The journey from chaos to calm – Understanding hypervigilance in dogs

Hypervigilance is a condition characterized by extreme states of alertness. It can be challenging for the pet and the pet parent to navigate through it. But when you know the symptoms and causes, the road to recovery becomes less tiresome!
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When a dog is hypervigilant, his nervous system inaccurately filters sensory data, causing him to be highly sensitive and hyper-aware of all sorts of sensory stimuli. The release of stress signals by the nervous system in certain situations is a defense mechanism that protects one from perceived dangers. However, in some cases, the nervous system becomes chronically dysregulated, often because of traumatic events or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A dysregulated nervous system can cause a release of stress signals that are situation-inappropriate, creating exaggerated responses.

Spotting the red flags

The key symptom of hypervigilance is a constant state of high alertness to ascertain that danger is not near. Hypervigilant dogs may never fully relax, even when there are no perceived threats around them.

There is an abnormal increase in the dog’s arousal levels. A hypervigilant dog constantly scans the environment to search for sights, sounds, smells, people, behaviors, or anything else that reminds him of activity, threat, or trauma.

Pacing around frantically, barking excessively at every little noise, trembling, panting, and restlessness are all symptoms of hypervigilance. Few of the other symptoms include – avoiding certain people, places, or situations; disturbed sleep; fear of being alone; decreased interest in a favorite activity; refusing food and water; and excessive urination.

Types of hypervigilance anxiety

  • Environmental anxiety

This type of anxiety gets triggered by environmental factors such as loud noises, new people, or other animals. The triggers cause an extreme reaction by your pet like – snarling, growling, excessive barkingetc.

  • Fear-based aggression

This type of hypervigilance anxiety surfaces when a dog feels threatened, cornered, or overwhelmed in some way in a given situation. It is best to give the dog the space he needs to calm down and some alone time.

When Senses Are on High Alert: Impact of Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance in dogs is a condition that can cause difficulties in social interactions. Such dogs always feel scared and withdraw from family members and other animals. They also have trouble forming trustworthy relationships. Hypervigilant dogs display drastic behavioral changes due to extreme stress. Their aggression toward humans and other animals becomes more pronounced. So do their destructive tendencies, like chewing on furniture or clothing. While some vigilance is a normal response, too much can cause mental and physical exhaustion. Hypervigilance can weaken your pet’s immune system, making him more prone to developing diseases later.

Unravelling the roots of hypervigilance and PTSD

Figuring out the underlying causes of hypervigilance in your pet will help you take the necessary precautions before things take a downhill turn. The ultimate goal is to help your pet feel safe and relaxed.

  1. Separation Anxiety

Dogs that tend to become overly attached to their owners find it hard to stay alone, as a result of which they experience acute distress when left by themselves. Separation anxiety can lead to abnormal levels of vigilance in your pet.

  • Genetics

Certain hypervigilant dogs are genetically predisposed to respond that way. Studies have proven that genetic influences increase a dog’s predisposition to PTSD.

  • Noise Phobia

Many dogs are averse to loud noises. Certain sounds like lightening, fire crackers, loudspeakers etc. can cause them to go into a state of alertness and caution.

  • Stressful Environment

Dogs living in highly charged settings with too much sensory stimulation or a complete lack of structure are more predisposed to developing anxiety than those living in calmer environments.

  • Trauma

Traumatic and dysfunctional early life experiences can set dogs up for PTSD and hypervigilance through an interaction between the environment and genes.

  • Aging

Age-related factors like cognitive decline can cause confusion or fear in your pet, leading to heightened states of alertness.

Right treatment and mindful care

Managing hypervigilance anxiety begins with prevention and early detection. By proactively handling the symptoms now, you will be better equipped to take care of your pet in the future. The process requires time, patience, and consistent effort to yield tangible results.

A combination of behavior management and medication is the best way to manage PTSD and hypervigilance in dogs. Behavior therapy includes techniques like desensitization, in which a dog is exposed to low levels of a stressful stimulus till he gets comfortable with it. The stimulus level is gradually enhanced to build tolerance for the same. Enlist the help of an experienced animal behavior specialist to identify triggers that cause stress responses in your dog and develop plans tailored to manage those needs.

Obedience training and positive reinforcement will also help retrain your pet’s behavior until his natural tendencies become more manageable.

Anti-anxiety medication can also be a helpful option to reduce heightened states of fear and arousal in dogs. Make sure you ask your vet and only give a medication on his/ her recommendation.

  • High alert to hypervigilance

If your pet struggles with hypervigilance, know that the situation is manageable. By making a few lifestyle changes, you cannot only alleviate the stress but also improve the quality of life of your furry friend.

  • Follow a consistent routine

A structured daily routine helps your anxious pet feel secure and anchored by grounding his unstable energy. A daily schedule comprising regular walks, meal time, play sessions, and sleep will help calm your pet.

  • Regular exercise

Providing regular exercise is the key to helping your anxious pooch stay calm. Long walks or playtime at the park will drain out the excessive energy and help him feel relaxed.

  • Monitor behavioral changes

Keep an eye on any out-of-the-ordinary changes in your pet’s behavior. These may indicate an onset of anxiety. Consult your vet without delay if you notice anything unusual.

  • Mental stimulation

Keeping your pet’s buzzing mind stimulated with mental enrichments such as puzzle games or interactive toys will keep him engaged while reducing signs of hyper-vigilance. Engaging his keen sense of smell in nose work by coaxing him to hunt and forage for his treats inside the house or in the garden will tire him out and keep him distracted.

  • Ensure restful sleep

Your pet needs quality sleep each night for his body and mind to function optimally during the day. Provide him with a comfortable bed in a cozy spot of the home where he feels safe.

  • Calming methods

Dogs have varied preferences when it comes to calming methods. Experiment until you find the appropriate fit for your pet’s unique needs. Massage therapy can help some dogs relax their tense muscles and promote better blood circulation. Other dogs might prefer quiet time in a dark room with their favorite calming music playing in the background. You could also try aromatherapy products such as essential oils to help your pet feel at ease.

  • Socialization

Socialization helps your pet gain confidence through interactions with the people and animals around him. You could also rope in a well-socialized furry as a play buddy for your pet. It will help him emulate positive social behaviors.

  • Keep Calm.

Talk calmly to your pet, move slowly, and avoid sudden movement and noise wherever possible. Start the day calmly and be calm whenever you return home from outside.

  • Pay attention to nutrition

Stomach health and mental well-being are closely linked. Feed your pet a high-quality, nutritious diet in appropriate quantities to ensure that the brain-gut connection works favorably.

And don’t forget the extra love and care which can make any situation better for your furry friend.

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