Teaching your dog to be zen

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the same problem crop up in varying ways. A puppy, an anxiety case, and an adolescent dog presenting with different symptoms of the same problem.

1. The puppy

This 4-month old puppy is bouncing off the walls.  He listens when his owners have treats, but otherwise doesn’t. When they pay attention to him, he grabs toys and runs off. When they ignore him he’s better, but still running laps around the house. They’re at their wits’ end, and he’s on the go all the time.

2. The anxiety case

This dog gets stressed out whenever there are visitors. She runs from the couch to the door and back again, over and over, compulsively. If her owners let her out, she dashes outside then turns to look at them, as if waiting for them to come out, too. She’s clearly seeking attention, and just as clearly not enjoying herself.

3. The adolescent

This dog spends all day pacing. Around and around. He grabs a toy, knocking it around the floor, gets bored, paces again. He settles down only to flinch upward when there’s an unexpected noise and return to pacing, often leaving the room where the noise started.

While all of these dogs had secondary problems, one of the biggest problems that’s feeding into those secondary problems was that none of them had learned to calm down. Did you spot it? Don’t feel bad. Without seeing the dogs, I wouldn’t have spotted it!

Dogs who don’t know how to calm down start showing signs of anxiety by the time they’re about 8 months of age. Very minor, at first: some extra panting, the occasional white at the corners of the eyes, checking the area for danger. This comes from puppyhood.

In the wild, in a pack of dogs, if a puppy is extra exuberant the adult dogs will start laying them down with a paw and enforce naptime — just like we humans do with babies and toddlers! Puppies need sleep to let their brains rest, to let neurons bustle into life, to learn best and to be well-adjusted adults. When they don’t get the rest they need (when us foolish humans let them stay out all the time, getting information overload, instead of putting them to bed), they don’t learn how to rest, either.

This puppy’s mind and body, instead, learns to always go-go-go and be on the alert. Let’s look at those cases again:

1. The puppy

This puppy isn’t having downtime. He isn’t learning not to jump, steal food, or leave things alone that aren’t his because he isn’t getting downtime to rest, so his brain isn’t functioning well. He also, then, spends all his time on information overload and runs around, going-going-going. But he’s only four months old: we’ll start enforced down time now, do some quick crate training, and the owners will not only have a break during the day, but the puppy will start learning faster as well as start learning how to relax and simply lie there, chewing on a bone to entertain himself. This will make for a MUCH calmer dog as he grows up.

2. The anxiety case

This dog will take more work because she’s older. It starts with walking, to burn off the go-go-go energy she’s built up, and to teach her to listen. After her walk and when there are people over, we ask her (repeatedly) to lay down. When she hops up — which she does right away — we ask her to lay down again. Everything with her emphasizes calm behavior. Calm petting, quiet treat giving, anything that will encourage a calm, relaxed state. It will take more time for her, but she’ll start to calm down and let go of the anxiety, too.

3. The adolescent

He’s halfway between the puppy and the anxiety case. We’re working on bravery around unexpected noises, while also telling him to start laying down. While we could crate him, he knows his commands well enough to simply ask him to lie on his bed and stay there. Then we supply bones. He needs something to do with the energy until he learns how to stop sustaining it, and chewing is a good outlet: it decreases the energy, gives him something to focus on, and keeps him entertained.

All this energy that the dogs have learned to sustain has to go somewhere. When pacing isn’t enough, it gets channeled into anxiety (or aggression). The dogs have outbursts — first flinching at noises, then worrying over visitors, and finally bolting to the door and back. If we teach the dogs from the get-go NOT to sustain that energy, then they’re better equipped to let go and relax when the time is right. Even high energy breeds, like my own Cash and Lily, need to have downtime!

So, if you have a puppy, start crate training now and building in naptimes. If you have an adult dog who seems hyper or manic, start asking her to lay down and rest — and enforcing it when she would rather get up and run (a leash comes in REALLY handy). It’ll take a little while, but you’ll start to see a difference, and your dog will be happier, too!




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