Canine stress-reduction, building block #1: exercise

I’m writing today’s post with a foster dog in mind. A dog that hasn’t experienced much love or trust in his life, and who’s moving into a foster home to prepare him for family life and adoption. 

Friends of mine just welcomed their second foster mix, Ema, into their homes, after their first one found his family for life. I might start working with a rescue organization myself in October – we’ll see; I’ll keep you posted. In any case, here’s the first article in a series about different building blocks a canine stress-reduction program might contain. Check back over the next weeks for other stress-reduction building blocks such as rest periods, nutrition, mental stimulation etc.

Not only people, but stressed, anxious or depressed dogs profit from exercise as well: there is a physiological reason to include long, slow and continuous workouts in canine stress reduction programs when it comes to dealing with anxiety, stress, fear or irritability. Especially long walks in quiet environments (hiking in the middle of nature …) have a positive effect, since they stimulate the release of serotonin, norepinephrine and β-endorphines. Let’s look at them more closely.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter: a chemical substance that transmits information from one part of the nervous system to another. Serotonine influences an animal’s mood, pain perception (including the subjective pain an individual feels during emotional reactions), irritability threshold and sleep-wake cycle. In a word: a sufficient level of serotonin is crucial for mental well-being.

To give you an example: a study by Reisner et. al. found a correlation between a low irritability threshold and a lower-than-average serotonin and dopamin metabolites. Further studies showed that dogs who give a warning before biting and dogs who only bite gently have an average level of serotonin, while dogs who tend to bite without warning or harder tend to have a lower serotonin level. This is especially interesting because it shows that training your dog’s bite inhibition as a puppy is not the only factor influencing his future behavior: his brain chemistry will also have a say in his reaction. 

However, let’s take a quick look at a human example for the importance of serotonin as well. A chronic low level of serotonine causes depression. If your brain chemestry is not in balance, trying to cheer yourself up and seeing a psychotherapist might not be enough: while it will certainly be helpful, it won’t necessarily fix your serotonine levels. This is why antidepressants of the SSRI-type are designed to effect precisely the (extra-cellular) level of serotonin by means of inhibiting their re-uptake. SSRIs are frequently prescribed for depression, anxiety disorders and certain personality disorders. While the drugs won’t free you from the need to face your problems/fears/anxieties and work through them, they will help you get into a state of mind where you are able to face your fears and work through them in the first place.

Anxiety, phobias, fears etc. in dogs have been successfully treated with Prozac and similar drugs as well. The extra-cellular serotonine level is one of the places they affect. However, it should go without saying that drugs shouldn’t be the first choice when it comes to canine behavior modification. Drugs should only be used if they are necessary to help a dog (or human) to get to a place where they are able to respond to behavior modification training in the first place, but not as an “easy way out”. Furthermore, of course, drugs don’t solve the original problem, and working at learning how to cope with the environment or stressful situations in healthy ways will still be necessary. 

While I’m not a fan of always residing to chemical solutions, I firmly believe in the usefulness of conventional Western medicine for the treatment of depression or anxiety. So far, I’ve never had to medically treat these conditions in my dogs, but I have been helped by them myself. 

Norepinephrine (NE): among other things, norepinephrine (= noradrenalin) works as a neurotransmitter and hormon. It regulates your dog’s energy management. A high NE level may cause reactivity, impulsivity and irritability. A low NE level, on the other hand, causes the body to reduce its  energy use, resulting in lethargy and depression. The body can only tolerate a low NE production for a certain time before it shuts down completely: the resulting fatigue messes with the sleep-wake cycle, the ability to think rationally, it causes hyper-sensitivity to pain, and it reduces the ability to feel joy and respond to reinforcers.

Common causes for the decrease of NE production are cronic stress (shelter dogs are at risk!), traumata and learned helplessness. 

Endorphines are a dog’s natural painkiller. Furthermore, they stimulate the area in the brain where joy is experienced. Similar to humans who feel happy and relaxed after jogging (“runner’s high”), these chemical substances causes a feel-good effect in our dogs as well.

Why should a stressed or traumatized dog rather practice long, slow and continuous workouts than short and fast ones?

Short and fast, explosion-like workouts may influence the body in the same way that disstress does: it inhibits the production of NE rather than stimulating it. In extreme cases, this may even result in learned helplessness. (1) Long, slow and continuous workouts such as hikes, on the other hand, activates the NE production and increases the levels of serotonin and NE stored in the amygdala.

Does that mean agility, flyball, fetching and tugging are bad for my dog?

Of course not! Fast-paced dog sports can be A LOT of fun for both dogs and their people, as everyone who has ever participated or even only watched a dog-human team participating in them knows. As I said in the beginning, I wrote this article with a troubled dog in mind – or with a very sensitive one, if you want. And even for a dog like this, fast-paced dog sports may be a lot of fun. He may only need a little more time and gentle, understanding introduction (CU training) until he can enjoy them. 

(1) This was explored in a study with dogs on a treadmill. Cf. Steven Lindsey, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior.

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