My dogs have always been considered a part of my family and I know I am not the only one who wishes that they could live forever (or at least for as long as we do). Instead, we know that their time will come to an end far sooner than we’d like and so have only a short time to do what we can to make their lives as happy and as comfortable as possible. Focusing on our dog as a ‘whole being’, and considering the overlapping impact of their mental and physical health on their behavior, and vice versa, impacts how happy our dog is, how long they will live, and how stress-free our time with them will be.
As mentioned in a previous post, we can think of all dogs as having a ‘stress bucket’. Some dogs have a big bucket, some a small bucket. Some have a large hole in the bottom of their bucket and some a small one. The characteristics of this bucket not only determine how our dogs cope with the world but have an impact on their overall health. There are a variety of things that can pay into a dog’s bucket, and all of them have an impact on their behaviour.
Positive Stress: Exciting things such as play dates, visitors, and fun with you all are a source of positive stress that puts our dogs in a higher state of arousal. As positive stress fills the bucket, we may see more behaviours such as jumping, barking, mounting, nipping and ‘zoomies’.
Negative Stress: Fear of noises, other dogs or people and anxiety (general or specific) fills our dog’s bucket and if pushed over threshold we can see behaviours such as barking, lunging, growling or a variety of withdrawal behaviours.
Pain: Visible and invisible causes of pain are huge contributors to the stress bucket. Hip disease, joint issues, abdominal and bladder pain…all things that we can not always see outwardly, but that may be affecting our dog’s behaviour. Often, the initial cause of pain creates secondary pain in another area of the body (hunching over due to abdominal pain can create pain in the lower back).
Itchiness and Skin Issues: Ear infections, environmental allergies, seasonal allergies and even impacted anal glands are all bucket contributors in a negative way. Seasonal allergies often bring seasonal behavioural problems because a dog is so uncomfortable – they may vocalize more, seem less settled, sleep less and tolerate triggers less than usual (anyone with really bad hay fever will understand!).
Gastrointestinal Upset: Stomach issues are one of the most under-acknowledged contributors to behavioural issues in our dogs. When the lining of the stomach becomes inflamed (due to dietary issues, inflammatory bowel disease or stress) we often see soft stools or inconsistent bowel movements and increased anxiety that can exhibit itself in many ways (pacing, whining, general agitation, refusal to eat or drink and vomiting). The more time our dogs spend in a state of high stress and arousal, the less blood-flow there is to their stomach and this throws off their gut microbiome which then causes more stress and behavioural issues – it’s a vicious cycle.
Behaviour, training, and health are all closely linked. We cannot rely solely on training to ‘fix’ our dog’s behaviour struggles if there are underlying health issues that are playing a role. No amount of training is going to help a dog who is growling and snapping when touched because they are in pain. My young dog suffered from Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy in her first year, a developmental disease that resulted in lameness due to swelling and inflammation of the metaphyseal regions of the long bones in her legs. She had weeks of time (4 separate periods) where she had difficulty standing and moving about and would cry out in pain if moved the wrong way. This absolutely affected her stress levels and behaviour. Making sure that she had what she needed to manage the pain, and that her environment was as stress-free as possible during these times was important for her over-all well-being. When we recognize the interconnectedness of behaviour, mental health, and physical health we can work to improve the quality and quantity of our dog’s life.
A Proactive vs Reactive Approach
If we think about our dog’s ‘quality of life’ with respect to how full their stress bucket is at any one time, then their ‘quantity of life’ is determined by how prolonged a period has the bucket been full and over-flowing. Highly stressed dogs are not as happy, have more behavioural struggles, have more health issues, and do not live as long as their calm and healthy counterparts. As the bucket fills, barking increases, chase increases, focus decreases, pain and perception of pain increases, itchiness increases, gastro-intestinal inflammation increases…and sometimes it may seem like a lot of this is out of our control.
While genetics, past experiences and learning all play a role in determining the characteristics of a dog’s bucket, the good news is that they are all changeable. We can actively create an environment to keep stress at a minimum, we can play games to increase the size of the bucket (to increase optimism and confidence) and we can play games to increase the size of the hole in the bucket (also known as arousal up, arousal down games) to help our dogs let go of stress more quickly. The more stress-free our dogs are, the less health issues they have, the easier they are to live with and the better relationship we have with them.
There are also many things we can do to help prevent health issues in our dogs from a young age. Obviously, seeing your vet for annual check-ups and knowing what is a normal, baseline behaviour for your dog so that you can get them veterinary care when needed is important. Feeding a nutritionally balanced diet and complementing it with appropriate supplements can go a long way in maintaining a balance within your dog’s body and preventing issues down the road. Having watched my lovely senior spaniel, Janey, suffer with sever joint problems in her last few years (that we managed with hydrotherapy, laser treatments, medication and even acupuncture) made me determined to take a more proactive approach with my young dog’s health. Over the next week, I’ll be talking a little bit more about just what preventative measures I’m taking with her to ensure that she is able to live her best life.
If you’d like more information about the things discussed in this blog, grab your free e-book on your dog’s Health and Wellness at the link below.