5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dog's Mental Health

Dogs brighten our lives with their unconditional love and enjoyment of the little things. However, dogs are more complex mentally than many people believe. Emory University scientists concluded in a 2013 study on the canine brain that dogs' brains have some striking similarities to ours, particularly when it comes to emotions. Dogs are more similar to humans than you might think when it comes to mental health. 

Dogs, like humans, can suffer from stress, anxiety, depression, grief, and other mental and emotional issues. But, unlike people, they can't express their emotions or seek help. So, how do we know if our dogs are in pain? And how can we assist them?


1. Recognize Signs of Distress 


The first step is to become familiar with the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress in dogs. Unusual behavior, according to Tiffany Talley, certified behavioral consultant and dog trainer at All Things Canine in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a red flag. 


"The behaviors that usually bring people to me are interfering with the dog's quality of life," she says, citing examples such as "a dog that doesn't eat, seeks attention, won't go outside, can't rest, or can't do their normal daily routine." 


However, the signs may not always be obvious. According to Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, a certified animal behavior analyst and dog trainer, some dogs exhibit very subtle signs of stress. According to her, compulsive licking is an indication of stress or anxiety, as is "whale eye," which occurs when dogs show the whites of their eyes during an interaction. Feuerbacher also advises keeping an eye on dogs who have lost a companion because they experience grief, which can lead to depression. 


Please keep in mind that if you notice significant behavioral changes in your pet, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible.

2. Play with Your Dog 


Any veterinarian will tell you that one of the most unmet needs of a dog is exercise. 


"Exercise is fantastic because it helps bond the dog to the human in a positive activity," says Talley. "Even ten minutes of quick play can help a dog relax and calm down for several hours." 


Walking, running, hiking, playing games, and running up and down stairs together are some of the exercises Talley recommends. Before engaging in strenuous activity, take your dog to the vet. 


While any type of exercise is beneficial to your dog, Feuerbacher emphasizes the unparalleled mental benefits of being outside. 


"There's a trend of getting treadmills so dogs can just exercise in the house," she says, "but taking your dog for a walk is so much more than that." They're using their noses and receiving a lot of stimulation."

3. Offer Mental Enrichment


"Enrichment is my number one recommendation for improving any dog's life," Talley says. She describes enrichment as taking a walk, riding in the car, going to a park, playing games, having a play date with another dog, obedience training, enrichment toys, or dog puzzle toys. 


Dogs, like humans, get bored, and a lack of enrichment can lead to anxiety and destructive behavior. 


"If your dog is tearing things up or chewing on your favorite shoes, that means he needs more outlets for his energy," Feuerbacher says. She enjoys "nose work," in which dogs use their noses to track a scent. 


While puzzle and enrichment toys encourage nose work, you can also make your own games. "Even hiding their dog food around the house so it's not just given to them out of a bowl - that's stimulating because they're looking and moving around," she says.

4. Allow Your Dog Enough Space 


It's tempting to smother our beloved dogs with concern and constant activity when we see them unhappy. However, helicopter parenting can make dogs anxious. 


"We want to give everything to our dogs," Feuerbacher says, "and not all dogs are equipped to handle that." 


She advises against taking your dog to crowded places like the farmer's market, which can be overwhelming. While interacting with other dogs can be beneficial for our pets, if you have an anxious dog, you may need to avoid dog parks or busy areas. 


"If walking the dog in public causes them anxiety," Talley explains, "I will have my clients walk them in no-traffic areas so they don't have to interact with other people or dogs." 


Are you inviting guests? A stressed-out dog requires a safe haven. "If you can carve out a little space for your dog, such as a crate they can go into for alone time," Feuerbacher suggests.

5. Discover What Your Dog Enjoys


"I normally give similar advice to what we give humans, which is to get them out, do things that they enjoy, and teach them how to entertain themselves," Feuerbacher says, especially when a dog is depressed or grieving. 


Encourage your dog to participate in activities that he or she finds enjoyable. You can gauge a dog's enjoyment by observing his behavior, but if you're having trouble identifying appropriate activities, it never hurts to contact a dog trainer or behavioral consultant. 


"If that dog enjoys going for walks, I recommend taking them somewhere new [for] new smells and sights." We can play fetch if that dog enjoys chasing things. If the dog is eager to please, we will work with them to develop new obedience or fun behaviors. If a dog enjoys chewing, we look for puzzle dog toys to encourage them to use their mouths," Talley says. "The item or activity must be important to that particular dog."


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