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Animal Angels: How Pets Help the Mentally Ill

You’re already aware that pets provide loving companionship for their owners. But did you know they also play a special role in helping people with mental illness? It’s true. A growing body of research shows that companion animals can inspire those with emotional challenges to live happier, healthier lives. Here’s how pets work their soothing magic on troubled souls.

Encouraging Healthy Routines

People who struggle with psychological challenges sometimes withdraw into their own private worlds for weeks or months at a time. This can cause them to miss meals, neglect personal hygiene, and forget to take medications. Pets act like heroic rescuers in such times, motivating the person to develop daily practices that lead to a happy, productive life.

Providing Playful Distractions

Victims of mental illness often repeat the same maladaptive thought and behavior patterns over and over, shackling them to a destructive form of self-obsession. Pets give these people a reason to focus on something other than their troubles, helping them to develop new and positive ways of relating to themselves and to others.

Reducing Social Stigma

Our culture marginalizes those with mental illness, especially when the sick person exhibits unusual behaviors. Uncaring, ill-informed attitudes form barriers that keep the mentally ill from experiencing the joys of friendship and social acceptance. Pets help to bridge this gulf. Almost everyone loves to see a person walking her pet dog. This wonderful sight helps strangers to break the ice and become friends, coaxing sufferers away from their lonely isolation while debunking harmful stereotypes.

Encouraging Exercise

It’s hard enough for the average person to turn off the TV or the computer and get moving. How much more difficult is it for someone struggling with psychological challenges to break free from unhealthy habits? This is another case in which a pet can make all the difference in the world. Walking a happy, excited dog who loves her human owner is more like play than work. In this way, an animal companion can encourage a person to take better care of her own physical and mental health.

Enhancing Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Personal achievement and approval from others are essential for cultivating a positive self-image. Those with emotional issues struggle with feelings of uselessness, even worthlessness. Accomplishing worthwhile goals can help these people to dispel their negative thoughts, and nothing is more worthwhile than caring for someone you love. It matters little that the recipient of the care has four legs instead of two. The benefits for the pet owner are substantial, according to an article published by the Mayo Clinic. Caring for a companion animal can give troubled people a reason to feel good about themselves, creating a foundation for future success.

A Word about Substance Abuse Disorders

According to the National Institutes of Health, substance abuse is interrelated with mental illness on many levels. Not only are people with psychological conditions more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, alcohol and illicit drugs worsen the symptoms of many mental disorders. Taken together, the two problems can drive a sufferer past the point of despair. Pets help those in recovery to stay clean and sober, both for their own sake and for the well-being of their companion animal. This provides an affordable alternative to the staggering costs associated with other types of therapy.

Sometimes solutions to vexing problems are ponderous and perplexing. Other times they come covered in fur and wagging their tails. Pets have the power to bring peace to anxious minds. This makes them vital members of our society and worthy of our deepest respect. Think of that the next time you look at your animal friend.

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Resource Guarding

Does your dog growl at you when you approach his food bowl? Is your puppy possessive about toys and rawhides? Does he snap at you when you even step near him when he’s got a bone? Does your dog bare her teeth when you approach the couch? If not, you’re lucky! Read through this information and start working with your puppy or dog now, to keep him in the blissful state of loving your approach to his food bowl or other prized possessions. If you are seeing aggression, definitely read on to find ways to help your dog. The technical term for this behavior is Resource Guarding, and it’s an absolutely normal dog behavior. However, it’s not something we humans appreciate. Fortunately, resource guarding is also a behavior that we can change.

It’s a huge mistake to label a dog with a resource guarding problem as ‘dominant’. This is largely because it is just too simplistic to think that everything a dog might do which his owners disapprove of is some kind of a bid for power, especially if it involves threat behavior. This label can also encourage owners to look for opportunities to score points back on their dog when their time would be much better spent looking for opportunities to teach the dog not to guard his possessions and to reward him for doing other things.

Here are a few of the myths about resource guarding, according to Jean Donaldson’s book “Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs.”

  • Myth #1: Resource guarding is abnormal behavior.
  • Myth #2: Because resource guarding is driven largely by genetics, it can’t be changed.
  • Myth #3: Resource guarding can be cured by making a dog realize that resources are abundant.
  • Myth #4: Resource guarding is a symptom of “dominance” or “pushiness.”
  • Myth #5: Resource guarding is the result of “spoiling” a dog.

So if the answer is not to “dominate” your dog or shower it with freely available food, then what is it? Simple. Make your puppy or dog understand that the approach of a human to his food, toys, space, etc. is a Good Thing. The process is called classical conditioning. Just as the clicker is associated with treats in your dog’s mind, the approach of a human hand, face, or other body part to his food dish should mean better food is on it’s way.

The following process should be done with ALL dogs, for their entire lives. Definitely do it with young puppies. The only part that changes is how often you do these exercises, what sorts of things your dog has when you approach, and how close you can get to the dog before presenting it with the treat. Every capable member of the family should take part in these exercises, keeping safety firmly in mind.

  • Initiate the Say Please Protocol with your dog. There are two reasons to do this. One is to inform your dog that you and your family are the source of All Good Things, and only by being polite does your dog get them from you. The second reason is for all family members to practice training with your dog, so that he listens to everyone in the family. This may or may not help with resource guarding, but it’s not a bad perk! If certain members of your family are being guarded against (growled or lunged at), then those people are the ones who should be asking the dog to Say Please more often.
  • Teach your dog the cue GIVE. Start with objects that he does not value as much and treats that are highly valued. Then gradually work your way up to objects that he cares very much about. Ask for him to give the object, then either wait for him to do so (if he knows the cue) or cause him to do so by presenting food near his mouth. Reward and praise him for dropping the object, then give it back to him as soon as he’s done chewing. Practicing this cue, giving the resource back each time, helps the dog understand that giving away his resources to a human is a good thing, so there’s no reason to guard them. Children should only work on this step under adult supervision. Start with the family member that the dog trusts most (growls at least).
  • Teach your dog the OFF cue. If he is guarding the furniture, teach him to jump off of it on cue. Get him up on the couch by patting on it or luring him with a treat. Don’t give the treat yet (we want to reward for “off”, not jumping on the couch). Then say “off” and lure him back onto the floor. If you use a clicker, click as soon as he heads off the couch. Give him the treat. Don’t start to teach off when your dog is all settled down on the couch. Work up to that level.
  • Condition your dog to expect good things when you approach him, especially if he has some sort of highly prized resource, like a bone. As with “give”, start with something your dog does not guard. Walk over, present the treat while he’s enjoying his low value toy or food, and leave. Do this with several low value toys throughout the day. Repeat this for several days until he begins to look up at you, with a “Hey, she’s here to give me a treat” expression on his face. With the low value objects, move up to touching the dog in some way, grabbing the object (often saying “give” first), then popping a high value treat in his mouth and returning the object. Over a period of weeks or more, gradually move up to repeating the above with higher and higher value toys or food. With high value toys/food/bones, start by just walking by the puppy, out of the range that makes him growl, and dropping a treat. Move closer as the days go by, if the dog is ready; never progress faster than your dog is happily willing to go. If the dog is not relaxed and happy at any stage, you have moved too fast. Retreat to the previous level. Repeat this entire process with several high value objects. After that, progress to doing this process with more people around, more stress in the environment. Children should only work on the conditioning step under adult supervision.
  • Keep your dog from exhibiting resource guarding behavior by not moving past his acceptance level. If he growls when you get within three feet of his toy, then don’t make him growl — stay more than three feet away from his toy next time. Better yet, remove the toys that he guards from the living area, so that he can’t accidentally be triggered. If your dog guards his dinner, make sure no one approaches or give him his dinner in a separate room, for now. If your puppy guards the couch, try to keep him off of it by not inviting him up and/or by making it uncomfortable to lay on (an upside-down carpet protector works well for that). Any approaches that you make to your dog at this time while he has a resource should be on purpose and accompanied by a treat. Do NOT punish him for growling by scruff shaking or any other show of violence. All you will be doing is proving to your dog that he was right — humans are crazy and you’ve got to protect yourself from them!

Maintenance. After your dog or puppy is happily accepting any human approach to his food or toys (a state that humans call ‘normal’ and dogs call ’strange’), you are at the maintenance stage. Twice a week, at first, then once or twice per month, approach him while he’s eating, pick up the bowl, and plop in a handful of treats before setting it back down. Do the same with toys or bones as well. Occasionally practice the “give” cue, replacing the surrendered object with something else if you really must take it away. Finally, continue the Say Please Protocol for the rest of the dog’s life, incorporating new tricks as your dog learns them.

Oh no, he’s doing it again! If your dog ever starts up again with resource guarding, it’s not because he is trying to take over the world. It’s probably because you haven’t kept up on his training and he has started to notice that it’s not such a good thing to give up his resources, after all. Remind him that humans are the source of all good things by going through the above process again.

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Teaching Your Puppy His Name

The foundation of everything you need to teach your puppy starts with him responding to his name.  When your puppy hears his name, no matter where he is or what he’s doing, we want him to turn and look at you as if to ask, ‘what do you want’?  If you teach your puppy nothing else, no matter where he is or what he’s doing or how far away you are, if you can say his name and he’ll turn to look at you, you’ll always be able to call him away from trouble or prevent from doing something you don’t want him to do.

Start by sitting on the floor next to your puppy in a quiet room with no distractions.  Say his name in a happy voice.  If there are no distractions, the sound of your voice should get him to turn his head.  The second he does, say “Yes” and give him a treat.  Repeat this a few times. Then say his name again.  Praise him when he turns his head but put the treat near his nose and move it slowly up to your face to get eye contact.  Say YES and give him the treat.

Make sure you say his name only once.  Don’t repeat his name over and over if he’s not looking at you.  If he doesn’t look at you, say his name, then immediately put the treat to his nose, wiggle it to get his attention, and then move it slowly up to your face so he does looks at you. Then say YES and give him the treat.  Make sure to say YES the moment he looks at you.  This helps him understand exactly what he did to earn the treat and it’s faster and easier than saying good boy or good girl.

Practice often so your puppy starts turning his head to you whenever you say his name.  Then slowly start to add difficulty. Work in different rooms.  Put a toy on the floor as a distraction.  Have one person petting your puppy while you call his name.  Then add some distance – say his name when you’re standing 3-4 feet away.  Then add longer eye contact.  Praise him as he’s looking at you and delay giving him the treat for a few seconds.

Next, start working outside. This is a lot harder for your puppy. You’ll probably need to use a food treat at his nose when you first try this outside.  That’s ok.  The key is to help your puppy understand what you want from him.  Adding difficulty as you practice is like teaching the behavior from kindergarten to college. Add difficulty slowly while keeping your puppy successful.

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Housetraining Tips

Observation

It’s up to you to make sure your puppy does not make mistakes indoors in the first place.  The more that happens, the more he’ll think it’s OK.  This means that good and constant observation on your part is essential to preventing indoor accidents.  To help with supervision, loosely tie his leash to you or tether him where you can see him.  (Do not leave him tethered while unsupervised!).

Restrict his Movements

Make sure you never leave your puppy loose and unsupervised during the housetraining period.  This means that 100% of time you are either watching him, or he is in his crate or X-pen.

Feeding Times

It is important that you regulate your dog’s food and water intake.  Pay closer attention to your dog for the hour or so after feeding so you can be ready to take him out.  Most puppies will want to relieve themselves 15 minutes after eating.  Leave food out for 20 minutes, then remove it, whether your dog has finished or not.  Don’t worry if he doesn’t finish – he won’t starve himself.

Reward

Reward your dog every time he eliminates outside.  Be there to praise while he’s going (low key praise so you don’t interrupt him) and treat immediately afterwards.  You may want to save his very favorite treats for these rewards and use these treats only for housetraining rewards for now.  Use going for a walk as an additional reward.   If puppy does not eliminate, bring him back inside, and try again in 10 minutes.  Then go for your walk – the walk is a reward for going outside, not a bribe to entice him to go.

Go With Him

Make sure you go with your puppy every time so you are present to praise and reward.  Also, this way you know for sure whether or not he has eliminated.  Also, you don’t want him to learn that it is OK to go when you’re not there (as in indoors when he’s unsupervised!). Go to the same spot or area every time so your puppy associates this as his potty area. 

Adding a Cue

When you see your dog about to relieve himself you can add a cue such as ‘good pee’ or ‘hurry up’ or ‘do your business’.  Make sure to say this only when you know he is about to go.  After a while, you can use this cue to get him to go right away (very handy for the 11 pm and bad weather potty trips).

He’s Just a Puppy

A general rule of thumb is that a puppy can ‘hold it’ about 1 hour for every month of age.  So a 4 month old puppy can hold it for 4 hours.  This is breed dependent and smaller dogs will need to go more often.  Plan your training schedule accordingly.

Eliminate Odors

Make you thoroughly clean and deodorize any indoor accidents.  Any remaining scent will entice your puppy to go in the same spot.  You can try feeding on accident areas – puppies do not like to eliminate where they eat – which is why the crate is effective.

Record Keeping

Keep a chart on your refrigerator of you puppy’s elimination schedule so you can start to detect patterns and take him out based on those patterns.

Persistence

It will take time for your puppy to fully understand that he is not allowed to go inside.  Your dog may have an occasional accident when he is 6-12 months old.  Be diligent and patient.

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