“Dog has sensory overload on walks” is a search term that landed someone at this blog. It made me happy and sad at the same time to find that in the search. Happy that someone was seeking answers and sad that a dog and owner were experiencing that. I don’t know if the person found a clear answer so I thought I’d write a blog about some ways to help dogs experiencing sensory overload on walks.
As regular readers know, sensory concerns are something I’m intimately familiar with. Way back when my now husband and I were dating, I came up from work one evening incredibly drained, exhausted and sad. He asked how work had gone and I had had a rough emotionally intense day filled with dogs experiencing sensory overload and the various behavioral fall outs from that. He had a light bulb moment, finally realizing a part of the reason I did my job is because I can empathize on a personal level with what sensory overwhelm is like.
So for that lovely owner seeking how to help his or her dog struggling with sensory overload on walks here are some ideas:
1. Good on you for recognizing your dog is struggling! And good on you for recognizing the sensory intense environments you are walking in are a contributing factor! That’s a big step!!
2. One suggestion to start with is give your dog’s sensory system a break for a couple of weeks. When one’s cup is overflowing you need a good solid break to allow stress levels to decrease. I used to tell clients metaphorically speaking ‘keep the dog in a closet for 2 weeks.’ I didn’t mean a literal closet, but meant to keep life close to home, sticking to low stress activities, manage the environment to prevent escalations in stress level or arousal, practice low key mental and physical exercises in you dog’s safe comfort zones, etc. Give the dog’s nervous system a break and chance to chill for a while.
3. While in the break and chill period, assess the environments you had been walking your dog in carefully. And think about ways you could shift or change. Does your schedule allow you to shift when you walk, to a time when there is less going on outside? Could you change where you walk, even if it means getting in the car and driving to a less active environment? Are there specific things in the walking environments that are stressing your dog, and can those change, shift, or be avoided at all? Could you change the length of time you walk? What factors can you contribute to the walking environments causing your dog sensory overload, and what can you do change, eliminate or address them?
4. Think about what your dog does for fun. When left to their own devices, how would your dog prefer to spend their time? Do they enjoy sniffing? Do they enjoy playing with toys? Do they enjoy racing around the back yard? Do they enjoy hunting squirrels? Do they enjoy playing with you? Do they enjoy barking? What does your dog do to de-stress, and just have fun? Does your dog have fun?
5. Think about how you could incorporate the ways your dog prefers to have fun into your daily routine. Are there ways those activities could be incorporated into walks to aid your dog? Either before, after or during the walk? And think about the question, “Are walks fun for my dog?” and “Why are we taking walks?” It’s a-ok to not take your dog on walks. If walks are stressing the heck and beyond out of your dog, it’s totally ok to find other ways to mentally and physically meet their exercise needs. If you live in a place where walks must happen (such as an apartment or urban environment) really go back to #3 and try to think outside the box and go down to #9 (ok really, everyone go down to #9, it’s a great suggestion, one most likely to have short and long term success).
6. Think and assess any other factors that may be contributing to your dog’s sensory overload both during walks and not on walks. Is your dog comfortable with the gear you are using to walk them? Are there stresses at home adding to your dog’s sensory overload? Does your dog spend portions of his or her day barking and becoming aroused at noises or sights outside? Does your dog become stressed in the back yard or in the house and when or why? Did your routine recently change? Or did you have workmen or visitors at the house recently? Has your dog’s eating or drinking habits changed? Have there been any recent weather events or changes that are contributing to your dog’s sensory stress? Is it a season change? Is there any chance of medical concerns impacting your dog’s ability to tolerate sensory stress? (always, always, always rule out medical concerns first when seeking to address behavioral concerns. Consult with a behavior literate veterinarian)
7. Once you’ve given your dog a chill break period, and looked at various ways to modify the who, what, where, when, how and why of your walks try incorporating some of those into your walks. Take walks at the pace your dog is comfortable, use as long a leash as you safely can so your dog has some freedom to sniff, and move around and gradually assimilate sensory information. Keep the walks short, you want to avoid pushing your dog past their threshold, and be sure to give your dog a good de-stress period after the walk. If your dog is willing to eat on your walks, take a variety of food they enjoy and vary how your deliver it, at various break points on your walk toss some of the food on the ground and let your dog sniff around to find it all. Take break points on your walk, even if your dog seems to be handling the environment take breaks. Give them a chance to stop and sniff and think and just hang if they are willing. Some dogs respond very well to deep pressure, if your dog is such try taking massage breaks where you slowly breathe and praise in a quiet slow voice as you massage or pet your dog in deep long strokes. Some dogs enjoy deep pressure so much they respond positively to a compression vest such as a ThunderShirt or a weighted vest such as a dog backpack (follow veterinary guidelines on weight limits, usually are based on % of your dog’s body weight). Be mindful of the surroundings yourself helping to anticipate any thing that might additionally stress your dog and advocating for your dog (ex: you hear or see a large truck coming, encourage your dog to move further away or sniff in the grass; you realize your dog just calmly walked past the house were the day before a dog had barked at her, praise her and give her a chill break; you see your neighbor and their dog up ahead, you turn down a side street to avoid them, or if your dog finds greeting that neighbor enjoyable and helps in de-stress, ask your neighbor if your dog can greet them. etc) and stay connected to your dog, use your senses to help remind your dog you are present with them. Talk to them, move with them, stay visually connected, show interest in what they are interested in (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve encouraged students to crouch down and investigate the thing on the ground their dog thinks is clearly awesome, or to show their dog something they think their dog might find interesting, be a part of sharing the awesome. If your dog has a history of resource guarding things they find awesome, do not investigate the awesome with them. And again see #9) so often people go silent and dead at the end of the lead, instead let your dog know you are in this with them!
8. Remember even if your dog is coping with the sensory stresses well, stress is still adding up. Think of your dog as a bathtub with a slightly (or in some cases more than slightly) clogged drain. Stress is water in the bathtub. Without enough time for the tub to drain of water (stresses), it will eventually overflow (sensory meltdown or shutdown). While the tub is filling the dog is still coping and may appear “ok”, they really aren’t. Give them breaks to help give your doggie bathtub time to keep draining the level of stress to below overflowing. Remember sometimes things we find very positive can be some of our largest stresses, and that if you asked someone to describe how their body responds when they are feeling excited and when feeling anxious, the descriptions are often very similar. Consider those when you do your mental tally of the sensory stresses you dog has experienced up to that point.
9. Consult the advice, feedback and expertise of an experienced, credentialed expert in animal behavior. They can help assess your dog’s behaviors, tailor a behavioral plan specific to your pet and aid you in support throughout the work you do together. CAAB and IAABC have some excellent resources for seeking out professional assistance.