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.