Winter Well Being – You and Your Dog

I wrote this post a while back as an article for a local paper, and feel it is timely for those of us here in the Northern climes:

Dogs and humans have been co-evolving with one another for the last 10 000 years (possibly 100 000 years!) and no other season accentuates this special relationship more than winter. Recent studies indicate dogs are the most successful “human friend” because they are very good at reading human body language. Ancestral dogs living near human encampments learned to interpret human facial expressions and hand gestures to obtain scraps of food. Humans benefited from the protection of dogs, and later co-operated with them to obtain food, warmth, travel, and eventually – companionship. This is all very interesting, and explains why Maggie begs at the fridge, and understands the meaning of “W-A-L-K”, but how does all of this relate to winter? Winter is a time of close-quartered living, and inactivity. Holidays, in particular, challenge a dog’s mental and physical balance with periods of stress, inactivity, rich foods and other hazards. Dogs are also very good readers of the human mental state.

Although dogs are not known to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), they do seem to pick up on our human behaviours. They know when we are putting on our dog-walking shoes, and have an inner clock that says, “Let’s get out of here and find some adventure!” The long winter seasons are no exception to a dog’s need for physical and mental stimulation, and many suffer from extreme boredom when forced to stay indoors. Too, because dogs are so good at reading our behaviour, one wonders if dogs empathically understand changes in our behaviour or emotions, and sense when we suffer from SAD, or other type of depression. The answer to beating our winter blues may be as simple as looking to our canine counterparts for some healthy living tips.

As a rehabilitation vet, and fitness enthusiast, I study behaviour as one means of advising clients on preventive health issues. These tips may be modified for cats, who also find winter a challenge. During winter, stick to a routine as much as possible. Avoid over-feeding or Holiday food temptations and weigh-in regularly. Chopped apple and carrot make good rewards, or better yet, skip the treats and go for a brisk walk in the sun, so you both get a healthy dose of endorphins and Vitamin D! Treating satisfies us on an emotional level, and replacing this behaviour with an interactive, healthier activity like walking is a healthier option for our pets (why can’t a leash, and the word “walk” be a treat in and of itself?!!!). On those really cold, days, unfurl your yoga mat and practice some of your yoga moves. Your dog can practice postures such as “sitting pretty” or “square standing”, in between your sun salutations. Perform a few crunches or squats in between doggie sets of high five or shake a paw (2 sets of 4-5 high five or shake a paw per side should suffice). Set up a living-room obstacle course for your pet to follow and navigate on carpet (hide favourite toys or tiny treats in various locations for hide and seek games). Book regular play dates with other canines, and hit a gym for obedience training or other fitness activities. Senior pets need mental stimulation to keep their brains fit too – so buy an interactive puzzle toy and make them think. Behaviour problems in young pets may be related to boredom and remedied by increasing their exercise levels (just do so in a safe, controlled environment). As a result of boosting your pet’s activity levels, you’ll breeze through winter with a fresh perspective of your own.

[Just a word – before beginning any exercise program, either human or canine, ensure you are “cleared for take-off”, from your own human/animal doctor or physio!].

This document may not be reproduced, distributed or copied without permission from the author. Copyright October 2013 Dr. Shannon Budiselic Equilbrium VRC Ltd.