Do Dogs Suffer With Mental Illness?

Jenny Hunter spent two years studying for a Phd at a local university and the unremitting pressure to succeed, to strive for perfection in a sector with too many applicants per job, lead to a never-ending cycle of chronic self-doubt, comparison, criticism, and toxic mental health. The worst part about all of this is that it was considered completely normal. In fact, it was an unspoken expectation that if students didn’t experience some stress-induced illness, the implication was that they just weren’t trying hard enough or that students didn’t really care.

Jeny Hunter Dog Trainer
Jenny Hunter Dog Trainer

Last week was mental health awareness week and whilst it is ever more important for us humans to understand and support those who suffer with mental health issues, we wanted to shine a light on our pet’s mental wellbeing by asking Jenny the question; do dogs suffer with mental health? In fact, Jenny’s own experience of study induced stress and anxiety has enabled her to make parallels in the world of dog training which we wanted to explore further with her.

Over the past several years Jenny has been encountering stressed, anxious dogs daily and we felt this was the perfect time to explore why this is the case in more detail.

‘Owners usually come to me with a specific issue eg. barking, jumping up, lunging at cars. However, 99.9% of the time, these are symptoms of a more fundamental underlying problem. These dogs live in a state of overwhelm. Through my work with animals and their human counterparts I have come to realise that as humans we have normalised chronic stress and accepted it as part of our existence.” Explains Jenny.

Our hectic, erratic, and busy lifestyles and those nagging voices that drive us to achieve, push ourselves and compare ourselves to others make us more susceptible to stress and anxiety. If we stop for a moment, if we fall short of expectation, it’s a cause of deep shame and this is where Jenny has noticed similar behaviour patterns in our dogs!

As Jenny goes onto explain further “It’s no wonder that we push this lifestyle of constant activity onto our dogs! We do it to ourselves! We look at the dog over the road who is walking to heel, and automictically wish our dogs did the same. We take our dogs for hours of physical exercise a day, send them to day care, dog parks, throw balls for them to chase, walk them up busy high streets, take them to agility – the list goes on!” 

The questions we should be answering are: When do we ever just let ourselves ‘be’? When do we let our dogs ‘be’? More importantly, how often do we and our dogs just ‘be’ together? None of the activities outlined above are bad in themselves. Fun, fast, engaging play is for a lot of dogs’ great for their wellness. However, we need to seriously consider how much rest, and recuperation we give our dogs. Do they have the time and space to heal, physically and mentally from a busy, potentially stressful day?

“I think that human and canine mental wellness go hand-in-paw. Once we learn to take care of ourselves, and to stop accepting burnout as a normal state of existence, we will do the same with our dogs.” Said Jenny. 

If you are asking yourself does my dog suffer with stress and anxiety? Here are some awesome tips from Jenny: 

Tips for Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Dogs

  • Give your dog passive calming activities to facilitate calmness. This is anything which encourages licking, sniffing, or chewing. Think snuffle mats, licki mats, yaker sticks etc.
  • We often accidently reward hyperactive behaviour with our attention eg. pushing them down when they jump up, picking them up when they dig our flowerbeds, chasing after them when they’ve stolen a shoe! Instead, reward the behaviour we want. Imagine your dog has taken itself off for a lie down. Just drop a couple of treats on their bed as a reward. If they run up to you and don’t jump up, give then loads of praise! Engage with them if they pick up one of their toys rather than ignoring them, and then chasing them if they steal something. 
  • Dogs need so much more sleep than a lot of people realise. Puppies can sleep 18-20 hours per day. Adolescents’ cycadean rhythms change so they may sleep at different times, but they don’t need that much less than when they were puppies. 
  • Almost daily, I see people with high-energy dogs who think that they have to give them hours of physical exercise a day, and they tell me that their dog still isn’t tired afterwards. The more a dog (or human for that matter) exercises, the more exercise they need because they become fitter and more energetic. This, in turn, means you need to exercise them even more because you’re building an athlete! It also increases overall levels of adrenaline, and reactivity. Physical activity should be balanced with slow-paced mental stimulation (see ‘passive calming’ activities above), and plenty of rest. 

If you would like to learn from Jenny you can follower on her Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/jhunterdogtraining/ Alternatively one of our team of experts will always be on hand in your Morpeth Pet store to give help, advice and guidance on your dog’s wellbeing.

About the author

My Pet HQ is a Morpeth based Pet Shop which specialises in quality, raw pet foods and pet accessories for your furry friends. Establish by Caroline and Diane Coppen in 2015 to provide pet mums and dads with the best products and advice on pet health, nutrition and wellness. The My Pet HQ blog is a knowledge centre where you can find anything out about pet care and if you are still unsure Caroline and Diane and their team of experts are always on hand to help. Just give us a call to talk all things pets!

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