Wednesday, 26 November 2014

If I could talk to the animals

I was referred to an article the other day which really fed my geek. It was by Theresa Fisher and entitled "Brain Scans Reveal What Dogs Really Think Of Us" (1). She referred to a research study on neuroimaging in dogs (2). Somehow the researchers had managed to train a cohort of dogs to stay motionless, unsedated and unrestrained in an MRI scanner - no mean feat I would have thought. 

They presented a variety of smells to the dogs with the intention to identify which smells cause the greatest response. They concentrated on responses from the caudate nucleus as that area of the brain is associated with positive expectations. So the theory was that if that area exhibits stimulation, the dogs liked the smell. 

The scents they used included the dog itself, a familiar dog, a familiar human, an unfamiliar dog and an unfamiliar human. The results indicated that the brain responded most positively to the smell of a familiar human. Interestingly the smell was not that of the dog’s owner but someone the dog knew. 

The researchers concluded that “This.…provides important clues about the importance of humans in dogs’ lives” while Theresa Fisher said that this also means that “Dogs don't just seem to pick up on our subtle mood changes — they are actually physically wired to pick up on them”. 

I love research like this and thank Stephen Flanagan for finding it for me. It means that when I talk to my doggy clients or when I sit them in my lap and they look at me trustingly, it is not hokum pokum but because there is a scientific rationale behind it. They like smelling me and are hard wired to relax. 

Then I found another piece of research done locally at the University of Sussex (4) about how dogs really do understand human speech and that they process language in a similar way to us. The researchers placed a cohort of dogs between 2 speakers which played simple recorded commands. The tests suggested that the dogs are able to pick up on subtle aspects of human speech such as emotional tone, intonation and volume changes. 

They concluded that is because dogs process language in the same way as we do. We have what is called a ‘hemispheric bias’ when it comes to communication, with different aspects of language favouring the left or right side of the brain and the test dogs appeared to respond in the same way. They concluded that this similarity in processing sounds may reflect convergent evolution for processing human speech as if dogs have been selected to respond to human vocal signals during domestication. In other words, like the previous study, they are hard-wired to our speech as well as our smell. 

Now if I could only find myself an MRI scanner I could do all sorts of research on the value of playing music to dogs to bring about positive responses (like dear old Harry) or whether they really do understand “Now lift your left leg for me so I can massage your pectoral muscles” or if they just hear “woof...bark…woof…woof…bark”. But in the meantime I am more than happy knowing that tucking the kids under our blanket when they are anxious is not coddling but evidence based. 

Dog massage
Sam and Sarah being 'hard wired'



Friday, 21 November 2014

Canine Behaviour & Massage : A Holistic Approach

Alex and I held our first Canine Behaviour & Massage workshop at Earthed Barn, Fletching with the theme of 'Coping with Canine Anxiety'. 

Sarah & Sam arranging the chairs at the Barn

The Barn was full of dog lovers who were there to pick up some tips, learn a relaxing massage routine and to generally meet and chat in a cosy relaxed venue. Among those who attended were Dr Birgit Ahlemeyer, a holistic vet, Mandy Fischer, an oestopath, Alison Ridley, owner of Doggy Delights plus many caring dog owners who wanted to learn as much as possible to help their dogs. 

Some of the group at the Barn

Alex spoke about how :
  • Anxiety can be inherited or can derive from a deprived early environment perhaps nutritionally, physically or socially. Food consumed is linked to the ability to cope and learn for example
  • Dogs cannot rationalise like humans or exercise escapism
  • Inconsistency in their home environment can also lead to this behaviour
  • The dog should not be forced to confront their fears and the environment should be made as relaxed as possible
  • A routine should be established, anxious behaviour should be ignored where possible and normal behaviour rewarded
  • Pairing the fearful situations with something positive
The latter brought us very nicely to demonstrating a short but effective relaxation routine that could be performed on an anxious dog.  This time Mr Sam was the model but looked anything other than anxious.

Sam showing how it is done to be a relaxed dog

I started my section of the workshop by asking everyone to stand up and look anxious.  As expected, shoulders went up, jaws were clenched and bodies were held tense.  This was to demonstrate how behaviour and posture are so closely related.  In an anxious dog their back often bows, their tail may tuck in holding their back end stiff, their neck may shorten.  Like their owners, being anxious makes their bodies tense.

So we demonstrated a quick routine that everyone could do on their dogs to help calm them donw during thunder or firework seasons.

It seems that this routine has already had an effect on at least one dog as I received an email saying "This evening my dog started his usual quivering (a loud fire alarm test upset him up the yard today when we were passing) and I decided to sit down calmly and do the massage stuff I learned last night at the anxious dog seminar.It really helped!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you so much. He seemed to like it and calmed completely....then fell deep asleep and I sat there calmly reading a mag until he woke 2 hours later"

Can't ask for better feedback than that.

Everyone chatting at the end of the workshop

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Sometimes it is not just the dog you go to treat who needs help

As I wrote in my last post, I received a vet referral to go and help a couple of senior dogs. Sadly Harry could not fight his kidney failure and passed at the end of last week. His owner called me to say that the sessions I gave him during his final days were so very helpful to him. Each time she could see he was totally relaxed and without the pain of muscle and joint aches and strains. It also empowered her to be able to give him some massage rather than just waiting and watching for the inevitable. 

Whenever I went round to help Harry, his sister would sit with me, right by her brother. I ended up with one handed massage on Harry and one handed massage on Tanya. 

And sometimes even one of the five cats got involved in the session. 

Earlier this week we went round to see the owner. Tanya had been missing her brother immensely and had not barked or played since. While I was chatting to the owner (in fact we were looking at photos on Facebook of Portuguese rescue dogs for her to adopt) Chris sat with Tanya quietly giving her some Reiki. He also worked calmly on their other dog who is very excitable. 

The next day I received another call from the owner asking if Chris could come back to offer more Reiki as Tanya seemed a lot happier. She was back to barking at the postman (!) and eating more. 

I’m not sure if the cat is next but it is heart warming how sometimes it is not just the dog you go to treat who needs help.