One topic rarely discussed among Assistance Dog Handlers is the level of stress that a dog (and person) lives with. Chronic stress in dogs, as in humans, leads to health problems and can trigger problem behaviors and even cause the need to retire your dog early.
Examine the Big Picture:
Your Home & Work Environments, Exercise and food.
It is important that dog guardians carefully manage their dog's home environment as this is where she recharges her batteries.
How can you do this?
Look hard at your life and determine what stresses you out the most. Make a list. Prioritize. What choices can you make that will lower or ideally remove that stress? There are always choices. You may have to do some research (or have a helper do it for you) and be creative, but there are ALWAYS options! If it's complicated, it's probably not the right choice.
* Have a regular routine where possible
* Eat meals at the same time, at the same place
* Go to sleep and rise at the same time every day
* Schedule ongoing medical-related appointments etc for the same time and day each week. Same for recreation outings.
* Post a schedule where everyone in the home can see what is happening each day and in the future
* Avoid 'switching things up to keep it interesting' at home. Moving furniture from room to room, switching contents of cupboards and drawers for no reason creates chaos where none needs to be
* Set up your living areas so they make efficient use of space
* Ensure pathways to hallways and doorways are clear
* Get regular exercise even if it means sitting in your wheelchair and lifting your arms to some music. If you are in better shape, you can handle stress better.
* Manage your own health thoughtfully- quality food, exercise, sufficient sleep etc are all important factors.
* Limit excessive activity level in your home (people coming and going)
* Be Efficient in your day-to-day errands etc (do several on one outing instead of going out several times)
* Consider bulk deliveries for groceries (canned or frozen items) or regular weekly deliveries for fresh (eat lots of fruit and veggies)
* Turn background noise (such as TVs or radios) down or off
* Choose colors & patterns for your walls, drapes, bedspreads etc that you feel good around or calm you. (Avoid light green as it is stressful for most people.) Light blue is calming.
* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.)
* Discontinue harmful relationships
* Carefully examine the medications you are on to see how they affect your mood. (Remember that how you feel affects your dog!)
* If you are a perfectionist, lower your expectations of yourself
* If you are a pessimist, try to think of positive outcomes
* Mark and reward positive things that you do, see or say. Looking for the positive in life shapes how you view what is happening to you. (You use this approach with training your dog and see how great it works! It is successful with people too!)
* Have some fun on a regular basis (laugh, read or watch funny movies etc)
* Learn to meditate
* Set aside time each week just for you!
At Work & Play
Managing stress away from home can be more difficult but still doable.
Think about the set up in your workplace. What changes can be made to decrease stress for you and your dog? Enlist the help of an empathetic co-worker or boss.
* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Locating your desk near a window, installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.)
* Choose desk space closest to a door for easy access
*Bring a fan to keep your dog cool on hot days
*Take a toy to play with or chew on while you are otherwise engaged
* Choose one person as your work contact that you can depend on in case you need help with your dog
*Make sure your dog gets daily heart-raising exercise to an appropriate level for your dog and what else she will be doing that day (chasing a ball, playing with a dog buddy or jogging with your wheelchair are all great ways to get exercise). Off leash exercise where possible is best as it is less stressful on dogs. They, not you, then determine how much and what intensity they need.
*Consider reducing the length or intensity of training (often less training is actually more)
Feeding Your Dog
Since the body is built on what you feed your dog, deciding what to feed your dog is key to helping the dog manage stress. Choose a good quality food that matches your dog's physical activity and mental needs. Some dogs do well on a good quality kibble (do not assume that cost is an indicator of quality). Look at the ingredient labels. Make sure the protein, fat and calcium levels are within moderation. Too much fat gives extra unneeded energy to a calm dog. Think of it as using jet fuel for a commuter car. Lots of wasted energy! Too high protein is not necessarily better. Raw animal meats, for example, only contain between 15 to 20% protein. Why pay for what you don't need?
Homecooked or raw feeding might be an option. If you have access to reasonable cost protein, it could actually be cheaper than feeding commercially-made foods. Raw meat and bone foods are also available in packages as complete meals.
Whichever you choose for your dog, adding antioxidants to the diet are known to help remove the free radicals that result from stress. Any of the bright intensely-colored veggies and fruits have lots of antioxidants naturally (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, kale, spinach etc) Do an internet search for ' antioxidants'. Avoid feeding any that might be toxic to your dog - such as raw garlic, soy, grapes, cruciferous veggies. Here's one link
Here is an article with another approach to stress reduction in your dog:
Also, you can use the tools in "Control Unleashed" by Leslie McDevitt to help your dog focus and stay calm.
Ultimately, decreasing stress levels for your dog will decrease your own stress level since you know that your dog can do her job unimpeded.
Check out our webinar on "Stress and the Service Dog" if you are interested in learning more!