp, where she now helps other dogs learn to relax in her presence, a skill that can be extremely difficult for those super social dogs!
These days I stress the importance of canine relaxation to my clients. It is also a major focus in our day camp programs: Puppy Headstart and Canine University. Could your dog benefit from a little more down time?
Awesome article. I’ll keep this in mind when our new puppy comes to live with us!
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I completely agree with you, Katie – teaching relaxation is beneficial for every dog! So many people completely forget about this and end up exhausting their dogs.
/Adam Baker – The Doggy Institute
I really need to do this with my current foster dog. I started him on Zylkene supplements last month but they seem to have little effect. What type of anti-anxiety medication worked for your dog?
Thank you for this post. I have a Tibetan Terrier mix rescue that cannot seem to relax. I do mat work and a raised boundary for calmness but she never seems to truly be calm. She is sensitive to handling so she doesn’t really enjoy massage however she loves to cuddle. When cuddling she is still never completely relaxed. I have wondered about medications but I don’t know much about it. Is it possible to teach calming without medication?
Question: is a 9 mo Aussie Shepherd puppy too young to give anti-anxiety meds?
Toby is a loving red-merle teen who had 2 single-event incidents in the past couple months. It has resulted in fear-aggression of men and young children. He has gotten much better with his fear-aggression of men with the training we do, but he’s also gotten worse with his reactivity to young children..
I really didn’t want to put him on anti-anxiety meds, but I realized this was my own association and issues at play. When putting Toby’s needs first, I can see how it could be a very helpful tool as as we continue to positive train together. Note: I am using rescue remedy and also spray diluted lavender essential oil on his harness and collar to help.
So, then the question is – is 9 months too young for anti-anxiety?
Thanks for this really thoughtful post. I’m struggling with my own dog and see a lot of the same characteristics you have described here. While I don’t want to resort to medication, I’d love to know what sort of exercises/activities you did to teach relaxation in and outside of the home. Do you have a step-by-step to share?