Part 4: The Importance of Calm

I’d like to summarize the part of Amber Batson’s lecture which explains why “calm” is so important and necessary to our dogs’ well being.

First, as I mentioned in the 2nd part, a lot of research has been done studying stress/excitement in dogs. This research is not just from a human perspective – the behaviorists are also looking at the normal, desired amount of stress/excitement a dog would choose to have in his/her life.

We can relate to this ourselves. Many of us do like to partake in activities which are exciting and can increase our levels of stress hormones. We like to alpine ski, play sports, and even watch movies or read books which are scary. But, we also like to calm down after these activities. We enjoy a relaxing dinner, a good, calm book, a chat with friends, a walk in the woods, a massage, practicing yoga, taking a drive, going shopping, etc…

Studies show that we are driven to reduce stress chemicals after certain periods of time because we know sustained active stress chemicals in our brain (dopamine, noradrenaline, glutamate as examples) and bloodstream (adrenaline and cortisol) are not good for us. This is because they increase our heart rate, increase our blood pressure, lower digestion, and increase muscle energy and tension. And we all know that lowering the heart rate, blood pressure, and softening muscles/reducing tension in muscles is good to do after an excitement period.

Dogs do the same!

In fact, a 2015 major study of free ranging dogs in India shows the dogs choose to be in a calm state for 90% of their days. When one factors in night time sleep, this equates to around 1 hour of increased stress chemical in their brains/bloodstreams cause by mostly play based arousal (broken down into play activities which last 10 minutes or so….always followed by a calm down period).

So, the free ranging dog chooses to have excitement in his/her life around 6 times a day for a period of 10 minutes each time.

Just to note: these studies are important because the free ranging dogs have minimal “food pressure” (like our own dogs). The free ranging dogs are often fed by people and their choices (which are not driven by a need to eat) give us a much better insight into our own dogs’ needs and behavior than wild canines (who spend so much of their lives learning hunting skills and finding prey).

Back to the big question: How does this compare with the lives we provide for our domestic dogs?

Amber contrasted this with the domestic dog who, studies show, has elevated stress chemicals in his/her brain and bloodstream an average of 50% of the day….and often not broken down into 10 minute intervals. We will explain how we can change our dog’s life so she feels more calm in future writeups (and the previous writeup regarding sleep). But in the meantime….

Why is this contrast important for us to know?

Because this helps explain why dog reactivity should never be blamed on the dog.

As Amber states, when any of us have increased levels of stress chemicals in our brains and bloodstream, we are in tapped into the reacting part of our body.

We all can relate to this: If you’ve ever had something happen where you feel threatened … say, a near miss of a car passing you too close … or even just barely avoiding an accident … you understand that it takes awhile to relax down again. During that heightened state, you are much more aware of your surroundings and ready to react if there’s the slightest threat of being in danger again. If someone tapped us on the shoulder from behind, we might start or even jump. If someone surprise grabbed us in a “friendly hug” from behind, we would probably first push them away before getting in touch with our thinking brain.

These stress chemicals can stay at elevated rates in our dogs bodies (and ours) for days – and if we don’t take the time to help our dogs have 90% calm, the stress chemicals and resulting behavior can become almost ingrained in our dogs lives.

Interestingly, the researchers saw no instances of dog/dog or dog/human/other animal aggression during their close to 2000 observations. So, researchers such as Amber are seeing more and more evidence that dog reactivity is mostly human caused.

We look at these conclusions as opportunities to better our dogs’ lives by increasing the calm in their lives and decreasing the stress. We have already addressed REM sleep as an important need for lowering stress chemicals in our dogs (see the last writeup). We will now spend the next few writeups looking at the importance of slow exercise, social living, developing neuronal pathways through training calm choices, and developing the pre-frontal cortex which is the “hmm, what should I do about this” part of the brain.

Until next time!