My German Shepherd Bronco was a stray that I rescued. Very thin and quiet in our first weeks together, I helped heal him and we soon bonded very strongly. Now, the tables have turned. Bronco is my healer, much more sensitive to my needs than I ever was to his. He can sense when my mood begins to turn and comes to my side with ears back, brown eyes full of concern and puts his head in my lap. His mere touch relaxes my body; he is my hope for a functional future.
I struggle with bipolar disorder with occasional anxiety popping up when I least expect it (is there any other time it shows up?) Thankfully, this year has been the first winter in the last three that I haven’t had a full meltdown panic attack and I have to credit that to Bronco’s intuition. He has helped me feel so much better.
Everyone knows that dogs help lower blood pressure and their owners also tend to have a greater sense of well-being. You love your dog and he or she waits on your every word and adores you. What you may not know is that there’s a big untapped potential there – for nearly any dog – if you struggle with stress, worry or mental disorders.
You may not have a dog quite as intuitive as Bronco, but you can teach him or her to help you when asked.
You might have heard of emotional support dogs, which are prescribed by a psychiatrist. These service dogs can help a patient control a debilitating mental illness inside and outside of the home. Even those who struggle with agoraphobia can find they are able to go much further with their best friend by their side. A dog can bring real hope to those who find that medication doesn’t seem to work, causes side effects or only takes them so far. Dogs are a scientifically proven, side-effect-free prescription for your brain.
I want to share a quick exercise that you can use to teach your dog to help stop anxiety, panic or to just relieve stress. Your dog doesn’t have to be trained as an ESA (emotional support animal) or PSD (psychiatric service dog) to do this for you and you don’t even have to have a diagnosis to find it calming.
The technique behind the exercise is called deep pressure therapy (DPT). Studies show that it can calm those with autism or help relieve anxiety, depression, self-harming behaviors, and it can even help just plain old stress. DPT helps make attacks of any sort shorter in duration and easier to bear.
DPT is generally pressure to the abdomen or chest by your dog. (In self-harming behavior, it can be pressure to the body part that is at risk.) A small or medium sized dog can lay on your chest while you lay flat on your back and a large dog can drape his or her paws across your lap and then press his head into your torso to provide the pressure, or drape himself halfway across your torso if you are on your back, depending on what’s comfortable for you.
5 Easy Steps
1) Get out some delicious treats and find a couch. Put a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly draw the treat away from the nose toward the back of the couch. Pat the couch with your hand and excitedly say your dog’s name.
2) If your dog puts his front paws up, say “Paws up! Good boy!” and reward with the treat.
- If your dog is medium or small size, you’ll want to get all four paws up on the couch before you say “Paws up”. You will also then lure them into a “down” on the couch.
- If your dog doesn’t “paws up” at first, you’ll have to reward for things close to what you want. Putting his head on the couch, putting one paw briefly on it, etc. Withhold a treat to get them to do a little more next time until they are getting all the needed paws up.
- Practice this until you can say “paws up” and he can repeat without any coaxing.
3) Call your dog off the couch with “Good boy! Ok!” or “Paws Off!” and pet and praise him. Use this whenever your dog gets off the couch on his own or when you want him to get off.
4) Now, lay or sit on the couch and pat your chest or lap and say “Paws up!” Your dog will likely be confused and stiff at first, but give a treat for anything they’re willing to offer until they get the idea and begin to relax. You might have to lure again. Reward often at first.
- Ideally, a small or medium dog will lay on your chest vertically with paws on shoulders and head next to yours. You will need to practice the command “down” on your chest. If you begin to get frustrated, stop what you’re doing, give a fun or easy command and end practice. Try again later. This may take time for your dog to get used to.
- A large dog will put his paws on either side of your hips, or lay their chest horizontally across your lap.
5) Extend the time your dog is required to lay on you by extending time between treats and when you say “Paws off”. Over time, you can replace treats with verbal praise or petting over longer periods of time.
Other stuff: For large dogs, you’ll need to teach them to push their head or lean their shoulder into your torso. Once your dog is familiar with paws up and they begin to relax, they should naturally lean into your torso for support, at which point you should always reward or praise them.
- A dog that has to stand on his hind legs should be released every five minutes so he can rest for one minute before getting back up while you’re practicing. If you have an full on panic attack, this may or may not be possible to provide, which is ok.
You’ve trained your dog to provide deep pressure therapy on command! Enjoy the relaxation and bonding time and start feeling better!
If you want to go a bit further with this, you can train your dog to do this on his or her own whenever you begin to have a panic attack or other incident. All you need to do is mimic the symptoms you have – fast breathing, sobbing, pulling hair, shivering, etc – and then tell your dog “Paws up”. Keep practicing this and rewarding it and eventually your dog will pick up the signs on his or her own and you won’t have to say anything.
Alternatively, if you don’t know what signs you give when you’re having trouble, you can just ask for “paws up” whenever you feel the start of something happening and your dog will pick up on the subconscious things you do and might even start noticing you’re having a problem before you do.
Feel free to ask any questions you might have!