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Calm that Body, Calm that Brain

For the past two weeks I’ve written about more active enrichment. In this post I’m exploring enrichment that encourages your dog to relax.

Much like sniffing, other forms of scent enrichment can lower your dog's overall stimulation level. For example, try putting a drop or two of lavender essential oil in a spray bottle filled with water and then spritz a little into a room. If your dog doesn't like lavender, you can try a different essential oil, but check for any toxicity to dogs first. Be sure to keep the drops small--you should barely perceive whatever scent you've chosen--otherwise, it may overwhelm your dog. An old t-shirt or sweatshirt draped over your dog's bed could also promote relaxation. Just don't wash it first so that it still carries your scent!

Sound is another powerful calming enrichment tool. Studies in shelter dogs suggest that classical music contributes to lower levels of agitation. Another study names reggae and soft rock potentially soothing genres. Researchers examining the effect on dogs of human voices and audiobooks--especially those read by men--found similar results. If you leave the music or audiobook on all day, however, your dog could start to ignore it.

For dogs who love being petted, touch can be a wonderful enrichment. To help your dog relax, use long, slow pets and gentle ear scratches rather than quick fur ruffles. You could also try bodywork like Tellington TTouch, named for the horse trainer, Linda Tellington-Jones. Her website includes a search engine to find qualified TTouch practitioners in your area. Canine massage is a growing field as well, but be sure to hire a certified therapist. Keep a close eye on your dog's body language during any form of touch enrichment to ensure that she actually enjoys it and stop at the first sign of discomfort, fear, or anxiety.

To create consistent transitions to rest times for your dog (particularly for puppies and teenagers), try combining any of the enrichment types from this month's posts in what trainer Leslie McDevitt calls "ritualizing down time." For example, follow a quick game of fetch with a game of find it in the backyard before giving your dog a stuffed Kong on her bed. While she works on the Kong, lower the lights and put on some classical music. Over time a routine like this will cue your dog that it is time to relax, which is much easier for her to do when her needs are met!

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