Self soothing objects

Published: Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Apr 27, 2015, 07.32 PM IST

When we feel tension in the body, we relieve that tension through movement. This results in hyperactivity or repetitive movements in an attempt to self soothe. What kind of self soothing we choose to use will depend on the individual, learned behaviours and the environment. We often see people chewing on pen caps or nails, pacing, shaking their feet or sometimes even rocking back and forth. These are all attempts at clearing all the accumulated stress hormones in the body and to release calming hormones instead. Dogs do this too.

Stressed dogs have their own behaviours to self soothe. It often takes the form of chewing. When stressed due to excess excitement or anxiety, a dog may resort to self soothing himself by chewing what’s in sight. Pet parents observe this when a dog is left alone for longer than usual or if there is something unusual at home like construction, remodelling, repair, guests or fireworks.

Sometimes, we confuse this self-soothing behaviour to be directed destruction. Some even go as far as to interpret this behavior as vengeance. Such misinterpretations often render the problem unsolvable. Vengeance is not really a behavioural problem that can either be modified or trained for.

Emotional arousal generates stress hormones in a dog’s body — Adrenaline and Cortisol being the main ones to consider. Adrenaline makes a dog engage in intense physical movement — running around aimlessly, ripping something out or barking furiously. Cortisol on the other hand can result in slow repetitive movements — slow chewing on objects. Either way, emotional arousal can result in immediate ripping of things and long-term chewing of objects.

Once we understand the reason for the behaviour, it is then a little easier to look at the life of a dog and to identify the sources of these emotional upheavals and address them. If the triggers don’t exist, the hormones will not shoot up. The associated behaviours will become rarer too.

Having said that, it is important to recognise that a dog needs to chew. That is the way he copes with small and large stressors and the excitement of the day. While we methodically work to remove stressors, we do need to recognise that the stressors are not going away fully. There will be times your dog will just need to chew. For these times, I suggest that pet parents keep a collection of what I call “Self-soothing objects”.
Self-soothing objects are objects that can sustain the dog’s chewing interest for at least five minutes. Fifteen minutes is great for massive stressors. Typical objects that are quite effective include real bones, green coconuts, jute and coir ropes flavoured with something. When picking these objects, it’s important to keep in mind that the object has to tempt the dog to chew on it. It’s not a toy we are trying to give the dog. It’s something that will make him chew. It also has to be flavoured enough to hold his interest long enough for it to have the calming effect we hope it to have.

Once you have a collection of self-soothing objects, it’s best to start by giving one or two objects every day. This will give a healthy outlet to your dog. Then start to identify and address the stressors. This is where behaviourists often step in and can help out. Meanwhile, if you catch your dog converting some object of yours into a self-soothing object, patiently take it away, recognise that your dog needs to chew now, give a 10-second break and then give the dog a self-soothing object that you have kept for him. Over time, this routine should reduce stress, reduce chewing and redirect it away from your valuables. 

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