Beyond the Physical: What is an Emotional Detox
An emotional detox can free up emotions, increase creativity, and help manage anger and aggression.
Detox diets for humans are increasingly popular. There are thousands of ads for juicing, vegan diets, colon cleanses and spas. Detox is definitely important – but my idea of a detox includes not only physical cleansing, but also emotional detox that clears your body of stagnant emotions and emotional baggage.
In the US and some other parts of the world, there are 80,000+ toxic chemicals in use in our houses, food and medicine. Medical literature shows an association between our physical and emotional health and our dog’s physical and emotional health and the toxins we are all exposed to, such as heavy metals, certain types of hormones, and industrial plasticizers.
It’s difficult to change behaviors when we can’t figure out why the dog is doing them in the first place, whether it’s reacting to the presence of others dogs, being grumpy from physical issues due to trauma or toxins, or having a compulsion to chase cars.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When a dog feels threatened, his nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones which includes adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and all senses become sharper. These chemical changes increase strength, stamina, reaction time, and enhance focus.
This is known as the “fight or flight” stress response and is the body’s method of protection. When working properly, stress helps your dog stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your dog’s life.
Stress happens every day for many reasons, including learning new things or practicing known behaviors to perfection. Without stress responses, your dog would probably not learn.
But beyond the comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your dog’s mind and body.
How does a dog respond to stress?
The latest research into the brain shows that our dogs, and all mammals, have three ways of regulating the nervous systems and responding to stress:
Social engagement is the most evolved strategy for creating calm and safe feelings. Socially interacting with another dog or even a different species—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, feeling understood—can calm your dog down and put the brakes on defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.” Social engagement encourages the dog can to think clearly, and bodily functions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, and the immune system continue to work uninterrupted. Social engagement and play occur when the body is fluid and loose. Social engagement should always be a positive experience.
Mobilization, also known as the fight or flight response. When social engagement is not an appropriate response and your dog thinks he needs to either defend or flee from danger, the body prepares for mobilization. Chemicals are released to provide the energy that the dog needs to protect himself. At the same time, the body functions that are not needed for fight or flight, such as the digestive and immune systems mostly shut down. Once the danger has passed, the nervous system calms the body, decreases the heart rate, decreases the blood pressure, and winds back to its normal balance. If you have a dog who has little to no food motivation, especially in unknown environments, it is very likely you are looking at a stress response. Mobilization covers flight stress responses and fool around.
Immobilization. This is the least stress response evolved and used by the body only when the social commitment and mobilization have failed. You will see evidence of trauma or your dog may appear "trapped" in a mad panic or is otherwise been dysfunctional, unable to move forward, cannot focus, and is unable to eat or play. In extreme life-threatening situations, the dog may even lose consciousness, which will allow him to survive the high levels of physical pain. However, until the body is able to return to a normal balance, the levels of stress hormones will stay at a high level. Immobilization includes the stress responses of freeze and faint.
While it’s not always possible to respond to stress using social engagement, and many of us have become conditioned to pulling our dogs away from engagement in fear of aggressive responses, what generally happens is that the dog responds to every minor stressor by immediately resorting to fight or flight. Since this response interrupts other body functions and clouds judgment and feeling, over time it can cause stress overload and have a detrimental effect on your dog’s physical and mental health.
Effects of stress overload
A mammal’s autonomic nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If your dog is stressed on seeing another dog, the sound of a storm or just the wind blowing a plastic bag around, the dog’s body can still react as if he is facing a life-or-death situation.
When the dog is repeatedly experiencing the fight or flight stress response in his daily life, it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave him vulnerable to a host of mental and emotional problems. Aggression, over excitement, frustration and constant fear are the results of repeated stressors. These stressors can be as simple as a constantly banging door, worried the cat will strike, the fence fighting dog next door or the mail man’s repeated encroachment on the dog’s territory.
Learn how to manage stress
Stress management can teach your dog healthier ways to cope with stress, help him reduce its harmful effects, and prevent stress from spiraling out of control again in the future.
Engage socially. Find a socialization class that actually teaches the dogs how to communicate, how to handle stress in a social situation, what coping behaviors to use when and how to properly say no to an interaction. There are many classes around that use whips and other punishment based methods of teaching dogs not to interact in negative ways but never teach how to do it right. Find one that teaches with the least stress, the least invasive methods and where the trainers know canine body language thoroughly. Remember always that socialization, whether it’s for puppies or troubled adult dogs should always be a positive, enriching experience. Punishment can set your dog up for associating punishment with other dogs and make a stressful response worse and create more intense aggressive behaviors.
Teach your dog to think even though stressed, excited or aroused. There are many games that can help your dog with handling fast, stressful, arousing moments. This is where the need to chase moving objects happens; the dog has little impulse control and just lets the body and instinct take over. A dog that hump others incessantly, body slam other dogs as an invitation to play, leaps into an altercation or destroys the house when you leave, falls into the impulsive category. Self-control, true self-control not cued control, and teaching the dog that he can still think, reason and make choices while excited, stressed or aroused is what is needed.
Get moving. Physical activity plays a key role in managing stress. Activities that require moving all four legs, the neck and face and jaw are particularly effective. Walking, running, swimming, tugging, and even agility are good choices. Focused movement helps to get the dog’s nervous system back into balance. Movement “unsticks” the stress response of immobilization.
Challenge your dog. Create time for mentally challenging games and activities. Teach your dog that he can control his environment, make informed decisions and problem solve. Physical exercise is needed, but mental exercise does far more toward preventing and reducing stress.
Lifestyle changes you need to plan for
Your dog can better cope with the symptoms of stress by strengthening his physical health.
Set aside relaxation time and ensure deep sleep. Dog’s sleep (deep sleep) for 12 to 14 hours a day. That sleep can be broken into segments, but REM sleep should occur at least ½ that time. While not always convenient, if your dog is sleeping, let him sleep. Another 2 to 4 hours will be spent on grooming, chewing bones, and/or watching the world move. Even herding breeds and wolves take time for these activities and sleep way more than humans seem to need.
Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Try and feed your dog as close to a natural diet as possible, keeping in mind that for 10’s of thousands of years, dogs have been scavengers in our dump sites and domesticated to eat what we eat. Dogs eat much more carbohydrates then their cousins the wolves. Kibble, despite the claims that the manufacturers make, is more akin to our junk food than actual nourishing food. Raw meat, even if cooked, bones (uncooked), vegetables (especially those that grow wild), roots and even grass. Grains are ok, but when a dog eats grass naturally, they do not eat the head which is what our flours are made from, they eat the stalk.