The Makings of a Calm Canine

For the most part the issues behind the crazy dog are based in the dog’s emotional systems.  In comparison with behaviour, emotions can be more challenging to change but the result of these emotional changes manifest themselves in behaviours that we can see.  Therefore we have to work on the underlying emotional basis and the resulting behaviours.

Because we are talking about an emotional basis you cannot force your dog to change his attitude to a particular trigger.
Think of the last time you were wound up or annoyed (this arousal may have been excitement, worry, anger, fear) – how long did it take for you to get over this upset?
Was there anything anybody could have said to suddenly cause you to feel differently?
If someone had told you to “just get over it” would it have worked?

Forcing the dog to lie down, sit down or wag his tail will not change his emotional state.  And indeed coercion is most likely to cause an increase in his distress.

This means that we have to teach the dog to willingly change his attitude to particular stressing situations and to teach the dog to willingly listen to his people.  Lets start with an easy one:

Catch your dog doing the right (relaxed) thing!

Your dog is not crazy all the time – when he is chilled out and just relaxing approach slowly without direct eye contact, pet him gently and give him a treat (one that is not too exciting) then move away again.

The idea is to reward him for this behaviour while keeping arousal low. This is capturing calmness – wait patiently for calm behaviour and then reward it when it happens.

If your dog approaches you to solicit attention, have a look at how relaxed (or not) he is.  If he is excited or pushy (he might be pacing, panting, vocalising, nudging you, jumping on you, frenetic movement) you want to ignore this.  Turn away from him and remain quiet.

He’ll soon calm down a little (he might lie down, stop vocalising, maybe sit politely) and at this stage turn to him and slowly, calmly, gently praise him.

I love the idea described in Emma Parson’s Click to Calm of clicking the dog when he is not doing anything wrong – if he’s not wrong, he must be right!  This is illustrated by her example of her clicking her Golden Retriever for breathing rather than barking at other dogs.

This sounds simple but is super effective and certainly works to let the dog know how little they need to do to get the things that they want (remember your dog is also programmed to be pretty inactive much of the time).

This has a number of positive effects: first it teaches the dog that doing nothing is great! Capturing calm behaviour helps the dog to learn how to calm himself in order to earn attention and other rewards – this has positive long term effects on his behaviour.  It also builds a consistent reinforcement history and this makes you as the trainer a whole lot more interesting than the surroundings.

Calm Canine Resources:

The best books paws down on this issue are Click to Calm by Emma Parsons and Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. I would highly recommend either or indeed both of these books for any and all owners, but especially for those of us with crazy canines.

The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas are also good additions to your doggie library to help you to develop a thorough understanding of dog behaviour and signalling.

All of these  book are available at

Lifestyle and routine are very important for calming the crazy canine and Dr Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol is well-known as a good place to start; Dr Lore Haug has also developed a calming lifestyle protocol called PACE (Polite Attentive and Calm Exercise).

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Aversives are unpleasant things that animals will work to avoid. Now that we understand that crazy behaviour has stress at its root, its is counterintuitive to use aversives when working on this behaviour – Calmness and Aversives do NOT mix

Stress Busting

There are some simple lifestyle strategies that can be put in place to calm the cerraazzzy canine along with management and it all starts with you!

The 2-leggers

Often times we have rewarded the crazy dog stuff – its fun to get the dog all jazzed up during a ball game, its funny to see him going nuts when you say “get the catssssss” BUT it’s not so much fun when you can’t get the dog to quiet after the doorbell rang or have him relax in the evening with his family (remember he becomes more and more addicted to the crazy response too).

You might see him swing from calm dog to Tasmanian-Devil-dog over very short periods of time.

Start the sequence of events that leads to walkies: put your shoes on, reach for your coat, pick up your keys, get his leash out, put your coat on, attach his leash, walk to the door…  Notice that there are different, increasing levels to your dog’s excitement.

Now, think what happens with this wound up dog…he is taken outside to an even more exciting situation. Are you beginning to see why your dog pulls, jumps around, barks at other dogs, chases leaves blowing, and doesn’t respond to his name?!

Think of our behaviour and what our crazy dog is responding to – if we are running around, moving frantically and talking excitedly of course our dogs will be very interested in the goings on.  Yet if we move slowly, walk calmly and speak quietly our dogs may not even raise an eyelid.

If you own a reactive or fearful dog your reactions take on even more significance.  Your dog may learn to anticipate a scary incident by your response or anticipation to something you think your dog will react to.

You learning to be calm and quiet even in the face of barking, snarling or crazy dog will help your dog too.

Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or a song from a musical (The Sound of Music is my fave!!) is a good way of relaxing your tension and keeping you calmer.  I don’t know anybody who can’t smile while singing ‘Do a deer’!

You can even teach your dog that your tense signalling means something other than ‘scary incident is imminent’.  You will of course have to be able to carefully recognise your own subtle signalling for this one and then be able to rehearse it in lots of training situations with your dog.

National Stress Awareness Month was the main inspiration for these blog posts.  It’s important that we become aware of the effect stress has on our health as well as that of our dogs – here are 8 top stress busters  for humans.  Pets are said to be great stress busters but often we see pet owners who need help coping with their pet’s behaviour so calming your pet may help to calm you too.

Calmatives and Medical Treatment

If your dog has trouble calming down or seems to be on the go constantly there may well be a physiological disorder at the root; and this sort of stress particularly over extended periods of time can have all sorts of detrimental effects on your pet’s health.  Therefore a vet check is essential as medical along with behavioural therapy may be required.

Certain anxiety disorders commonly seen in dogs may warrant medication to help the dog focus enough for behaviour modification to begin to help.  There are obviously all sorts of considerations but dogs on medication need thorough veterinary care and supervision over the course of treatment.

Dr Karen Overall, a renowned veterinary behaviourist has written extensively on behaviour modification medications; just a couple of articles from her here and here. We have also talked about the use of medications in relation to fears here and there is great information on the website.

There are also many calmatives available over the counter suitable for use on most dogs too.

DAPDog Appeasement Pheromone is a synthetic product that mimics the effects of a pheromone produced by the dam in the nest.  This pheromone has a calming effect on puppies in the nest keeping them quiet and encouraging them to suckle.  Although available in several forms, I find DAP pump spray the most useful and versatile.  Spray DAP on your dog’s bedding, in the car, on a bandanna he wears and even on your trouser leg when you bring him for walkies.

Bach Flower Remedies – although controversial, the use of herbal & homeopathic remedies are a popular choice when working with animals.  The best known of these is Rescue Remedy but there are many others that can be used in specific situations as described in this table.
***Rescue Remedy pastilles contain Xylitol which is toxic to dogs – never give them to your pet and keep them out of the reach of animals.***

Herbal Remedies are often an excellent addition to behaviour modification programs in relation to crazy behaviour.  I am a particular fan of Dorwest Herbs who supply two remedies that I have found effective: Skullcap & Valerian tablets and Valerian Compound drops.  The tablets are more suited to regular use during behaviour modification work while the Valerian drops are excellent to have on hand should a distressing incident cause your dog a problem.

Products such as Kalm-Aid help to make the neurochemical serotonin more available in the brain. This supplement contains tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) and Vitamin B1. Serotonin is associated with improving impulse control, learning and reduction of arousal.

Using a Lavender room spray or mist is relaxing both for dogs and their humans.  Spray it when your dog is already chilled out so that when you use it during mildly distressing incidents it will help your dog to feel more relaxed.

Music for Dogs like Through a Dog’s Ear – intensive work has been carried out to design music that can help dogs to feel a little more relaxed.  Playing specific music  at times when your dog is chilled out will allow you to also use this effectively at other times.  If the only time the radio is left on is when your dog is left alone it may become a cue that causes an increase in your dogs anxiety or worry.

T-touch  is a massage and body work based therapy that can help calming, along with behaviour modification, in many cases.  The book Getting in Ttouch with your dog by Linda Tellingoton Jones is a good introduction.

The Calming Cap is an aid that can be used as a short term management device in situations where your dog is likely to become aroused because he is being exposed to a stressor at full strength.  This is particularly effective if your dog is aroused by visual stressors such as birds or when travelling in the car.

Anxiety Wraps , Thundershirts and T-touch Wraps work with consistent pressure hugging your dog’s body helping him to feel more secure. Using wraps is an important part of Ttouch body work and some report success with dogs wearing a snuggly fitted t-shirt (secured with safety pins) too.

Have you come across a remedy that has been particularly helpful when dealing with crazy behaviour?  If so, please tell us all about it!

The Dog’s Dinner

Just as food affects our moods it effects our dogs’ too.  There are often common factors in cases where the owner reports ‘out of control’ behaviour, hyper behaviour or indeed aggressive behaviour and poor diet is certainly a contributing factor in most.

Your dog should be fed the best food that you can afford.  How do you tell which are the best foods?  Well the best tips are to look for foods with fewer ingredients, low in preservatives and additives (count how many words you have difficulty pronouncing!) and has a specified protein source listed in the top three ingredients.

If the food is described as ‘chicken’ flavour chicken should be the main protein source so chicken and/or chicken meal should feature in the top three ingredients (ideally both should be in the top 3 or 4).  Avoid foods that list animal derivatives or some other unspecified source.

Although the amount and type of protein in a diet is important more so is the quality of dietary protein.  Poor quality protein is linked with interfering with the body’s ability to use serotonin.

The ‘serotonin diet’ advises that a protein based food is fed and then about 3 hours later feeding a starchy meal e.g. cooked potatoes or rice with a vitamin B supplement.

Fillers such as grains and starches should not feature high up on the ingredients lists (and ideally not at all). In large amounts in a food these may take the place of other valuable nutrients in your dog’s diet – avoid foods like this!

It’s not about brand or food type but about ingredients.  Foods closest to natural diets are obviously most suitable so ideally raw, homecooked and tinned foods are the best (from commonly available commercial foods).

This is a great detailed article from on choosing commercial foods and there are lots more on this site so dig in!  Our Weekly Woofs from the Web often feature links to great diet resources so check ‘em out – we think that diet is the foundation of all canine health; there really is very little point in doing anything else if you don’t get diet right so start there.

Next up…

Time to have some fun! Dogs and people love to play and its an important way to teach impulse control, to burn energy and improve your relationship – Games: Stress Busters & Relationship Boosters