Calming Enrichment for Dogs: Leveraging Long-Term Calming Projects

In a recent podcast episode, #83 – Enrichment for Shelters, Allie and Emily talk about how incredibly impactful a midday rest can be for shelter populations, and the same is true for our pets at home! As we’re buzzing around, living our human lives, sometimes our pets need a little extra help to rest and relax during times that align with their species’ natural history. 

Unfortunately, that isn’t usually as easy as saying, “Hey, friendo, go take a nap, this doesn’t concern you.” It would be glorious if it was that easy! Believe me, I’ve tried. More than once!

Instead, we often need to teach our pets how to rest and relax while the world continues to move, and while there are many ways to teach those skills, I often start clients with what I call the “set it and forget it method”. This is just one element of a multi-pronged plan to help their pet learn to rest and relax in their safe space, but it can be the thing that we busy humans pull out on those days when we have an empty cup. 

 

Set It and Forget It

Here at Pet Harmony, we refer to these things as Long-Term Calming Projects, and let’s break that down a little more. 

We’re usually looking for an activity that lasts somewhere between 10-30 minutes, thus the long-term. 

We’re looking for something that results in rest and relaxation, thus “calming”. *More on this later!*

We’re often looking for something the pet can do independently – back to the “set it and forget it” option – thus the “project”. 

Now, you’ll notice that there are qualifiers on all those things, and that’s because each family is unique, so sometimes our goals may deviate slightly from the “usual”. But we’re gonna focus on some of the more broad strokes. 

 

How We Measure Calm

When we’re working with clients on behavior modification, we’re looking to implement things that actually work, and that means we need to qualify what “works”. The good news is that there are so many different ways that these activities can move us in the right direction!

But, to put those measures into context, let’s first look at a nice, simple example using Griffey–because let’s be honest, what’s a blog by Ellen without Griffey? 

 

The Quarreling Neighbors

Our neighbors acquired a mastiff puppy last winter. As the pup enters those adolescent teenage years, they’ve started to lose their puppy privilege, and the other dogs let everyone and their mother know it. And while Griffey is certain that every dog is a mortal threat to his whole family, he gets Big Sad when he hears other dogs in distress. So, when the adults tell this young whipper snapper to sit down and take a seat in no uncertain terms, Griffey would really struggle. It’s an entirely appropriate response to the sounds of conflict that are so close, but it still isn’t good for him.

So for ease of demonstration, let’s say that Griffey, at his baseline would: 

  • Always, 10/10 times react
  • Jump up, bolt out of the room, and scream like a banshee 
  • This awful, make-your-eye twitch screech will last for 3 minutes 
  • After the 3 minutes of screeching, he will come lie back down, and it takes 10 minutes for him to fully settle back into the puddle of pup on the bed 

And let me tell you, that’s a big, big, big reaction. Like a whole lot. And while it stinks for me, my partner, and Laika, it really stinks for Griffey to feel that stressed 10 times a day. Which, *spoiler alert*, would lead to increased sensitivity to other mildly stressful things in his life. 

 

Enter Effective Long-Term Calming Projects

The keyword here is effective. Having Griffey preoccupied with an activity can be helpful when I need some time to myself, but I have goals. The whole house needed Griffey to be better able to cope with the conflict next door. So, how do we measure efficacy?

 

Frequency 

The first way that we can see long-term calming projects be effective is through a reduction in the frequency of response. What this may look like is: 

 

Instead of reacting 10/10 of times, he would react 7/10 times, and those 7/10 times he would jump up, bolt out of the room, and scream like a banshee for 3 minutes, and then he would lie back down, and take 10 minutes to turn into the puddle of pup on the bed.

That’s a 30% reduction in the frequency that he lost his bat-eared mind from a simple enrichment activity. 

 

Intensity

The second way that we can see long-term calming projects be effective is through a reduction in the intensity of response. What this may look like is:

He reacts 10/10 times, but instead of jumping up, bolting out of the room and screaming like a banshee for 3 minutes, he casually stands up, walks to the doorway of the room, Marco-Polo barks for 3 minutes, and then lies back down, and take 10 minutes to turn into the puddle of pup on the bed. 

 

Standing in the doorway of the room with loose muscles, and letting out a few cheek-puffed “berfs” over the span of 3 minutes, is a much less intense response compared to banshee screaming. He’s much lower on his ladder of escalation, which gives me much more wiggle room to teach him a different suite of behaviors. 

 

Duration

The third way that we can see long-term calming projects be effective is through a reduction in the duration of response. What this may look like is:

He reacts 10/10 times, jumping up, bolting out of the room, screaming like a banshee, but instead of screaming for 3 minutes, he screams for 1.5 minutes, then he would lie back down, and take 10 minutes to turn into the puddle of pup on the bed. 

That’s a 50% reduction in the duration of his banshee shriek! 

 

Recovery Time

The fourth way that we can see long-term calming projects be effective is through a quicker recovery time after a stressful event. What this may look like is: 

He reacts 10/10 times, jumping up, bolting out of the room, screaming like a banshee for 3 minutes, then he would lie back down, but instead of taking 10 minutes to turn into a puddle of pup, he reaches “I’m melting” status in 5 minutes. 

Again, that’s a 50% improvement in recovery time compared to his baseline!

 

Melting During Activity

And lastly, the final metric we can use is the dog’s body language during the activity. Do you see droopy eyes? Do you hear their breathing get deep? Do you see their muscles relaxing? Do you see the tension decrease between their ears? Do you see their tail drop? See example here: 

https://www.instagram.com/reel/CfE5yzMJxoT/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igsh=MzRlODBiNWFlZA== 

 

But, like, he’s still reacting? How is that a win?

You’re right! He is! But slow and steady wins the race. It’s okay if he lets us know that he’s struggling with the dogs next door. Frankly, I am too. And, with each small improvement we can make, we can build on that success. I had a wonderful mentor and colleague, Kathy Sdao, remind me, “It’s much easier to start with something than nothing. Then, you’re not teaching something entirely new, you’re just learning to unlock the skills in new contexts.” Unfortunately, there is no magic wand for behavior change, but man, a 10% improvement from one small daily activity sure is a quick win. 

 

Alright, I’m Sold, What Are Long-Term Calming Projects?

Ah-ha! Here’s the kicker. Your pet is the one who will tell you! While licking, sniffing, and chewing are options I usually recommend as starting points for each family, some dogs will need modifications for those activities to be effective, or something else entirely may be their jam! But fear not, we have tons of ideas and examples over on our instagram, and our consultants are here to help you find the right activities for your pet!

 

Now What?

  • If you want to learn more about our multi-pronged approach to teaching pets safe spaces, check out our KPA LIVE! Class, Safe Spaces for Anxious or Fearful Learners, where I’ll walk you through step-by-step how to implement long-term calming projects and teach your pet a safe space. https://karenpryoracademy.com/live-classes/# 
  • If one-on-one support is more your jam, our consultants are stellar at helping families find effective and sustainable enrichment plans for families. 
  • If you’re more a DIYer, make sure to follow us over on Instagram where we share enrichment activities often, or check out this blog on Trial and Eval Calming Foraging Activities.

 

Happy Training! 

Ellen

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