Mental health is an important issue that is finally being addressed with equal importance to physical health. Research from charity MIND explains that in the UK, 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health issues each year. However there are more and more treatments, counselling and support available to those in need.
We love our pets and consider them as our children, so when they have physical health problems like injuries and illnesses, we go to the vet. But what about when our pets have mental health issues?
We spoke to Emily, owner and hu-mum to Sputnik- a three year old Lurcher suffering with anxiety, to talk about what it's like living with a pet with mental health problems.
Q: Hi Emily! Could you tell us a little about yourself and Sputnik?
Hi! I'm Emily, a 19 year old based on the Wiltshire/Dorset border and joined by my gentleman sidekick, Sputnik! Spud for short. His history is fairly unknown but we got him between 8-12 weeks, rescued through a Dorset Rescue Sanctuary. He was found abandoned with his sister, suspected to have been bred for hunting. We took him home the same day we saw him and he's been with us ever since.
Q: What is Sputnik's "diagnosis"?
I've know he has been anxious all throughout his life, however I'm fairly against the idea of the 'diagnosis' of mental health problems in both people and animals. I find the label boxes them up to a point to where they behave like their 'diagnosis'.
Q: Who did you seek for diagnosis?
A behaviourist (AKA Doggy Counsellor) I found through the IMDT (Institute of Modern Dog Trainers) approved trainer list, and spoke back and forth prior to her first visit. She's been nothing but supportive, loving and so helpful from the start.
On her first visit, we chatted for a long time, and went through various fake scenarios using a stuffed dog (which amazingly, many dogs believe is real!) and walking up the road to evaluate his behaviours around traffic. This enabled her to see his threshold distances in situations where he was scared, and what his reactions were. Obviously lots of treats and cuddles were involved in the process, but it was so important for her to see his level of fear so she could help him further.
I work very closely with the Doggy Counsellor both in person and over the phone or email to build a training and daily routine that works for Sputnik. I am also signed up to her classes so we can work with his fear of other dogs in a controlled environment.
Q: What are the symptoms of anxiety or stress in dogs?
There are so many that they can easily be missed as every day routines, however the most common symptoms are:
- Whale eyes (whites of eyes showing)
- Lip licking
- Compulsive toy squeaking
- Shredding/ digging
- Growling/ barking
- Trembling/ the shakes
A common symptom which is very easy to spot is a whole body shake- as if they are shaking off water. This often suggests that the situation they have just been in has been stressful and that they shake to relax.
It is important to note that that these behaviours do not necessarily mean your dog is stressed (lip licking is common around food, and there are many different reasons for barking)- but to be aware that these symptoms are linked to anxiety and stress.
Q: What are the main causes of anxiety and/ or stress?
Just like people, every dog is different. A common cause however can be unstable environments at an early age. Anxiety can result from specific early life trauma- for example- early separation from the pup's mother or generally from mistreatment or neglect.
Sensitive dogs are not purely a breed characteristic, however some dogs can be more sensitive than others- Sighthounds for example are more sensitive as a breed, however within the breed itself you will find more and less sensitive dogs.
Q: Is there anything that Sputnik is particularly sensitive to?
As anxiety affects his whole life, Sputnik has many triggers. However the 'worst' triggers are:
- Other dogs (except other Sighthounds)
- Lorries/ trailers/ loud cars/ motorbikes
Q: What makes living with a dog with Anxiety so different to other dogs?
Living with a dog with Anxiety that is as bad as Sputnik's, is honesty, very hard. It's mentally and physically exhausting, and a lot of hard work- though I wouldn't change it for the world.
Fortunately for me, Sputnik doesn't really struggle with separation anxiety, so I'm able to leave my three dogs just as other families can. Overnight adventures involving me leaving Spud behind had been difficult; we have now mastered this, however it is still hard for be gone for more than a few days.
Sputnik has a set routine which has to stay the same as possible. Changes in his routine can be upsetting, increasing his anxiety levels. He can become aggressive towards the other dogs but also to humans in the house. We always have to be prepared if the routine does change- separating the dogs, feeding lots of Kongs and being around him but giving his personal space.
Wake up / toilet / back in for a snooze / walk / nap time / lunch / afternoon sleep / walk / nap / dinner / toilet / play time (outdoor/indoor- weather dependent) / nap- if restless then give Kong/ puzzle to settle / last toilet / up to bed with Kong / sleep.
Q: Does exercise help?
When dogs run, endorphins are released, which makes the dog happy. It's very important for anxious and stressed dogs to exercise and have that time to shake the stress away, however it comes with caution as if you come across a stressful situation, it can ruin the emotional benefit of the exercise session.
Mental exercise is the biggest and best way of helping an anxious dog. By keeping their mind busy, they will become tired. A stressed dog who has to focus on puzzles will have a well rested sleep afterwards, as they are no longer thinking about the original stress. Kongs are essential for Sputnik's routine- while he is focussing on getting his treats and licking the Kong, his mind is occupied.
Q: Can you still train anxious dogs?
Training is something I truly recommend. You just have to be extra slow and careful you don't scare them with anything.
Sputnik and I do Agility, so we take the extra time getting him comfortable with the pieces of equipment prior to using them. But it's definitely doable!
These are training methods that can be used to change an Anxious or Reactive dog's perspective to their trigger, converting from something that is scary to something that is seen as okay.
Q: Is medication an option?
100%. Some dogs are so anxious by nature that it is very hard to get them calm enough to change their emotional response by using training methods (see previous question).
The intention with medication is to help raise the dog's threshold and tolerance for its triggers, therefore making initial training easier to start, and gradually being able to wean the dog off medication as their emotional responses will have changed during the training.
As with any medication, you should be in communication with your vet as they will be the person to prescribe what they feel is best for each dog. Like people, each dog is different so medication is not a one-cure-all.
Q: What should owners do if they think their pet is anxious or stressed?
Talk! Talk to your vet, talk to professionals, but also talk to the people who own these pets- they are in the same situation as you! Get everyone's opinions. There are so many fantastic qualified Behaviourists who can help dogs that are anxious or stressed- and many other complex issues.
I am so glad that I finally did get a Behaviourist for Sputnik, and to be honest- I wish I had got one sooner!
Q: Is it ever the owner's fault?
Dogs can be anxious for so many reasons. If you have rescued a dog that has gone through trauma, then of course it's not your fault! If the dog has been through trauma that was out of your control (for example, being attacked by another dog)- also not your fault! There are SO many times when it certainly isn't the owner's fault.
I have had so many private messages [on Instagram] from accounts about their issues but not wanting to speak about it publicly for fear that they are doing something wrong or that people will judge them for it.
Very subtle situations like trauma to the mother before the puppy was even born can result in an anxious dog no matter how confidently or appropriately they have been raised.
Q: Do you use any aids to help reduce anxiety/ stress?
There are so many products out there today which can help hugely.
Thundershirt- They sell vests/jumpers that are supposed to "feel like a hug", and can aid dogs to stay calm in stressful situations- for example during thunderstorms (hence the name). Studies have shown an 80% success rate in pets using Thundershirts.
Headphones- You can buy noise cancelling headphones for your pets that are fantastic for sound sensitive dogs. These are great to use particularly for fireworks for Bonfire Night and New Year.
Natural Remedies- There are a number of natural remedies like sprays which are used for relaxing your pets.
Routine- As I have previously mentioned, the best way to reduce Sputnik's anxiety is through following the same routine daily. It's not time critical, but the order throughout the day that is key. Any change to his (or his family's) routine and the day will be very stressful.
Q: As we can see from his Instagram, Sputnik wears a muzzle. Why did you choose to do this?
There are a couple of reasons Spud wears a muzzle. Firstly, as a Lurcher Sputnik has great hunting skills- so combined with his speed we (as a family) chose to allow him the freedom to run without causing small animals any harm.
I also choose to use a muzzle because Sputnik is a very under-confident and fearful dog, and when wearing a muzzle he is so much happier. He sees it as his 'suit of armour'- it gives him an extra inch of space between another dog and his face. He doesn't know it is 'hindering' him in any way, instead he just feels like the scary dog can't get to him- so he is able to stay calmer in stressful situations.
Q: Why do you think mental health in animals is so important?
I'm thrilled that people are talking more and more about people's mental health, and that the subject is less taboo these days. But animal mental health is equally as important for one simple reason: animals feel too.
I suffer from Anxiety and so know exactly what it feels like. Therefore I can empathise with what Sputnik is feeling- and if he's feeling what I'm feeling... ugh poor puppy.
Q: Are there any support groups or charities that have helped you and Sputnik?
The most significant charity in the fight to support troubled dogs is Yellow Dog UK. They try to raise awareness amongst people to give dogs their appropriate personal space, particularly if they are wearing yellow. This applies to a variety of dogs- from blindness, deafness, anxiety, females on heat, etcetera.
The other group I would like to mention is Reactive Dogs UK. They are a Facebook support group full of the most fantastic people and amazing authorised trainers.
Finally, I included a hashtag to social media: #yellowdogsarebeautiful. I created this to reduce the stigma surrounding 'yellow' dogs and to also help owners feel more confident to share their pet's stories to the public so we can continue to support, help and encourage each other.
Q: What are your 3 best tips for helping a dog with anxiety?
1. Routine, routine, routine! Setting a strict routine will not only help you commit to your dog, but it will also do wonders for their mental stability.
2. Treats, treats, treats! Giving your dog food and treats for all of the things they face that are scary to them is the most beneficial way of helping them slowly get over their anxiety. High value treats like The Innocent Hound Bites are a great reward that I use.
3. My final tip, is to love your dog for who they are. Don't get stressed or upset, because anxious dogs are so sensitive already that if they sense your disappointment/upset or frustration then it can do real damage. My biggest and most important tip is to just love your pet, unconditionally, no matter how scary they can be, no matter how embarrassed you are, no matter what they do. Just love them, and it will make the world of difference.
Everyone here at The Innocent Pet would like to thank both Emily and Sputnik for taking the time to talk to us about their journey together, and wish them every success for the future! For more information on Yellow Dogs, go to http://yellowdoguk.co.uk/.