Healing Mental And Physical Illness Through Training??

By Sean O’Shea

Something that I think is hard for a lot of folks to wrap their heads around is that many of the issues their dogs have (both physiologically and psychologically) are simply the symptoms of being stressed and anxious. Dogs who are constantly on edge, worried, reactive, stressed and anxious have nervous and immune systems that take a beating. And when these systems take a beating, there’s going to be fallout. You’re body and mind are going to take a hit.

On a regular basis, we see dogs that come in that spin, that self-mutilate, that fixate on shadows or light, that have bowel issues, allergies, skin issues, car sickness, and on and on. What’s fascinating is to watch how many of these dogs – without any medication or diet changes – manage to heal themselves mentally and/or physically once having gone through our training program.

We’ve seen it over and over. An owner has been through all kinds of testing, meds, diet changes etc., and their dogs have remained stuck with whatever issues they’ve been struggling with. Then, after a two or three-week board and train, voila, the issue has magically disappeared or dissipated tremendously. Of course, this isn’t the case for every dog, but the numbers of afflicted dogs who have moved through long-standing issues would amaze (and delight!) you.

We’ve seen dogs that tail chew to the point of actually losing a portion of the tail, stop chewing. We’ve seen spinners stop spinning. We’ve seen light chasers stop chasing. We’ve seen chronic loose stools firm up nicely. We’ve seen skin issues clear up beautifully. And we’ve seen car sickness just up and disappear. (Emma, who just went home from a three-week program had her first ride without throwing up just the other day!)
One client recently asked me how come vets don’t know or understand or recommend training for these issues. While I’m sure some vets do (bravo!), the vast majority either aren’t aware of it or aren’t down with it. It’s a shame, but hopefully, posts like this can help inform owners about possible options.

In reality, it’s all kind of simple. If it was you instead of your dog, if it was you that were dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety chronically, your nervous system and immune system would take a beating too. You too would likely develop outlets for all that toxicity and see physical issues arise. Physiological and psychological problems are a commonly accepted result of chronic stress and anxiety in humans. Why would it be any different for our dogs?

But here’s the rub. We’re much better at recognizing (and understanding) stress and anxiety in humans than we are in our dogs. We know that stress and anxiety show up in our world by way of financial issues, work issues, relationship issues etc. Our dog’s stress and anxiety are created and expressed differently. We see chronic reactivity (in the house and outside), neurotic barking, hyper-territorial behavior, bullying/being bullied, overly protective/possessiveness, assessing/worrying about strangers and guests, constant boundary pushing, and often just being hyped-up and on-edge the majority of the time, never knowing how to unplug and relax.

If we could learn to see all these behaviors as massive stress and anxiety producers, and understand that they create much of the seemingly unconnected negative physical and psychological symptoms, we might look at these behaviors as being less annoying “dog stuff” and more problematic in the real sense.

And how do we get there? In many ways it’s simple stuff. When we take those negative options away, when we block unwanted behavior, when we provide structure, rules, leadership, and accountability, we remove many of the stress/anxiety creating options/reactions that actually give life to the above listed symptoms. When we break old negative habits and patterns of coping, and provide new and healthier replacements, we end up with a nervous system and immune system that is solid and firing on all cylinders. And when we manage to do that successfully we end up with much healthier dogs.

Of course training can fix many annoying behavior issues and create a better relationship and clear communication. We can get dogs to come when we call, stay in place instead of roaming, stand instead of jump, walk nicely on-leash, and live peacefully with us instead of making us crazy. But training can also help many issues that have long been allocated to veterinarians, medication, and management only. Good training can actually heal the mind and body.


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5 comments
  1. Linda Franklin said:

    This is fascinating! And has me also saying, “Well, of course!” I never thought about this connection before, but it makes so much sense. I think about the stress I have experienced in the past and how it showed itself physically. Why wouldn’t it work that way for dogs too? Also puts a new light on training and physical/mental health for your pup. This is awesome – thanks for sharing!!

  2. ablewebs said:

    This just makes so much sense… common sense, actually! The problem is common sense has flown out the window when it comes to dog training these days! Thank goodness for you, Sean, and for other trainers who follow a more sensible, balanced approach.

  3. Nancy said:

    Ever since my dog was spooked when a firecracker went off across the street when we were walking he walks around the house at night like he’s looking for something or waiting for the fireworks to go off. Sometimes he just paces and then stops and looks around trying to hear something and then he’ll go back-and-forth and start barking at us. I’ve tried to ignore him but he’s getting to be a pain. Any suggestions?

    • ablewebs said:

      This is when the “place” command rocks! Watch Sean’s videos on his website.

  4. tuffy said:

    great points. thanks for speaking out about this.
    being a vet, i agree wholeheartedly. training and stability won’t fix everything, but it’s a great boon to (all) domestic animal health; and if nothing else, will help keep the dog with the owner rather than end up in the shelter/death–the worst medical outcome of all!

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