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How to help your anxious dog

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Some dogs can be excessively anxious and stressed by the environment or company that they find themselves in. But being stressed can have a significant, negative impact on a dogs health - and here's why!

When stressed the sympathetic nervous system swings into action, flooding the system with hormones and causing the musculature to tighten in preparation for “fight, flight or freeze”. Involuntary shivering tries to release these tense muscles and prevent over-tightening.

If a dog is unable to get away from this stress, the sympathetic system continues to "prepare the body". Over a short period in this state you might notice other behaviours including; barking, lunging, and unwanted repetitive behaviours such as pacing, circling, licking or chewing. But some dogs will move into a 'freeze' state and will appear to have shut down completely.

In a very short period of time this over-stimulation creates patterns of holding in the tissue. Muscles shorten, tighten and become painful. Additional pressure is placed on joints leading to;

  • decreased flexibility

  • increased joint stress 'at rest'

  • reduced range of motion

  • joint pain.

Dogs in this state are more prone to painful injuries such as strains and sprains (tears to the muscles, tendons and ligaments).

Tight, restricted muscles and reduced mobility restricts blood and lymphatic circulation. This in turn reduces the body's ability to bring nutrients and oxygen to the body tissues. It also causes a build up of metabolic waste products in the affected tissues. The build up of waste products causes chemical changes in the tissue which irritate the nerves. In addition, the shortened muscle fibres take up more space and put further pressure on any nerves running through or between affected tissues. Pain receptors will now be firing urgent messages to the dogs brain.

At the same time the lack of nutrients and oxygen cause areas within the restricted tissue to become “ischemic”. The tissue in this area further contracts, beyond normal tolerances forming hyper-irritable bands of tissue known as “trigger points”.

Once a trigger point develops it always remains in the tissue but its reactivity and therefore the pain and discomfort it causes varies with the local conditions found in the surrounding tissue. You can find out more about Trigger points in another blog on this site.

​The tight and constricted tissues adhere to themselves and to other body structures including the superficial and deep fascia (the web of connective tissues) and the periosteum of the bones, causing further restrictions and reductions in mobility.

Such a dog will now be in chronic pain and is likely to remain so unless the environment is modified and the dog's tissues are able to return to a more natural state.

"The above describes Eva when I adopted her from rescue. Her muscles felt 'ripped' all the time, her movement was stiff, hesitant and restricted. I didn't know it then but she was in chronic pain and had been for some time. Eva is my inspiration and all the proof I need that massage can profoundly change a dogs life."

Being in pain is, in itself, stressful and also affects mood, behaviour and the immune response. And so, without intervention the positive cycle continues!

​Reducing stress levels at this point may not be sufficient to break the positive feedback loop described above as the patterns of holding are now established. Dogs may need additional help to return their body's to a pain free and relaxed state. Massage is the most effective method for doing this as it treats the whole body and focuses on relaxing and releasing tissues. Massage has been shown to:

  • ​Lower the sympathetic nervous systems response allowing the para-sympathetic system (the rest and digest nervous system) to come into play

  • Relax and lengthen tight, short and painful muscles

  • Improve blood and lymphatic circulation

  • Oxygenate and bring nutrients to and through body tissues

  • Support the removal of carbon dioxide, lactic acid and other metabolic and cellular waste

  • Support the dogs natural immune response

  • De-activate trigger points

  • Remove tissue adhesions so tissues can glide over each other once more

  • Create space within and surrounding body tissues

  • Improve joint mobility and flexibility

  • Reduce pain

  • Calm the mind

Massage allow the dog the time and space required for them to process emotional distress and better manage stress.

If your dog is anxious then massage can be an extremely effective, safe treatment to help them cope with their world.

As a Clinical Massage Therapists I can assess within three treatments if massage can help your dog. I am based in Hemel Hempstead, but if I am not local to you why not check the Canine Massage Guild website to see if there is a Clinical Therapist near you.

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You forget it isn't just humans who get stressed, especially this year.

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