The festive season can be tense as well as fun – and if you’re feeling the holiday stress, your dog is too. These simple acupressure sessions take only minutes to do, and can help you and your best friend stay relaxed and balanced over the holidays.
No matter how you celebrate the season, holiday stress is inevitable. Preparing the holiday meal, gift shopping, praying that family members get along…all these things and more can generate a lot of angst and tension. And if you’re stressed, your dog is too. We might think we’re hiding our feelings, but our dogs are uncannily sensitive to our moods and emotions. So when you’re experiencing stress, your dog is feeling it as well. In this article, we’ll look at the indicators of canine stress (see below) and offer simple, calming acupressure sessions for both you and your dog.
Remedies for holiday stress
Behaviorists give us lots of really good suggestions about how to contain canine stress. Recommendations often include establishing a routine, reducing stimulation, increasing exercise, working on focused training, creating a safe “cave-like” place for the dog, decreasing noise volume, instituting tasks, or giving him more playtime.
Turid Regaas, a well-respected canine behaviorist, suggests that we use what she calls “calming signals”. These are signals that dogs use themselves to calm other dogs – and you, for that matter. Calming signals include licking the lips, yawning, looking away, arcing instead of walking directly at a dog or person, becoming completely passive, and rolling over. You may not want to roll over, but using the other calming signals with your dog is doable. By doing this, you will be responding to your dog in a language he understands.
Remember that your dog is taking most of his emotional cues from you, so you need to remedy your own stress levels as well as your dog’s. This is where acupressure comes in.
1. Acupressure for you
Bringing down stress during the holidays (or at any other time) begins with you. If you are feeling emotionally balanced, you’ll feel happier and so will your dog. Acupressure is a simple and easy way to lower stress.
To begin de-stressing yourself, find a comfortable, safe, intimate location for you and your dog. Relax by taking three deep breaths and exhaling slowly. Often a dog matches your breathing pattern and will settle. While sitting with your dog, place your thumb lightly on the underside of your arm above your wrist, and simultaneously place your forefinger gently on the opposite (lateral or top) side of your wrist, as shown in the photo at left. Breathe naturally while holding these two acupressure points (called Pericardium 6, Inner Gate and Triple Heater 5, Outer Gate, respectively) for a slow count of 20. Repeat this procedure on your opposite arm.
Now that you are feeling calmer, you are ready to also offer your dog a brief acupressure session.
2. Acupressure for your dog
Shift your awareness to helping your dog cope with his stress. Think about how much you want to share this acupressure session with him. Begin by using the exact same acupressure points you just applied on yourself (see Photo 2 for their locations on a dog). Gently hold the two acupoints on his forelimb at the same time, count slowly to 20, then repeat the procedure on his opposite forelimb.
There are two more acupressure points, also called “acupoints”, that you can add to your dog’s session to enhance his relaxation and bring down his stress level – the An Shen points located behind his ears (see photo above), and the Bai Hui point located in the center of his sacrum where there’s a little flat spot (see photo below). These are classical canine acupoints known to specifically reduce stress and anxiety. Dogs like to be scratched, so you are welcome to gently scratch these acupoints while counting slowly to 20.
Canine stress indicators
We’re fully aware when our own stress barometers are rising. Dogs are even more “creative” about how they signal their stress. It’s up to us to be conscious of what these signals are so we can help reduce their stress. These signals can be subtle at first, but if they’re not recognized and addressed immediately, the dog’s stress can escalate to scary heights.
Physical stress signals
Signs of mild physical stress can include increased yawning, shaking, lip-licking, panting, scratching and drooling. As the dog’s stress levels increase, he may shed excessively, open his eyes unusually wide, cower, tremble, pace, tuck his tail between his legs or just wag the tip of his tail, pin his ears back or overly perk them up, and experience urinary incontinence or gastrointestinal issues (e.g. diarrhea or constipation).
Physical signs that a dog is extremely stressed, and can become dangerous to himself and others, include a tense body stance, raised hackles, puffed-out tail, lips that are stretched upward, bared teeth, a menacing stare, as well as excessive licking or chewing at his own limbs.
Behavioral stress signals
Behavioral changes of any type can indicate a dog is experiencing stress. Milder signals tend to manifest as increased sleeping, clinginess, or periodic withdrawal. As the dog’s feelings of stress continue to increase, he may hide, become agitated, exhibit decreased appetite, engage in destructive behaviors, and display increased vocalizations such as growling, barking, whining or whimpering.
As a dog’s stress level escalates, simple agitation can turn to outright aggression or an extreme fear response, such as running away or completely shutting down emotionally. Though dogs are considered predatory by nature, their “fight or flight” response comes into play when they’re highly stressed. Different breeds react differently. For instance, Greyhounds may appear comatose when overwhelmingly stressed, while the Akita Inu is more apt to become highly aggressive.
The spirit of the holidays is about giving and receiving. Sharing acupressure is a perfect way to express and experience that spirit, while lowering your stress levels and helping you and your dog relax into the festivities. Carving out a special time each day or two to do acupressure on yourself, and share it with your dog, will make the holiday season more joyous for both of you.