Generally speaking, life is full of ups and downs. No matter who you are, where you live, or what you do daily, there will be joy-filled seasons as well as challenging ones. If you are one of the millions of American’s who suffer from a mental health disability, each of life’s seasons can be marked by needing to calm anxiety in some capacity. Anxiety is the number one robber of peace, rest, and sanity. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including but not limited to:
- racing thoughts or uncontrollable over-thinking
- difficulties concentrating
- feelings of dread, panic, or ‘impending doom’
- feeling irritable or excessively alert
- problems with sleep
- changes in appetite
- sweating or hot flashes
- heavy and fast breathing
- dry mouth, hair loss, or stomach aches
- shaking and fast heartbeat
- dizziness and fainting
Chronic symptoms are often life-altering. We understand the implications of never feeling calm, but there are others who don’t quite get it. If you’re unable to explain what you’re dealing with, it can be really frustrating. So what can you do? There are traditional management tools such as yoga, meditation, a healthier diet, or even medication. All of these methods can certainly be beneficial but don’t work for everyone. If you haven’t found the right fit just yet, you may want to consider enlisting the help of a canine companion!
Dogs can help reduce stress and anxiety simply by being present. It’s no secret that dogs offer unconditional love along with endless amounts of hugs and kisses. The simple act of petting a dog is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and release serotonin (the happy hormone). These facts are amazing on their own, but what if your pup had the hidden potential to improve your health even MORE? If you’re interested in learning how, here are 3 tangible ways you can train your dog to help you calm down.
1. Reaffirm (Touch & Warmth)
The power of a hug can be mind-blowing. When we feel sad, angry, scared, or even happy, a hug can induce a plethora of positive non-verbal stimuli. The warmth, closeness, and gentle physical pressure that an embrace creates can do wonders to battle the negative effects of stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, not everyone has an available person to offer a hug when needed! The good news is that you can train your pup to help you calm down with their touch. A “dog hug” is JUST as effective as a human hug, and maybe even more so. There are no strings attached with a dog, and there is no pressure to talk it out. Additionally, experts say that warming up your body temperature (even slightly) could be a possible off switch for stress. Dogs are homeotherms, which means they naturally keep a consistent core temperature of 101 to 102 degrees. Talk about convenience!
Using the American Kennel Club’s following recommendations, you can try training your dog for touch and warmth (or hug) therapy.
- To start, grab a treat and get eye level with your pup (squat, kneel, sit, etc.) while leaning towards him.
- Ask for your dog’s paw, and place it over your shoulder with a “stay” command.
- Next, place the treat in your hand and reach it behind the opposite shoulder that your dog’s paw is resting on.
- Your dog will move towards the treat and attempt to grab it.
- Keep your hand behind your shoulder and allow him to nip at the treat a little. Move your hand away slightly, then give them the treat.
- Try this repeatedly without any verbal cues. After implementing the same action a handful of times, you can begin to use the command “hugs” or “love” and give the treat.
- Now you should begin to increase the duration he holds the position before giving him the treat.
- Once your dog is consistently performing the behavior, say your cue without your hand behind your head. Wait until he hugs and then give him the treat. If he does not do it without seeing your hand behind your shoulder, give him the hand signal for shorter and shorter amounts of time until the dog can hug on just a verbal cue.
2. Reassure (Grounding)
As we discussed earlier, anxiety is a short name for a broad scope of mental health disability symptoms. Anxiety can stand firm alone or accompany other psychological disorders such as autism, depression, PTSD, and more. No matter which situation you find yourself in, having moments of extreme worry is typically par for the course. Have you ever had a thought pop into your mind that just completely overwhelmed you? Maybe the thought was something minor, like whether or not you remembered to pay the water bill. Maybe it was something major like a flashback or triggering memory. These thoughts can pop up at any time of day or night, consciously while awake or subconsciously while asleep.
With proper training, PSDs can be a fantastic resource of reassurance when you are feeling frenzied. The technical term for this is “grounding.” Your dog can implement specific actions that help bring your thoughts of panic back to a calm state of reality. These actions do not have to be complex but can make a big impact. Purposeful nudges, licks, pawing, and even controlled barking can all let you know that your dog is present with you. He sees you, senses your distress, and wants to help! For some visual direction, have a peek at Daryl the Service Dog. We have all been in vulnerable positions at some point or other and can relate to the effectiveness of a little reassurance.
3. Redirect (Distraction)
Most of us have used some form of distraction to avoid life. Retail therapy, comfort foods, and a chat with a friend are some common examples. Mental health disabilities, however, tend to bring things to a whole new level. Sufferers might find themselves so worked up that they are unable to resume normal life behaviors. In severe cases, compulsive responses such as scratching, pacing, or hyperventilating might develop. When you feel out of control, you are likely not able to ask for help or perform an action (like taking medication) on your own. Did you know that dogs can offer immediate assistance in these difficult moments?
Dogs innately have incredible instincts and great persistence. These traits make it easier for them to notice when you are unsettled and be trained to insist that you redirect your focus. For instance, your dog might incessantly ask you to throw the ball to keep your mind and body engaged in an alternative activity. You could also train your dog to ask for food and water, to ask to go for a walk or to turn on the television in order to distract you from an impending mental health episode. With successful redirection, the mind is able to reset. Once thinking more clearly, medication or other forms of intervention can be adequately secured and catastrophe avoided!
There are a lot of techniques in the world today for calming your mind, body, and soul, but we find dogs to be one of the most effective choices. Your canine companion is readily available, plus their dedicated investment in your life makes them a foolproof option. We know anxiety can be scary. If you feel like what we discussed describes your life, don’t hesitate to reach out for the relief you deserve.