Behavioral wellness aims to create a balance in your dog’s life across all aspects of their health (mental and physical), and therefore improving your dog’s behavior. I would argue that behavioral wellness is more important to a dog’s overall training and behavior plan than the actual training itself. What good is a solid training plan if the dog in question is stressed out, under exercised and under stimulated? Being out of sorts or out of balance isn’t good for any learner, and this is especially true if the dog struggles with a behavioral problem. Behavioral wellness has been more widely recognized thanks to Sarah Stremming https://thecognitivecanine.com/blog/the-four-steps/ (if you aren’t already listening to her podcast CogDog Radio – you’re missing out on a lot of great information). I also learned about the importance of a good diet, mental stimulation, and adequate sleep from my former mentor, Nan Arthur. Nan wrote a great book called Chill Out Fido, which is a wonderful guide to learning how to calm your dog down.
My approach to behavioral wellness includes the following: ensuring adequate & restful sleep, feeding the best diet you can afford, exercise that prioritizes time on a long line or being off leash, mental stimulation, and addressing any physical issues such as pain and discomfort.
When you have all of these pieces in place, you have a dog that is in a healthy mental and physical state. On the flip side, a dog will often exhibit behavioral problems when these needs are not met. When I work with clients I always include behavioral wellness as part of our overall plan. The amount of dogs whose behavior has improved with these strategies alone is astonishing… and this was with minimal training!
Finn’s Behavioral Wellness Plan
Restful and Adequate Sleep
To me, restful sleep means sleep that is uninterrupted, and adequate sleep for a dog means sleeping 12-16 hours a day (this includes overnight). Because sleep is how the body recovers, its importance cannot be overlooked. For Finn, he’s been through a lot of changes the past 3 weeks – new home, new routine, new relationships. He also has a disability by only having 3 legs, and when you add all of this up there is a significant amount of stress on his body at the moment. I make a sleep a priority in my house a few different ways. First, I have my dogs sleep in crates overnight. This allows them to have their own secure space, and it also prevents any potty accidents. I have white noise in the form of a box fan and a white noise machine (this is more for me but I’m sure the dogs benefit), and the room is dark and cool. My dogs sleep until I get up, and having them crated also prevents them from walking around, engaging in play, etc at the crack of dawn.
During the day, I also encourage rest/sleep for a good 4-6 hours. This happens primarily when I am working or away from home, but sometimes I put the dogs in my office for down time if I need to get them away from other activity going on in the house. If I need to block out noises to help create a quieter environment I will use the box fan, or I use my favorite calming music cube called Pet Tunes https://www.petacoustics.com/pet-tunes-overview.
What you feed your dog is often a personal and divided topic, and not one I want to delve in a lot of detail here. I have always tried to feed the best diet I can afford, focusing on high quality and fresh ingredients, and maintaining a variety of nutrients. Right now I am feeding The Honest Kitchen dehydrated food, along with the Honest Kitchen kibble and some other toppings such as high end canned food, sardines, and eggs. Finn seems to really like fish based foods, and his stools are great so whatever I’m doing seems to be working.
I normally do a lot of food puzzles or search games with my dogs. But considering that Finn only started eating regularly a week ago, and that he is still showing some anxiety around eating his meals while wanting to maintain focus on his environment, I have chosen to forgo these with him for the time being. The last thing I want to do is to give him a puzzle toy that creates a sense of conflict for him – I want these to be fun, stress relieving activities. I will introduce them at a later point.
I also consider chews such as bully sticks, No Hides (similar to rawhide but easier to digest for many dogs), raw bones, etc as mental stimulation. Chewing is one of the ways that dogs expend energy and relieve stress, and I think it’s really important that they be provided for dogs several times a week. One day while I was working in my office I gave Scout a No Hide in his crate. For the heck of it, I decided to give one to Finn to see what he would do. I was surprised to find that Finn was willing to chew on it! In fact, he really enjoyed it and chewed on it for almost an hour. When a dog is lying down and working on a chew it demonstrates a level of relaxation that you may not see when a dog is overly stressed or anxious about their environment. In my experience a dog who walks away from a chew may simply not like what you are providing, but more often are unable or unwilling to take their attention off of their environment to work on it. So this was a big win for Finn this week!
Mental stimulation can also come in the form of exploring and smelling new environments, which is a big part of our exercise routine.
Luckily for me, I already knew that Finn likes walks because of his last foster home. In fact, getting ready for a walk is the only time Finn willingly lets me put a leash on him (willingly is a bit of a stretch – he’s still pretty stressed about the interaction).
I have a lot to say about exercise. First, I wish everyone would throw the notion of walking your dog as being a fast paced power walk/dog must be at your side/no sniffing allowed/ego trip on the human end of the leash out the window. You might be surprised to hear a professional trainer say that, but I can assure you that there is no master rule book in the dog training world that says you must walk your dog that way. It is purely a conception that has stuck with pet dogs for decades, and I wish it went away. Yes, polite leash manners such as walking on a loose leash and having your dog focus on you around distractions are valuable behaviors, and ones that I teach clients every day. But I strongly believe that if owners would make a point to relax, make walking their dogs an opportunity to build their relationship rather than break it, and recognize that dogs are a different species from us who need to use their noses to explore their environment, that both ends of the leash would be happier.
My anecdotal experience has shown that taking a fearful dog on walks, even if they are worried at first, leads to improved behavior overall. If the dog in question is friendly towards other dogs, then a group walk would be ideal so they can learn and watch how the other dogs approach the situation (Scout and Finn are always walked together). Fearful dogs can be so tense, and exercise can be a great way to loosen their bodies and their minds. Walking is also a parallel activity that doesn’t involve a lot of social pressure, and it can be a nice opportunity for a fearful dog to learn to relax and enjoy shared time with their human.
There are a few important pieces I added to my walks with Finn, the biggest being the environment we are walking in. When Finn sees a person on a walk, his first response is to startle and attempt to flee, so I know that it is a stressful event for him. Given that these walks are supposed to be relaxing, I will inadvertently create more stress by walking him in busy areas. Because he is still transitioning to my home, I want to do my best to avoid any unnecessary stressors right now. So this means that we often do field trips outside of my neighborhood.
I also switched to a waist leash so that I don’t have to worry about hanging onto his leash in my hands which helped us both relax more. A dog like Finn is a flight risk if he gets loose, and I have a feeling that is how he found himself running on a freeway to begin with. I also lengthened his leash by adding a second, 2 foot piece made of a bungee type material. This was to give him a little more space, but also out of consideration to him balancing on 3 legs while tied to me – if we came to a hard stop I wanted to soften the impact so it would be gentler on his body.
I let Finn pick the pace of the walk. If he wants to go fast we go fast, and I even jog with him for short bursts which delights him. If he wants to pause we pause, and sometimes we stand there for a full minute just taking in the world around us until he’s ready to move on. Scout of course is up for anything because he’s a little adventurer at heart (hence his name).
Last, our walks are anywhere from 45-90 minutes in length. I believe that dogs do better with one longer walk a day vs a few shorter ones. Not only does this give them adequate time to acclimate to their environment, it also tires them out and helps them relax the rest of the day.
Walking in Nature
Walking in nature is good for the soul, so I aim to walk on trails or open parks as much as I can. There are other reasons for this – I feel that fearful dogs seem to get stuck in their comfort box (which for many is quite small) and their willingness to try anything outside of that box is slim. Pushing a fearful dog just enough outside of that box to help them learn that the world has some amazing things to be found, while not pushing them so far that they shut down or regress, is an art form. Walking on trails and going over different surfaces, climbing hills, crossing water, and exploring the smells of nature are ways to expose a fearful dog to new things while stimulating their bodies and their minds. And so we’ve been doing just that.
So how do I know that these walks are helping? I look at a few different factors to assess Finn’s stress levels: amount of sniffing, eliminating, body tension, and pulling. The first walk I did with Finn he pulled most of the time, and didn’t sniff once. The second walk he pulled a little less, and sniffed a spot for maybe 3 seconds. Every walk from there has included more sniffing (sometimes on his own, sometimes joining Scout), walking on a looser lead (dogs who are more relaxed typically pull less), less tension in his body (more relaxed eyes, a soft open mouth), and he even began eliminating (peeing and pooping) on walks. So what’s the relevance of eliminating on walks? Let me share a little story with you.
Years ago my boyfriend at the time wanted to bring me snorkeling in La Jolla cove. Sounds like a fun date right? Not for me. When I was a kid I loved the ocean, and spent many summers in the water with my younger brother for hours on end. When I was 11 I got caught in a rip current, and not knowing what was happening I frantically tried swimming towards shore only to find myself being pulled farther and farther out. I drifted so far down the coast I was outside of the area the lifeguard patrolled, and no one could see me. I nearly drowned, but somehow I washed up on shore and collapsed, and then walked all the way back to the beach crowds. I never went swimming in the ocean again after that, although I did do some kayaking and paddle boarding in the bay which I felt OK doing because I was on something in the water, not loose and at the mercy of waves.
But this date was supposed to be safe, after all my boyfriend was with me and I also had a lifejacket so I didn’t have to worry about staying afloat. Did I mention I am terrified of fish swimming near me? And that I never used a snorkel before? Looking back, I have no idea why I agreed to it. As we were walking up to the shore, I really had to pee. It’s the kind of anxious pee a person feels when you arrive on a first date or for a job interview. It’s also the kind of pee dogs probably feel when they are in a new environment. But the bathrooms were far away and so I decided to just hold it.
When we jumped in the cold water I did my best to be game. I tried to breathe through the snorkel but water kept coming in and I was choking. Too afraid to swim on my own I literally grabbed onto my boyfriend the entire time like a child. Seaweed brushed against my legs and thinking they were fish I screamed. I lasted maybe 15 minutes before panicking so badly I demanded he bring me back to shore. Relieved to be out of the water, I slowly began to calm down.
Afterwards, we got Mexican food for lunch with friends, eating tacos and drinking beer and joking about how ridiculous the whole thing was. Remember how badly I needed to pee before? Well get this – my body was so flooded with stress hormones I could not pee for 4 hours following the event. Obviously I had plenty of time after snorkeling to calm down and do other activities, but my body still wasn’t having it. I found it fascinating.
There’s a big difference between being mildly to moderately anxious/fearful/stressed and then being consumed by it. This is the same for dogs. It’s why dogs who are overly stressed on walks cannot eliminate, and won’t engage in species appropriate behaviors such as sniffing. It’s why they won’t eat treats outside but will happily eat them in your kitchen. It’s why understanding how stress plays a role in behavior and why aiming for behavioral wellness should be a priority for every dog owner, and especially for one who is trying to improve their dog’s behavior problem.
If every day activities are stressful for your dog, do what you can to change them. There is so much more you have control over than you think. This doesn’t mean you’ll be avoiding all stressors for the remainder of your dog’s life, but it does mean that your dog will be more successful in learning to cope with them if they are in a healthy mental and physical state when you begin that process.
I am beginning to work on some training exercises with Finn, but that is a small sliver of our time right now compared to what we are doing in regards to behavioral wellness. As he continues to settle in and build more rapport with me, I’ll make it a bigger part of our day. I’ll share this progress in a future blog post.
He continues to be more comfortable in my presence. I’m seeing measured progress such as him choosing to sleep on the couch with me and my husband as we hang out in the evenings, and instead of staying 5 feet away at all times, he’s down to about 3-4. I still can’t touch him, but that will come with time. I see a little light in his eyes that tells me so.