Monday, November 1, 2010

Emotional beings can stand some R&R

My case studies tend to be the over-the-top in dog behaviors from redirected aggression to extreme resource guarding to multi-family dog fights. As a Certified Tellington Touch Practitioner I've witnessed many behavior changes in animals through the use of bodywork, positive leading exercises and confidence building obstacle coursework. Using this concept to calm, focus and balance a dog, I added a pre-step to my aggression puzzle and called it the emotional detox. Of course, not all dogs require it, but those with intense emotional episodes (aggression or reactivity) benefit.

In the beginning there may be up and down spikes of the unwanted behavior (i.e. aggression to people) and the more the behavior is repeated, of course, the more it will be repeated. The stress, tension and anxiety of the environment may cause the behavior to level out, meaning the stress, tension and anxiety continues even when the dog is asleep. This would reveal itself in constantly getting up, pacing, interruption of sleep, barking at every little noise, sleep aggression (i.e. jumping up and aggressing if awakened accidently). The tension builds. Even exercise becomes un-doable because it is a battle, not a walk. There is constant worry about what is coming in the environment, a jogger, a bicycle, another dog and the cycle repeats itself over and over again. Case in point, Doberman wearing a muzzle, jogs 7 years in the same stressful environment. He is sleek in looks, but stressed emotionally and afraid of everything in the environment aggressing at people, and at dogs. He has never run free in his lifetime. He is on prozac.

Case in point, a recent entry on my Facebook page talked of a new client and a required emotional detox. Several were curious as to what that entailed. The dog, an 18-month-old Rottweiler/mix is human and dog aggressive. He is afraid, intensely fearful of every little thing in the environment. There is no trust and this dog is volatile. Walks are stressful, as just putting on the collar and leash means he has to go off the property. He runs to avoid it, but once the gear is on, he complies and goes for the walk, head down, tail tucked, looking right and left and reacting intensely if dogs come into the environment, or if a vehicle comes down the road. He walks slowly away from his property, and quickly back. Back on the property he relaxes a bit. In this case, exercise is highly over-rated for this dog taking this path daily. Stress overshadows any benefit from exercise.

Enter, the emotional detox.

Intense exercise is not the key to recovery for some dogs. The thinking is that a lot of exercise cures everything, but not in my experience. Dogs also need periods of rest and relaxation and to process positive and successful outcomes. Dogs who feel and know what calm is can go there and cope with real life better.

Dogs until taught properly how to exercise and walk, don't do it like their human counterparts. They are either on a hunt or think they are being hunted. The latter is a prime candidate for an emotional detox. The one with an over-the-top prey drive might also be a great candidate. The emotional detox comes before retraining the walk and is done with zero to minimal distraction, and zero reactivity or aggression for at least three days. Some dogs need more, up to two weeks and some will need several repeats as they start to adjust to changes, new routines and positive reward-based training that helps them to have a series of successes and safety experiences.

The emotional detox is not a recipe, it varies depending on the dog and even the owner and family. However, below is what I do when an aggressive dog enters my home and I care for them. The first stage is always an emotional detox. The dog generalizes my environment with the detox and so if they come back for a second stay rarely do I have to repeat this stage.

Establishing a level of comfort to meet the dog's needs and reduce stress. This starts with the dog's stuff. Showing them "their stuff" is in a new environment and literally placing these items while the dog watches is a critical part of the process.

When the dog is in their own home, this might require changing the environment. For instance, for an extreme resource guarder ALL toys, bedding and whatever else can be physically guarded is removed, except for two lower interest items.

The dog is then fed a really good, wholesome, satisfying and large meal and given clean water with a capful of Apple Cider Vinegar. Preferred food is a natural meal and not anything in a bag, but that is not critical. What is more critical is that it is comforting to the dog. A dog eating kibble might get something special in their kibble during the detox, such as specially cooked chicken. ACV is a great inner body cleanser and all around vitamin and mineral rich component. Detoxing takes a look at the whole dog. A belly full of quality food helps a dog relax.

Potty breaks are done on lead and often throughout the day. If a fenced area is available, two potty breaks might be on lead and then the others off, if signs of stress are heading south. The potty break meets a need and potty breaks are rewarded profusely. A fun outing, no stress, and the use of food once again. A positive interactive experience to relax the dog. Dogs who mark in the house are under extreme stress and this part of the detox becomes extremely important for them.

Once those elements are met, then starts the pattern exchanges of relaxation and activity. The second hour into the detox the dog is either umbilical chorded to owner's waist and following them around the house doing meaningless chores. Just hanging out and relaxing, especially important for the marker. If not marking, the dog is allowed to walk around the house - and some intense personalities will walk the entire hour - to familiarize themselves with the new or the changed environment. They are not to rush around barking, rush at windows or doors. Everything is blocked, dim or dark and quiet as much as can physically be accomplished. So starts the coming down period emotionally, the detox with the goal to allow the dog to feel relaxed with a full three days of no reactivity, no aggression, no confrontation.

The following hour is then a period of complete relaxation (or attempt to start in some cases). Extreme cases I stay with the dog and just do paperwork or busy work with the intent to ignore, yet closely supervise and watch the dog. Some settle in and start to relax, others go through periods of reactivity, even aggression, pacing, whining etc. It is a period of appropriate music, I like the Through a Dog's Ear series, but there are other types as well. It is quiet, a warm blanket or bedding, maybe a ticking clock, piece of owner's clothing, a toy. Depends on the dog and what their issues are, their requirements. If the dog has severe separation anxiety then a tether or an xpen may be good or for others a crate or in a room with a baby gate is the ticket. The key is to meet the dog's needs and the detox is helping an anxious dog, relax; a hyperactive dog, calm down; an aggressive dog, to destress; a reactive dog to have nothing to react to.

After this hour the detox rotates with periods of complete relaxation and calm to periods of activity, alone time (without other dogs) and play periods with other dogs if appropriate matches can be made. This can be very relaxing and provide entertainment and exercise. The activity periods are low key ball play, even frisbee or toybox play or mentally stimulating activity at time interactive with a human and other times activities where the dog uses their intelligence to figure things out. Some dogs find this stressful, those dogs who become confused easily or dogs who have learned helplessness or dogs never taught to play or allowed to play. So again the periods of activity responsibly and reasonably take into account a dogs joy, what they love to do and also teach. In the activity periods I often use small sessions of clicker training or trick training with keeping the dog successful at all times so they build confidence.

By the second and third days the relaxation periods increase, a full uninterrupted sleep is achieved, a full 8-hours of night sleep and the ultimate sign, a huge, full sigh or more than one.
The relaxation period includes several Tellington Touch bodywork sessions and wraps of various kinds. The relaxation phase will include, as appropriate, special food, rescue remedy or pheromones, soft talking and calming praise.

The activity periods become something to look forward to in creating a happy dog, eager to play, to please, to listen. Striving to help the dog relax enough to be responsive is the key. It also allows the behavior trainer time to assess whether this dog can relax or not, to extend the emotional detox or to if needed, recommend medication to build serotonin levels and calm the dog enough to be able to learn. The activity sessions also include Tellington Touch leading exercises and obstacle coursework to focus and build confidence. The dog is on a total positive detox to get rid of bad patterns and replace them with new ones.

It is a time to change patterns, to enforce rules, boundaries and guidelines and a time to really get to know a particular dog and their personality, their nature, etc. This helps in pulling together the proper behavior program. Case in point, a dog who vomits horribly in the vehicle due to stress of fighting in the household. This stress manifests itself to the digestive tract. Finding this dog likes to burrow under blankets and feels safe and blissfully tired transfers to car rides to the end result of zero vomiting in the car. Calming the stomach, making the dog feel safe, ends the distress (if it is not due to health reasons.)

This is often difficult for owners who think exercise is the key to everything, who work full-time, who do not interact with their dogs, who can't relax themselves and more. However, for those who do the emotional detox properly, it is magical. It refreshes the dog and builds bond between owner and dog. They learn things about their dog they never knew prior. The dog is ready to go forward with next steps.

When I do the emotional detox myself, clients immediately see the difference in their dog with comments like "it's a miracle" or "what did you give my dog" or "my dog is so calm, they aren't themselves" or "where did my bad dog go?" If the owner does the work themselves, they see immediate results, as well, and often see a dog who is relaxing for the first time in their lives, or a dog who sighs for the first time or a dog persistently at every sound, or a dog who sleeps through the night peacefully. Attention seeking behaviors go away and the dog may even start to enjoy a walk.

For tough dogs it is a first step. Relaxation, de-stressing, detoxing the emotions then precedes exercise.

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