If you’re like me, you depend on your dog for emotional support – sometimes. At other times, you might realize that you are, in fact, your dog’s emotional support human. Our dogs’ mental and emotional health is as important as their physical health, but maybe we do not think about that as much as we should.
I’m still learning how to support my dogs’ mental health. I find that Cow always has obvious, outwards signs of anxiety in totally normal situations. She barks, cries, and stress-pants wherever we go, and she seems terrified of walking on hardwood, so much that she refuses to enter the kitchen.
But what about Matilda? She’s usually confident and carefree, but she started to go grey at just four years old. At seven, she has more white than I feel she should, and I can’t help but wonder if Cow stresses her out, or if she has unseen anxiety. Or, as I keep telling myself to pacify my anxiety… it’s probably just vitiligo.
Whether your dog is clearly struggling to cope with everyday life, or they seem totally bulletproof, their mental health matters.
I asked pet professionals for their best tips for supporting your dog’s mental health – let’s learn together how we can do more for our dogs this year.
Feed for Mental Health
Cow is, as I just mentioned, my “anxiety dog,” and she’s always had gut issues, from food intolerances to chronic pancreatitis. These days she is finally having healthy, solid poops. So of course I could relate to this advice from mental health coach (for humans), Jen Mayo.
My advice is to buy or make the highest quality food (not kibble)
to support gut and nutritive health. A healthy, happy mind begins with a
healthy happy gut and most commercial foods are of such poor quality that
creating a healthy guy is impossible. Look for organic, pasture raised
meats and consider exploring raw options. A good, holistic, nutritionally
minded vet can guide you to making your own pet food from scratch. A
healthy gut microbiome will support brain health and, ultimately,
happiness. Likewise, monitor your pooch’s elimination habits. Chronic
diarrhea or constipation are indications of impaired gut function and
rescue pets who may have come from abusive previous homes are especially
prone to having gut disorders due to trauma that has disregulated their
autonomic nervous system, putting them in perpetual states of fight or
flight. Even if their behavior does not reflect that nervous system
dysregulation, the energetic and endocrine manifestations of it can still
wreak havoc on their digestive systems.
trauma informed holistic health coach
Tune out stressors
This is something I haven’t thought of at all, so I’m glad Julie Burgess, CPDT-KA brought it up. We live in an apartment facing a parking lot, so we can hear people coming and going all day long. Matilda and Cow bark when they hear strangers, and get worked up into a frenzy. They’re good about stopping when I ask, but they have no way of knowing when a sound is coming from our next-door neighbor or a scary puppy napper.
Look at getting either a fan, a white noise machine, or both. Our dog was less anxious with a white noise machine because it did an excellent job blocking general household noise out. Everyday noises sent her panicking. Be careful of what you choose as noise-blocking music because thunderstorm tunes aren’t very calming! In warmer climates, you could use a fan to cool the air and help keep your anxious dog in check.
Certified Dog Trainer Julie Burgess, CPDT-KA
Pet expert on SeniorTailWaggers.com
Prepare your dog for time apart
Separation anxiety is always a hot topic for dogs, but in these times, I think it’s even more of an issue than ever. We’ve been depending on our dogs to get us through the loneliness of the pandemic, but when we start to leave home more often, they might have trouble adjusting.
But keep in mind that dogs sleep much more than we do. They may sleep 12-14 hours a day, so they’re capable of snoozing the day away while they wait for our return.
Veterinarian Dr. Corinne Wigfall advises to give your dog small doses of alone time even when you’re home, working up to longer absences. While life changes may not always give you time to prepare in this way, it’s healthy to get your dog accustomed to being on their own, even if you don’t plan to go back to the office anytime soon.
Treatment of separation anxiety is based on creating a predictable and
consistent daily routine for your dog. Gradually increasing time apart
using this routine is important, even if it starts by spending time in a
separate room, or different part of the garden, but gradually increasing
the time apart so your dog is used to time alone and are happy alone.
Getting your dog used to the pre-departure cues such as picking up keys or
putting on shoes, can desensitise your dog to you leaving, keeping goodbyes
and greetings low key are important.
Crate training is a great tool to teach, so your dog gets used to being in
a safe space, it is also moveable so will aid their anxiety and comfort if
visiting friends, relatives or travelling in the car, they have their crate
and know it is their safe space.
Dr Corinne Wigfall,
BVMBVS(Hons) BVMedSci(Hons) Veterinary spokesperson for Spirit Dog Training
Go on an adventure
We all know it’s important to walk our dogs for potties, but going on mental health walks are also a priority. Sniffing actually lowers your dog’s heart rate – they need to be able to explore without being tugged along from spot to spot. Veterinarian TB Thompson has a few tips for freeing your dog’s mind with adventure time:
1.Go for a ride in the car. Even if it’s just around the block, so many dogs love to look out the window at the world.
2. Go to a park they haven’t been to or not in a while. They can socialize with other dogs if that’s their thing, but even sniffing where other dogs have been is very interesting to dogs.
3. Give your pup a sandbox to dig in or go to a sandy beach. Some dogs really love digging.
4. Let your dog do things you might think are gross. It’s normal for them to want to roll in stinky stuff and lay down in puddles. A bath will make them socially acceptable and the happiness they get from this is priceless.
TB Thompson DVM, founder of Natural Pets HQ
Bring out the toys
Veterinarian Dr. Linda Simon notes that most bad behaviors stem from a lack of mental stimulation. Dogs get bored, and they find ways to entertain themselves, and bad habits can also be a source of comfort when they’re stressed.
A good tip is to ditch the food bowl and to start making meal times fun and interesting. This means using Kongs, snaffle mats, lick mats and slow feeder bowls. If your dog is not used to these things, start off slow with one or two easy food puzzles, to avoid frustration at meal times. Rotate your dog’s toys, so they are not getting bored of the same toys that are left out all the time. This can mean having a ‘toy box’ and choosing 2 or 3 different ones each week. Look for durable toys that last a long time. Don’t expect your dog to keep themselves occupied; they will need your interaction when it comes to playing. Ensure you have a variety of options including tug toys, puzzle toys, interactive toys, balls etc.
Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS, Veterinary Surgeon and veterinary consultant for Five Barks.