I have always believed in dog, ever since the moment I first touched a curious canine snout with my curious toddler hands.
Sometimes dogs can come across as pretty dumb, with their repetitive behaviour and slobbery fixations, but then we're all guilty of chasing our own tail on occasion. I personally think they're actually on a much higher plane to us. Sometimes I look at my pensive Labrador and feel like I'm only on the first page whereas she's read the whole book.
Britain is often hailed as a nation of dog-lovers and a growing body of research shows that owning or spending time with a dog can have a positive impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. It is not surprising that dogs can boost your mood; they live in the present moment, they never bear grudges and their love is unconditional. Has anyone ever met a pessimistic pooch? Exactly.
National Dog Day, coming up on August 26th, is a good time to reward our precious pets for their unbending companionship. Jo-Rosie Haffenden, author of The Real Dog Yoga and dog behaviourist in Channel 4 documentary 'Rescue Dog to Super Dog', gives some interesting insight into how to understand your dog and make sure it is as relaxed as possible.
Why a dog gets stressed
Dogs have very individual personalities and their temperament is usually an equal mixture of nature and nurture - the puppy you take home is a result of genetics, breeding and early experiences. Often problems can occur when people get the wrong type of dog for their lifestyle, preventing them from doing what they are bred to do. For example, a collie is bred for working and herding sheep and so needs sufficient exercise and mental stimulation to prevent boredom.
When I ask Jo-Rosie which breed makes the best family dog she immediately replies "the best family dog is a calm dog". Interestingly, mixed breeds can have especially good temperaments because they don't have the specific drives associated with key breeds - their breed-specific traits are watered down and therefore they should be calmer. So if you're hunting for a puppy that is good with kids, opt for a classic Heinz 57.
One of the main causes of stress in a dog is lack of time to adjust - we are always rushing them. In the wild, dogs take at least 8 minutes to properly break the ice yet we force instant introductions on them when we pass other owners on the pavement. We ourselves are time-poor so will often get home from work and give them a cursory walk before Netflix and chilling.
Jo-Rosie highlights how important it is to put in the hours of training when you first get a dog, she says: "The more training you do with your dog the more freedom you get. Training needs to be done on a gradient - little and often. If you want them to get used to pubs, for example, go at the quietest time, have a drink for 10 mins and sit outside. Start on the outskirts of town and visit different pubs for short periods of time - transition them into it."
As you get to know your dog, you will start to notice the different signs that indicate whether they're stressed or relaxed; tension around the eyes, jaw and mouth accompanied by panting can mean your dog is not happy. It is when their limbs are loose, limber and free of muscle tension that you can tell they're in a good place.
How to chill your dog out
Going on holiday with your dog will give you a brilliant opportunity to spend quality time together. Rather than forking out for kennels and flights, choose a UK break; we are lucky to have so many varied landscapes to choose from including marshes, beaches, forests and downs. New rural environments offer real enrichment for your dog - there are new smells, new things to do and great opportunities for training and learning good behaviours during your leisure time. There are plenty of dog-friendly holidays in Britain, from Forest Holidays' woodland cabins to self-catering coastal cottages, a quick Google search will give you plenty of inspiration.
Like us, dogs love a good massage. Jo-Rosie points out that there is no one-size-fits-all massage for dogs, you just want to tailor it so that your own pet is comfortable. She says: "Start at the head and stroke down the body with light pressure, massaging around the neck and shoulders. They'll turn and look at you if you reach an area they're not happy with to tell you that's enough." It is best to tune into their body language and create a dialogue. If they move their head, it may be that you've reached an area of low level muscle tension, it's best to play it safe and move to a different area, they'll know that you're responding to them and will relax.
I ask Jo-Rosie about her new book, The Real Dog Yoga, presuming it is similar to 'Doga' - the practice of lifting your dog as a weight and using it as a bolster during yoga practice. "Absolutely not," Jo-Rosie retorts, "'Doga' doesn't work - the poor dogs have no choice in what they're doing, it's not relaxing at all and isn't good for their joints." In contrast, Real Dog Yoga is a programme of permission-based training. It ultimately involves teaching dogs to express and hold specific self-soothing body postures and actions that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and help them to become or remain calm.
Our dogs are sensitive creatures and chatting to Jo-Rosie makes me realise just how complex. This National Dog Day, and indeed every other day, take the time to treat the dog in your life to an experience that truly makes them happy.