The highly sensitive dog, part 3

In this third and final post of the series are some things that may help your highly sensitive dog remain more calm in stressful situations, and over time become less reactive (i.e., adapt).

1. Calm environment.

In my experience, the backdrop to managing high sensitivity is a calm environment, particularly a calm home. There can still be periods of activity that are lively and stimulating; in fact, I think there needs to be. Eustress (‘good’ stress, tolerable stimulation) is beneficial because it’s adaptive — and also because it’s the stuff of life; boredom is a kind of slow death for intelligent creatures. Home just shouldn’t be noisy and chaotic, which is to say, overstimulating and at times overwhelming for these highly sensitive dogs. (Such a home is not that good for humans, either!)

What ‘calm environment’ looks like for you and your dog will depend very much on your dog and your circumstances. Your home needn’t be like a monastery to serve your highly sensitive dog well. As a striking example of what’s possible, I have a friend who has several dogs, most of whom are highly sensitive (as a “soft” breed and as individuals). These dogs frequently go to group classes at a dog training centre, to dog shows, even some big national events, and to hospital and hospice facilities as therapy dogs. While their home is often lively and stimulating (it’s full of dogs, so how could it be otherwise?!), it’s seldom noisy or chaotic, and never so for very long. These dogs thrive because they are all well loved and well respected as individuals, and their person takes care that none of her dogs are overstimulated or overwhelmed for very long. These dogs are also well trained and know what’s expected of them. These are all points I’ll touch on again later.

Each dog is unique in its genetic inheritance and life history, and so is each person, so you’re the best person to figure out what works best for your dog. Incidentally, you may find that changes you make for your dog’s sake also benefit you and/or other family members, even if you’re not a highly sensitive person yourself (although chances are, if you’ve read this far, you are 🙂 ).

2. Social bonds.

Dogs are a highly social species, as are we, so when we keep dogs as pets, particularly a single dog, we become our dog’s primary or sole means of social connection and support; in essence, we become the dog’s family. Respecting the social bonds our dogs have with us, and making sure that love and respect flow freely in both directions, is just as important as providing a calm environment, because social isolation is to the psyche what oxygen deprivation is to the body.

A sense of security that’s rooted in a sense of belonging may be more important to the health and well-being of these highly sensitive dogs than we might like to think with our busy lives. This Finnish study obliquely referenced social bonds in its finding about the oxytocin receptor gene, but there is much more to be learned here. In the meantime, I think we can safely assume that a calm environment is a rather bleak landscape in the absence of stable, loving social bonds. It’d be a bit like living in a library… (might sound idyllic at first, but before too long…).

Viewed in this light, separation anxiety is not a neurosis; it’s simply a reaction to social isolation in a highly social species. It’s a distress call, not a disorder. It’s a deficiency of stable social bonds, not of anti-anxiety medication. Of course, not all dogs left alone all day exhibit separation anxiety — but that’s my whole ‘thesis’: if high sensitivity is a behavioural trait, expressed by a small but significant proportion of the population, then it’s best seen and managed as a normal variant, not a neurosis. Separation anxiety is completely understandable when the highly sensitive dog is entirely dependent on you, when you are the dog’s entire social support system. (While we’re at it, any dog left home alone all day is probably experiencing some degree of social stress. To what extent, and with what outward signs, depends on the dog, and probably on where the dog lies on the sensitivity scale I propose exists in dogs as it does in people.)

As kooky as it may sound, I always made a point of talking to my dog. (I’m currently in the strange, airless limbo of a dogless state, which is why I keep using the past tense when I talk about my dog.) When I had to go out and leave her at home, I’d tell her where I was going, why I had to go out, and approximately how long I’d be gone or when I’d be back. I would also tell her when guests were coming over, how many there’d be, how long they’d be staying, and so on. Same for when we went anywhere in the car (which she never liked).

I know she didn’t understand most of the words, but that wasn’t the point; she always seemed to understand what lay beneath them. (I would also make sure I held a picture in my mind or ran a little mental movie of what I was saying; but that’s a story for another time.)

Being a highly social species, dogs are highly adept at nonverbal communication among their social group — a skill most humans have long since abandoned or left to wither in favour of words. Your dog reads you like a book, so don’t try to bluff your way through with words or gestures that don’t match how you’re really feeling. Just be honest with your dog (if no-one else). It’s pointless trying to be any other way with a dog; and with a highly sensitive dog, the dissonance between what you think you’re conveying and what you’re actually projecting can be very unsettling for the dog.

Talking to your dog will help you get clear about what you want or what’s happening, which is important because we spend so much of our lives scattered (“multi-tasking”) and unfocused, churning over the past, fretting about the future, and never quite in the present or never here for very long. How can communication be clear and effective when the message is garbled?  So, talking to our dogs about what we expect of them, what’s planned for the day or simply for the next hour or two, what we do or don’t like about what they just did, etc. helps us get clear, which then helps our dogs feel more secure. From the dog’s perspective, home feels like a safer place when you know what’s going on and what’s expected of you. Distracted people are stressful to be around for these highly sensitive dogs.

While we’re at it, make sure to include and consider your dog during human gatherings that occur in your dog’s home or that you participate in elsewhere with your dog (e.g., picnics, hikes). It really bugs me to see people ignoring or only briefly and superficially acknowledging a dog’s greeting whenever there is another human around. We so readily default to verbal communication and ignore all else, including our dogs. We quite literally talk over the dog’s head and ignore the genuine, heartfelt, and necessary social interaction the dog is trying to have with us, which almost always takes longer than the perfunctory greeting we may give each other or the brief pat on the head we may give a dog. Perhaps it’s just because I prefer the company of dogs to most humans, but I make a point of acknowledging the dog’s greeting and stay with it until the dog has said all he wants to say and then moves on to the next person or the next thing that takes his interest. Talk to your dog — and listen attentively when the dog ‘talks’ back.

One other strategy related to social bonds is the use of dog-appeasing pheromone products, such as Adaptil [TM]. These products release a synthetic form of the natural hormone that mother dogs exude which helps keep their pups calm and well bonded with her. These products can work well in concert with the other strategies discussed here, although on their own they’re unlikely to be adequate.

In short, respect the social bonds between your dog and you, and prioritise a sense of safety and belonging through these bonds. This bond is also a necessary part of the next strategy for helping your dog cope better with the various stresses of life.

3. Positive training.

This strategy is about providing opportunities for your dog to experience new or otherwise stressful things incrementally (stepwise), in a safe and supportive environment, with lots of praise for calm behaviour. Put another way, the goal is to work with the adaptability of the system to gradually increase your dog’s capacity to cope with the ordinary stresses of life and with the occasional overwhelming ones as well. It’s important to stay within the current limits of what’s tolerated, while gently nudging up against the boundaries to gradually expand them. (It’s essentially the same principle as that used in sensible physical fitness training.)

As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, most of the dogs in this Finnish study were from working or show lines — two very different but both very demanding and stressful disciplines for dogs. This study didn’t examine the effects the humans (breeder, owner, trainer, handler) may have had on the dog’s early development, socialisation, and response to stimuli — i.e., on learned behaviour surrounding loud noises or strange people/situations. That wasn’t its purpose, so I don’t fault the researchers. It’s just that upbringing and experience matter — alot, as it turns out.

Two central themes are prevalent in the recent research on the highly sensitive person (HSP) or sensory-processing sensitivity in people. The first is the “differential susceptibility” in HSPs compared with less sensitive people. Simply put, while HSPs may suffer more than less sensitive people in response to negative stimuli (whether physical or mental/emotional), they benefit to a much greater degree from positive stimuli. That’s probably because HSPs process information more deeply than less sensitive people do, so positive stimuli have a greater calming and uplifting effect in HSPs. I wonder, too, whether they might also have a greater adaptive effect.

If the same is true in dogs, then even small improvements in the dog’s home environment, the strength and stability of social bonds, and the use of positive training that emphasises praise for good behaviour (rather than punishment for bad behaviour) are likely to yield much better results in highly sensitive dogs than in less sensitive dogs. In other words, there’s a bigger payoff for every positive change you can make to your dog’s environment and daily experience. Now, that’s worth celebrating!

The second theme of the HSP research is how important the parent’s, and particularly the mother’s, influence is on the highly sensitive child, for bad and for good. I don’t subscribe to the practice of infantilising dogs by using such terms as “pet parents” for their owners (legal term) or guardians (better but still not great). However, I think we can draw a parallel here. Because we are socially bonded with our dogs and they are reliant on us for their physical needs and psychological well-being, how we behave around and especially toward our dogs — particularly how we react when our dog reacts — makes a huge difference to how intensely our dogs react to negative stimuli, whether that be loud noises, strange people or situations, or any other specific trigger your highly sensitive dog may have.

For example, I became highly reactive when I first realised that my dog (adopted as a stray at 12–18 months of age) was dog-aggressive in certain situations. I never did figure out why she was fine with some dogs but not others, so I became very nervous and reactive about any and all encounters with dogs we didn’t know. Some went well, others didn’t, but in every case my anticipation of trouble didn’t help matters, and my reactiveness only served to amplify the problem in the moment and make such problems more likely in the future.

In one important study of HSPs, mindfulness — the simple practice of keeping your mind in the present — significantly reduced anxiety in HSPs. It certainly works for me in my personal life. In my professional life, I think I accidentally bumbled into adopting this approach when working with nervous horses. If there’s one species that’ll give you instant feedback on your own state of mind, it’s the horse! So, I can attest to the usefulness of this simple practice with horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, goats, chickens (‘chooks’) — you name it.

I’m speaking to myself as well here when I say that the way to help your highly sensitive dog remain or become more calm is to focus on the present yourself. Calm yourself if needed, then talk calmly and positively to your dog, and encourage and reward calm behaviour. Remember how much more responsive HSPs are to positive stimuli, and become a positive stimulus for your dog by using lots of praise for calm behaviour. Be consistent, and over time your dog will become less reactive.

In short, consistently praise calm behaviour, gently discourage reactive behaviour (e.g., barking or growling unnecessarily) — and while we’re at it, avoid using food as a reward! Food is food, and praise is praise; your dog doesn’t confuse the two, and neither should you.

4. Diet matters!

As goes the gut, so goes the brain. A disordered gut immediately affects mood and sensitivity (e.g., irritable bowel, irritable person), so pay particular attention to diet in your highly sensitive dog. This topic deserves its own post — a whole book, in fact — so I’ll just cover the most essential aspects here.

In particular, cut way down or cut out all starchy foods, especially grains and potatoes. The most common grains used in pet food include wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice. They may appear on the label or in the food itself as whole grains or as flour/meal. All of these grains are high in starch, and all should be limited or cut out completely because fermentation of starch by the dog’s gut microbes can create a ‘leaky’ gut that leads to chronic inflammation and irritability. Also limit the amounts of sweet potatoes and legumes. Although they’re not as starchy as grains and potatoes, they do contain quite a bit of starch. While it may be difficult at first, base the dog’s diet on a wide variety of meats and veggies (avoiding the starchy ones). These days, there are some very good fresh-frozen raw dog foods available in grocery stores, so they’re a good place to start.

In the short-term, avoid any foods you know from experience cause flareups of digestive, skin, anal sac, or ear problems in your dog. In time, on a healthier diet, you may be able to feed these items occasionally without problems, but until your dog is on an even keel, it’s generally best to avoid them.

Also avoid highly processed foods (which includes kibbles and canned foods), other than as the occasional naughty treat or for emergencies (e.g., keep a can of dog food in the cupboard for whenever you run out of good food). Foods containing synthetic food colouring and flavour enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) are also best avoided, as they too can cause irritability.

Lastly, for now, give the gut microbes several days to adapt before deciding that a dietary change isn’t working or before changing anything else in your dog’s diet. Respect the gut microbes, or pay the price (which ain’t pretty!).

5. Limit triggers.

This one is mostly for noise-sensitive dogs, although any highly sensitive dog may benefit from the strategies that are aimed at calming an overwrought nervous system. As a long-term plan, limiting triggers such as strange people or new situations only serves to make your dog’s, and by extension your, world smaller and more ‘dangerous’. Those anxious or fearful dogs tend to do best with positive training aimed at expanding their tolerance, and therefore their horizons.

An important distinction here is that noise-sensitive dogs may be dealing with more sensitive auditory (hearing) systems than dogs who are not abnormally reactive to loud noises. Whether the underpinnings are structural or functional (or both), protecting the auditory system from potentially damaging frequencies or intensities of sound can help with the dog’s reactivity to loud noises and it may reduce the incidence or pace of age-related hearing loss in noise-sensitive dogs. (I said “may” because this Finnish study only posits a genetic connection between noise sensitivity and age-related hearing loss in dogs.)

Here are some things that may be useful in noise-sensitive dogs before or during thunderstorms, fireworks, and other noisy events:

* Ear plugs, such as a cotton ball in each of the dog’s ears. Lightly smear one side of the cotton ball with Vaseline so that it forms a better seal and makes it easier for you to remove the cotton ball later. If your dog objects, don’t force the issue; just draw a line through this one.

The goal is not to obliterate all sounds; just to lessen the intensity of the short-sharp sounds (thunder claps, explosions from fireworks or gunshots, pneumatic nail guns) that are so disturbing to noise-sensitive dogs.

* Basement or other ‘quiet’ room that reduces the intensity of outside noises. Again, the goal is simply to lessen the intensity of the offending sounds. Combined with positive training (e.g., praise for remaining calm or being less reactive than usual), sound attenuation with ear plugs or quiet room may help a great deal.

* Body wrap, such as a Thunder Shirt (snugly fitted vest) or home-made wrap. This is the solution that worked the best for my own very noise-sensitive dog. Rather than buying one of the vests, I dug out a couple of old stable bandages (leg wraps for horses) and wrapped them around her body as snugly as I could (see photos).

Applying a home-made ‘thunder wrap’ (an old stable bandage, wrapped snugly around Miss Lilly’s chest).
The completed thunder wrap, composed of two stable bandages (as one was not quite long enough for Miss Lilly’s body).

I would do this before dark on a night when fireworks were scheduled and also when a thunderstorm was forecast or already on the horizon. I’d leave it on her until the noisy event was over; sometimes it stayed on all night, although often by morning she was wearing it as skirt. It didn’t matter, because as soon as the wrap was on, she’d settle down and even curl up and sleep through the storm or an entire 4th of July extravaganza. Amazing, given how noise-sensitive she was!

This quick, simple, inexpensive, washable, reusable wrap worked very well for us, even when I didn’t manage to get it on her until she was already pacing and panting because she’d heard the storm coming long before I did, or because some idiot had been exercising his “2nd-amendment rights” (to be a gun-toting idiot). But I digress…

That raises an important point about any and all methods for calming your dog: they work better when started before the stressful event rather than during or after the event is well under way. All is not lost if you miss that window of opportunity, but make the most of it when you can.

Wrapping the body snugly, particularly the chest, is a technique that’s used in humans for calming the nervous system. There’s even a line of “calmwear” originally designed for autistic children. The premise is that applying uniform pressure to the body surface and underlying muscles reduces sensory input to the sympathetic trunk — a main highway, as it were, which connects the spinal nerves up and down the body, alongside the spine. These nerves belong to the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is best known for mediating the “fight or flight” response to danger, whether real or perceived. In highly sensitive individuals, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is chronically on high-alert unless careful attention has been paid to creating and maintaining a calm environment, stable and loving social bonds, positive training (in people, self-training such as mindfulness), and a healthy diet.

A third f-word that’s often added to that response is “freeze.” Animals (and people) may also freeze or remain still in the face of overwhelming stress, neither fighting nor flying/fleeing. You may have noticed that “freezing,” “staying still,” and “staying close to the owner” are behaviours used in the Finnish study as being common reactions in noise-sensitive or fearful dogs. Not all overwhelmed dogs act out; sometimes they act ‘in’, which is also a trait of HSPs.

Before moving on to the next and final strategy, I want to say a few words about leaving a radio on in the background for animals. In my considered opinion, it’s not particularly useful. Dogs don’t seem to identify voices coming from a radio as being human — or, at least, not of the people they know and love. So for dogs, the radio is likely to be just more noise. Most of the time they’ll simply tune it out if the volume is low, so it’s fairly benign. However, it’s not a good thing if you’re relying on the radio instead of making more difficult but vastly more meaningful changes in your dog’s daily life (e.g., more time spent with you).

6. (Phyto)pharmaceutical help.

I’ve left this one until last because I think it carries the greatest potential for misuse. There is a place for sedative herbs and anti-anxiety medications, but neither category (plant-based [phyto-] or conventional pharmaceuticals) should be used in place of strategies 1–5. In addition, their need is greatly reduced when these other strategies are implemented with diligence and care.

Medication use falls under the veterinary-client-patient relationship, so I’ll say no more about it here, other than to make one comment about fluoxetine (‘Prozac’). Please resist the temptation to go this route unless the only alternative is rehoming the dog. Fluoxetine is not a magic pill; it’s only a partial solution, its side effects (insomnia, restlessness, agitation, hyperactivity, and panic attacks, not to mention vomiting, diarrhoea, and seizures) can be worse than the behaviour itself, it’s expensive, and getting the dog off it can be difficult. No medication, including this one, is a good substitute for addressing the underlying reason for the unwanted behaviour.

There are many different herbs with calming properties, and too many such products to list. I’ll add flower essences and essential oils here, although one could argue that they are distinctly different from herbal medicine. Sometimes these plant-based therapies are helpful, other times not. Typically, they’re unhelpful when they’re used as the first or only line of treatment.

One notable exception is a group of herbs called adaptogens. In brief, adaptogenic herbs act as very mild biochemical stressors that stimulate a broadly adaptive response (hence the name, adaptogen). I could write an entire post about them, and perhaps I will at some point. In the meantime, here are my favourite adaptogenic herbs: Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Asian or American ginseng (Panax species), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schizandra (Schisandra chinensis), and maral root (Rhaponticum carthamoides). Of these, rhodiola may be the most interesting for these dogs because of its moderating effects on cortisol production by the adrenal glands. (Cortisol is a principal ‘stress’ hormone.)

Adaptogenic herbs are a good place to finish this (very long) blog post, because they encapsulate my approach to dealing with highly sensitive animals:

Change what you can, and help the animal cope better with the rest.

You won’t be able to change everything, and you won’t always get it right. Just change what you can, and help your dog cope better with the rest.

[I’ll probably continue to work on this post, so if you come back to this blog and the text is slightly changed, it’s because I’ve thought of something I wanted to add or some way I could have said something better. I also want to add a brief note on homeopathy and other forms of energy medicine for highly sensitive dogs. Stay tuned…]