Why lock-down might be just what your reactive dog needs

Mar 28, 2020

So much of the world is now in lock-down – living with restrictions on movement and contact in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus and relieve pressure on struggling health systems. It is a sensible and necessary strategy when you look at how the coronavirus spreads and the mathematics of the contagion.

But for those of us with reactive dogs, perhaps used to driving up to remote areas or walking our dogs separately, being limited to a walk a day and being told not to drive to that walk, can feel like a disaster. How are we even going to survive such restrictions with our sanity intact? How can we walk our dogs from the house when they are very reactive?

If this is you, or indeed if your dog is less reactive and you can walk them from the house but they are used to being out and about much more often, take heart. This time when we are forced to stay home can be a godsend – even if you don’t have your own acreage. Before you start yelling at the computer let me explain.

We’ve talked here before about chronic stress. If a stressful event occurs, your dog will initially have an acute stress response – the immediate “fight or flight” where a burst of adrenaline gets them ready for action. Adrenaline is for that immediate, urgent response and lasts only a few minutes. If the threat continues for more than a minute or two then the body releases cortisol, which can stay in the system for several hours. This means that if stressful events occur every few hours, the cortisol never gets the chance to reduce.

Cortisol is very necessary when we really are under threat as it directs resources to the body systems that we need to activate to stay safe, but it is not designed to be a constant. When it becomes constant, then some bad things happen in our bodies. I want to concentrate for now on just two of these things.

Firstly, cortisol inhibits serotonin production. Serotonin is our “feel good” or happiness hormone. Lack of serotonin can lead to anxiety and depression. So if our dogs have regular stressful events, then they are likely to have low levels of serotonin in their system.

Secondly, cortisol actually destroys cells in our hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. So those regular stressful events are actually shrinking our dogs’ brains, making them less able to learn. 

But the good news is that both of these things are reversible once cortisol is removed. We can encourage the production of serotonin through activities and diet. And the hippocampus will regenerate naturally within about 30 days.

So see lock-down as your opportunity to allow your dog’s system to get back into balance, to allow those cortisol levels to go right down for an extended period. See it as a chance to boost those serotonin levels. Take it as a breathing space for those brain cells in your dog's hippocampus to regenerate. 

Focus on activities at home that will increase serotonin production. Exercise is certainly one, but fast exercise of more than 15 minutes actually leads to cortisol production so focus on slow, balancing, muscle-building exercise rather than frantic running about in the garden: ACE Free Work and other proprioceptive exercise, like TTouch groundwork, are ideal.  Scent work, Parkour and any fun, positive training are also valuable. Diet is important, especially good protein sources and probiotic foods and supplements. Touch can help with serotonin production if it is a positive thing for your dog, so canine massage, TTouch and similar modalities are all beneficial to do. Sunlight also promotes serotonin production. There is evidence that lack of sunlight affects the brains of rats and hamsters so it is quite possible it is the same for our dogs. While the sun shines, spend time outside with your dogs: in your garden, on your balcony, or out and about on your one walk if you are able to go without stress.

And as your dog’s brain recovers, spend time learning together all those things that will help you when you venture forth again. Practise your ninja moves in the garden. Get a solid about-turn in place. Practise Look at That with things going past or birds flying by until you can have a ‘conversation’ with your dog about what they find interesting or concerning. Get those Pattern Games down to a tee, so you both fall into them by default. Try Leslie McDevitt’s Up and Down or 123 Treat or Chirag Patel’s Counting Game. Find the activities that your dog really loves and practise getting them on cue so you can direct your dog to refocus on them when you are back outside.

There are so many things we can do, so in April 2020, in my Facebook groups, we will be concentrating on our dogs and, in particular, how we can help them decompress in this time of lock-down. We will also cover those tricky questions: what to do when your dog won’t toilet in the garden or when your garden is a postage stamp or non-existent. Join us in Your End of the Lead (public group –open to all) and/or Canine Confidence Community (reserved for those who have taken a Canine Confidence course whether online or face-to-face, including the freebies) for a month of sharing ideas on making the most of the lock-down.

And for those who avoid Facebook, I will be covering some of these topics in more detail in future emails, so make sure you are subscribed.

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