It’s not unusual for people to get stressed and it’s not unusual for dogs, either. Anything can do it – too many bills (for the people), too much noise (for the dogs), confusing relationships (for the people), confusing requests (for the dogs.) Working dogs, dogs who are out in the world helping their people, have many chances to get an overload of stress because they are often in environments where animals are not expected, allowed or considered in any way. But pets, too, sometimes because of the long hours they spend alone, are subject to to stress. Happily, help usually cuts both ways. When you do something for your dog, when you consider your dog’s needs, you are, for that moment, not fretting about your own problems – and that in itself is a very good thing, a healthy thing. In addition, some of the activities that can reduce stress in dogs can also reduce human stress, sort of a two for the price of one situation, another good thing! Let’s look at a few.
I used to have sneeze conversations with my Golden Retriever, Oliver. This started right after we moved from the suburbs to the city. When I’d walk him, the streets were crowded and noisy and though he was a pretty easy going dog, I thought the crowds and noise might make him feel isolated. I had to watch where I was going when I used to be able to just watch him. So I began to sneeze to him. Most dogs will sneeze back and if you work on this a bit, laughing and praising his sneezy retorts, you can get a pretty good volley going back and forth. The thing about sneeze conversations is that the dog knows they are all about the two of you. They speak of friendship, telling secrets, joy (dogs sneeze when they are happy) and the private connection you two share. But no one else has any idea what’s happening. So Ollie and I would walk down Madison Avenue in the heart of New York City sneezing back and forth and while we did, his tail wagging wildly, I stopped worrying about whether or not my first novel would sell and he stopped focusing on the crowds and the noise.
When I swim, Sky waits at the end of the pool. She’s fine with this, but after a while, a dog can feel neglected. So every few laps, I hold up my pointer to her, the hand signal that means “wait.” Unlike “stay,” wait not only means things will resume momentarily, it also means “I haven’t forgotten you.” “Wait” warms my dog’s heart. It’s like a Valentine’s card coming from the pool.
I yammer at my dog as much as the next guy. I tell her my plans, I complain, I make up songs and sing them to her and when I have nothing to say but still want to converse, I talk dog to her, a language I make up as I go along, gibberish, that she seems to enjoy because it means I’m sharing my feelings with her. But a favorite stress buster for both of us is a long, long, quiet walk, me trying as best I can to walk Border collie speed. We usually do this on the High Line, preferably in bad weather when it’s nearly empty. There are no streets to cross, no red lights to hold us up and the sounds of the city are muted. We can see the Hudson River and we’re surrounded by plants and trees, not bad for New York City. Sometimes we’re uptown for something stressful, like a doctor appointment. Afterwards, we head for Central Park for a long, fast quiet walk. It soothes the soul, no matter your species.
A dog may not appear to be stressed. They’re great at hunkering down and hiding their bad feelings, just the way some of us do. But you know your own dog. You know the signs. Tail tucked, licking his lips, lots of yawning, hiding, licking his paws obsessively, less sparkle in his eyes, whining, plotzing down as if he’s given up all hope of any fun? Take a walk. Have a sneeze conversation. Play a game of Smell it, Find it. Take him to the dog run. And be sure, when you’re busy, to give him his “wait” signal so he knows he’s on your mind and fun is just around the corner.