Exercise and the high anx­i­ety dog

 Lucinda Glenny MSc Animal Welfare, HBSc Psychology, CPDT-KA

Anxiety is a feel­ing of unease or fear of occur­ring events. It can cause pan­ic attacks, which make     the body seize up and acti­vate the periph­er­al ner­vous system’s “fight or flight” mode. This caus­es increased heart rate, sweat­ing, rapid breath, ten­sion in the chest, increased blood pres­sure, and ulti­mate­ly fear. When in this state, ani­mals are not able to think or act clear­ly and can­not process infor­ma­tion appropriately.

How does exer­cise help alle­vi­ate these symp­toms? There is often an odd sense of hap­pi­ness that occurs after exer­cise, which is pri­mar­i­ly caused by endor­phins. Endorphins act on the same neu­ro­log­i­cal cen­ters as opi­oids, which improve our tol­er­ance to stress and pain. In addi­tion to endor­phins,   the brain stim­u­lates the pro­duc­tion of sero­tonin, dopamine and nor­ep­i­neph­rine, all of which play a key role in mak­ing us feel better.

Many stud­ies have found the pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion of increased exer­cise for human and ani­mal sub­jects and  a reduc­tion in out­ward signs of anxiety.

Exercise stim­u­lates neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis in the hip­pocam­pus, the main cen­ter for the con­trol of mood, by a chem­i­cal called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Studies have shown that the hip­pocam­pus in depressed women is 15% small­er than in those with­out depres­sion. Therefore, by stim­u­lat­ing the growth of the hip­pocam­pus, the symp­toms of depres­sion and anx­i­ety should, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly be diminished.

When peo­ple or ani­mals first start to exer­cise, the brain expe­ri­ences a rush of stress hor­mones, called glu­co­cor­ti­coids. Why would that be good for stress lev­els? In the long run, exer­cise trains the brains to bet­ter deal with stress. In stud­ies, ani­mals who exer­cise are less anx­ious in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, are more like­ly to find a solu­tion to a prob­lem, such as run­ning a maze, and are less like­ly to lose track of the goal.

Exercise makes us smarter and improves abil­i­ty to cope with stress!

Walking three hours a week for only three months gen­er­ates so many new neu­rons that you can mea­sure the dif­fer­ence in brain size. That’s because exer­cise increas­es the lev­el of neu­rotrophins, chem­i­cals that pro­mote the cre­ation of new brain cells. Exercising reg­u­lar­ly also enhances mem­o­ry and the abil­i­ty to learn new tasks, where­as stress impairs neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and can impede the abil­i­ty to learn.

Anyone that has been through a divorce or lost a loved one can tell you how hard it is to remem­ber or learn new things dur­ing a stress­ful peri­od. It’s believed that a com­bi­na­tion of the reduc­tion in neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, cell loss and changes in remain­ing cells can dis­rupt the thought process­es. Of course, this takes time to hap­pen, so usu­al­ly it’s only pro­longed stress that has major effects on the brain. Luckily, reg­u­lar exer­cise can com­bat these neg­a­tive effects, boost brain­pow­er and reduce stress lev­els. In ref­er­ence to anx­ious dogs, these same fac­tors can aide in lead­ing your dog to remain in a calmer and more con­fi­dent state.

For most dogs we gen­er­al­ly rec­om­mend a long walk to help tire them out – but for the HA dog, this can actu­al­ly increase the prob­lem. Try to find ways to phys­i­cal­ly tire your dog before walk­ing them – ball toss­ing in the yard, tag in the house, fetch up car­pet­ed stairs are all ways to use up some of that excess ener­gy. It’s not sur­pris­ing that the breed types that we see many dif­fi­cul­ties with are ones who have a lot of energy.

By tir­ing your dog pri­or to sub­ject­ing them to the trig­gers, they will be more able to man­age the sit­u­a­tions appropriately.

In order to obtain the best results, ani­mals should be exer­cised vig­or­ous­ly, on a reg­u­lar basis. Also, com­bine it with a prop­er diet and pos­i­tive encour­age­ment. The most sub­stan­tial improve­ments in men­tal health are made with a com­bi­na­tion of exer­cise, med­ica­tion and behav­iour­al therapy.

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