Just like humans, dogs experience ups and downs in their mental health. Sometimes, these dips can be temporary — while other times, they can become more chronic. Whether your dog seems down lately, or you just want to give their mental health a boost, there are steps you can take to help them feel better and become more mentally resilient. Here are 18 things you can do to support your dog’s mental health:
The first step in looking for changes in your dog’s mental health is understanding what their baseline is. Some dogs are naturally more energetic and affectionate, while others tend to be more quiet and standoffish. What’s totally normal for one dog could be a sign of distress in another. Getting to know your dog as an individual and understanding what their normal is will help you spot any negative changes in their mental state and take action before they get really stressed out.
Dogs can’t verbalize their feelings the way humans can, so you need to be able to read their body language and behavior to get a read on how they are feeling. Signs of stress in dogs include: whining or barking; panting for no apparent reason; yawning, drooling, or licking; showing the whites of their eyes; pinning back their ears; excessive shedding of their coat; cowering or tucking their tail; refusing foods; bathroom accidents; and hiding or escape behavior. The stress can be temporary — such as greeting another aggressive dog — or it can be chronic.
Besides just stress, dogs can also experience mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These mental health conditions can take many forms. For example, dogs can experience separation anxiety when they are separated from their pet parents, or social anxiety when they are around other dogs. If you think that your dog might have a mental health issue beyond just garden variety stress, talk to your vet about their symptoms to explore potential courses of treatment.
Regular exercise is key for a healthy dog — both mentally and physically. Not only does it help them maintain a healthy weight, it also helps tire them out and can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. If your dog has lost interest in exercising, try out some new activities to see if that will pique their interest. For instance, if you normally throw the ball around at home, try going to the dog park to see if that snaps them out of their rut.
Besides physical activity, mental stimulation is key to having a healthy and happy pup. Sometimes, your dog may exhibit certain behaviors, such as digging or barking, not because they are stressed but because they are bored and want attention. Teaching your dog new tricks will stimulate them mentally, as will giving them a puzzle toy filled with dog chews or treats. Visiting new places, such as a different dog park, will also mentally stimulate them and help stave off boredom.
Speaking of food and treats, you should watch your dog for weight changes — either losing pounds or gaining them. If these changes are happening without an explanation, such as feeding your dog more or exercising them more often, the weight fluctuations could be a result of mood changes instead. Sometimes, it will be obvious, such as your dog refusing to finish their food, while in some other cases, it might be a little less clear (for instance, if they finish their food but then barf it up later in a hidden location). Talk to your vet about what healthy weight your dog should be at and what you can do if they are gaining or losing pounds unexpectedly.
If you’re not sure how to get started with physically and mentally stimulating your dog, taking a daily walk is a great way to start. The walking part will physically tire them out, and every walk will present new stimuli to get their brains going even if you take the same route every day. As you both build your stamina, you can lengthen your walk and start exploring new routes. You can even try walking twice a day if your dog has a lot of energy and you’re both up to it.
Massages are relaxing for humans, and the same is true for your dog. Casual pets and scritches are awesome, but you can also give them a more deliberate massage to help them relax and calm down. The massage will help them release any stress they are holding in their body and give their mood a boost. These types of massages can also be beneficial if you want to get your dog used to being touched — for example, having their paws held while you clip their nails or having their muzzle held while you brush their teeth.
Not every single thing you do with your dog has to be a structured activity. In fact, they will be super happy to take a nap with you or lie on the couch and watch a movie with you. They also need some more restful periods to recuperate from their other activities, and cuddling with you is the perfect way to do it. Carve out time to spend with your dog every day, and it will benefit both your mental health and theirs.
Your living situation might be stressing your dog out, and you might not even realize it. Certain stimuli that you don’t mind, or even enjoy, can be distressing to your dog. Some examples include loud music and strong smells but can vary a lot depending on where you live. Keep in mind that your dog’s senses are a lot sharper than yours, so something that is hardly noticeable to you can be bothersome to them. Take stock of your environment and see if there is anything you can change to make it a more calm and peaceful situation for your dog.
If you’ve had a loud party with lots of people at your house and found your dog sulking alone in a bedroom, then you know that dogs don’t like to be overstimulated, just as they don’t like to be bored. If you have been taking your dog to a bunch of new activities and they are still cranky or withdrawn, it’s possible that you have gone overboard and are overstimulating them, as opposed to understimulating. Dogs need a balance, just like people, so try cutting back on some of the new things and establishing a more stable routine for them.
Feeding your dog a healthy diet will support both their mental and physical health. Make sure to choose a food that is tailored to your dog’s size, age, breed, and physical activity level. Look for an organic pet food that is high in nutrients and low in processed ingredients — usually, the shorter and clearer the list, the better. Likewise, you should also choose healthy, long-lasting dog bones and treats, which will provide mental stimulation and help stop them from getting bored. Keep an eye on your dog’s overall treat consumption and make sure treats make up 10 percent or less of their overall caloric consumption.
If your dog hasn’t been their normal self lately, consider if there have been any changes going on. Is there a lot of loud construction going on in your neighborhood? Did an aggressive dog move in next door? Or maybe you’re the one who recently moved, or had a baby, or changed your work schedule? Any big changes to the routine can temporarily stress your dog out and make them anxious or depressed. Focus on creating a sense of stability for them as they adjust to this new life change.
Staying on top of your dog’s physical health will help to promote their mental health as well. Physical health problems can make your dog depressed, cranky, and withdrawn, so preventing or treating them will help to improve your dog’s mood. Stay on top of regular vet checkups, dental cleanings, tick and flea prevention, and other health appointments. Keep in mind that you will need to get these done more often the older your dog gets.
For dogs who experience extreme anxiety in response to certain stimuli, such as thunderstorms and fireworks, getting them some anxiety clothing can help them weather the experience with less stress. This clothing is designed to apply gentle, consistent, and soothing pressure to make your dog feel safe and calm. (You can think of it as having a similar effect that a weighted blanket does for humans.) Thunder shirts won’t solve their anxiety, but it can help keep them calm in unavoidable yet stressful situations.
As long as your dog doesn’t have social anxiety, taking them to a dog training or socialization class can help boost their confidence and mentally stimulate them. These classes usually work on certain things, such as basic obedience or agility training. Pick one that you think will appeal to both you and your dog and make a commitment to attend the class regularly. You might be surprised at what a big difference it can make and how much easier it is to take your dog on outings once the training is complete.
If you work a full schedule or are otherwise gone for long periods of time, consider looking into some options so that your dog isn’t home alone all day. One possibility is a dog walker, who will come to your house and take your dog for a walk midday. Another option is dropping them off at doggie daycare for all or part of a day, which gives them the added bonus of socializing with other dogs. If you have the budget for this, it can make a big difference in your dog’s mental health and give them the physical and mental stimulation they need.
If you’ve tried everything you can on your own, and your dog is still depressed or anxious, it might be time to reach out to the experts. See if there is a dog trainer or behavioral consultant in your area who has experience helping animals with symptoms similar to your dog’s. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your vet, groomer, or fellow pet parents for referrals. Because of their deep knowledge of dog behavior, experts can make a huge difference for the better in your dog’s mental health.
Follow these tips to support your dog’s mental health and help them feel better no matter what’s going on in your lives. Want to spoil them a little extra? Consider getting them a set of bully sticks for dogs or even a dog treat sample box so you can try a bunch of different treats at once!
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