Diwali is almost upon us and as most of us are aware, dogs’ stress levels shoot through the roof during this period. So this month I am going to dig deep into all my education that had to do with stress in dogs and put forth every bit of information that might help you help your dogs.
To handle stress, we first need to understand stress. Obviously, the first question is “What is stress?” In very simple terms, it’s the body’s mechanism to cope with danger. This mechanism is activated either when danger is perceived or even anticipated. Hence, even when there is no real danger, like during Diwali, stress is experienced by our dogs because they anticipate danger when they hear the unnaturally loud noises. In essence, their body is reacting the exact same way as if they were in real danger while being chased by a larger predator.
Imagine walking back to your car, late at night, in a dark basement, in a questionable neighbourhood where there have been recent reports of violent crimes and having made a heavy withdrawal at the ATM. In such a situation, my muscles tense, my mind plays all the scenes of every thriller I have seen. Every leaf rustling sounds like footsteps. I feel like my heart is beating so loud that it’s audible outside the building. I sweat profusely and my hands are trembling. This, my dear friends, is the handy work of an Emergency System in our body. It kicks in just at the thought of something bad happening.
To understand this Emergency System think about the governance of a country during a declared emergency versus normal functioning. As you can imagine, emergency governance is distinctly different from regular governance. The two governance have different focus and when one is functioning, the other ceases to function. The emergency governance focuses on the extreme situtation at hand while regular governance focuses on economy, growth etc… (of course, this is not a political blog, so I won’t get into what the government is actually doing).
It’s not hard to guess that when a being is stressed, it’s the Emergency System that is functioning and the Regular System is on hold. Needless to say, these two systems just don’t work at the same time. If, during stressed times, one system is completely off and the other one is on, we need to understand what these systems do. What functions get turned off and what special functions get turned on. How does our body actually react to stress? (While, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to the terms Emergency System and Regular System, the technical terms are Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems)
Now imagine a nice Onam Saadhya. Imagine trying to sit through a mandatory training at office after a Saadhya. I cannot recollect the number of times I have been caught sleeping – happy dreams of paapad making me grin in my sleep. I don’t seem to care that I have been caught either. I’m just happy. We don’t need a genius to guess that my Regular System is at work and my Emergency System has been retired.
The Regular System, like regular governance, focuses on long term projects in the body – digestion, storage of nutrition for the future, growth, immunity, learning etc…The Emergency System is, of course, the opposite. Focus is entirely on the NOW. The muscles need to be ready for running like mad from predators or muggers or whatever the threat is. So all nutrients stored in the body start pouring out. The heart starts pumping like crazy to get these nutrients to the muscles. Learning and senses focus on survival. Focus moves to recollecting where the pepper spray is, instead of recollecting trigonometry. Focus is on listening to footsteps instead of noticing the interesting architecture of the parking lot.
But, why is all of this important to understand how our dogs handle Diwali? This Diwali, I want to look at it all from the perspective of the Emergency System being on and the Regular System being off. Suddenly a lot of the advice that is frequently doled out during takes on a new meaning. Let’s examine them:
- Often we are tempted to treat our dogs in an attempt to calm them down. But, digestion, that’s controlled by the Regular System, is not really working. So trying to feed dogs treats during this time is like expecting me to take a second at that scary parking lot to pull out a piece of Gulab Jamun and let it calm me. If I really believed that my life was in danger, this would never work. Sometimes, due to associative learning, dogs might even start to associate treats with the sound and dislike treats. So, best to just put the treats away. Just stick with easy to digest, simple meals.
- Poor digestion can also mean vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Ride it out instead of rushing to the vet. Vet visits add to the stress and are completely unnecessary.
- The Regular System that is in charge of general immunity is not doing it’s job. So it’s not uncommon for dogs to start contracting infections and allergies. Stocking up on home remedies and mild medications, instead of making stressful visits to the vet would be wise
- Imagine if you are in that parking lot and a friend jumped out from behind your car and said “Boo!”. If you have not collapsed from a heart attack, you are likely never to talk to him again. To a wound up dog on high alert, surprises are a big no-no. Minimize surprises. Disable the bell if possible. Think of recipes that avoid use of pressure cooker or the mixie. Vacuuming can perhaps wait for after Diwali?
- One of the things I see most “trainers” recommend is….training! (Of course!). Many like the idea of Desensitization and Counterconditioning. These are great techniques when you can reduce the stressor to such a mild dosage that it stops being a stressor and the Emergency System is no longer active and “learning” is actually possible. But during Diwali, when there is no such luxury, and all the firecrackers are at full intensity, the dog’s Emergency System is functioning at full potential and learning is almost impossible for such a dog. This is like asking us to learn calculus under gun point. Not only is it impossible, but also just plain cruel. Just give up the futile exercise of trying to train anything and focus on simpler things like reassurance. Diwali IS stressful. Accept it and help reduce the stress. No point in pointing to a flower pot and saying “See puppy! Pretty pretty! Now have treat!”. It’s likely your dog is thinking “WHAT are you doing? WHAT are you saying? WHY are you trying to feed me? The world is imploding. Come let’s run away! COME NOW!”.
Speaking of running away, that’s precisely what we do during Diwali. We pack our girls in our car and drive away to the wilderness. If that’s an option for you, don’t think twice about it. Just do it!
Of course, not all dogs freak out during Diwali. Some handle it quite well. But we are so nervous about our dog’s fear, that our own stress response is turned on, in anticipation of the stress our dog is going to feel. Consequently, we end up stressing our dogs out far more than the firecrackers do. So, how do we know if our dog is indeed stressed?
Our dog, Nishi is a nervous wreck during Diwali. So we waste no time in leaving the city. As pet parents, we need to learn to recognize stress in dogs and react appropriately. This is that time of the year when we need to brush up on all our skills of reading stress in our dogs. So, my next post will be on learning to read stress in dogs.
How is Diwali time in your canine household? How do you cope? I would love to hear about all of your Diwali experiences with your pets.