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Thinking Outside the Box: Handler Self-Care, Part Two

Leah Lykos

We all have emotional baggage, and we all have triggers. Stress is a trigger for EVERYONE. When we are feeling stressed, we are much more likely to become "activated" by our emotional baggage, which usually means: not acting as our best selves but instead re-enacting old patterns (surviving, not thriving). At the least, we can transfer this stressed-out state to our dogs, and at the worst, we will take out our stress directly on them (raised voices, quick movements, etc.).

Those of us with some post-traumatic symptoms can also be easily agitated by our dogs who ALSO have post-traumatic symptoms, such as: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, hyper-activity, separation anxiety, high-pitched barking or whining, and reactivity--to name a few. So let's tip the scales in our favor by reducing our own stress as much as possible, and taking the time and proper care to ensure our own nervous systems are neutral at the least, and social at best. This helps prevent against that negative feedback loop in which I am stressed, therefore the dog is stressed, and vice-versa. You will be much more able to "absorb" your dog's stress, and help finally resolve it, if you are in a grounded, non-reactive, and social state of mind. 

Top activities for reducing stress:

1. Stop and breathe. Take five slow breaths in your nose and out of your mouth. Really feel your diaphragm and make it a belly exercise, where your belly is moving in and out rather than moving your shoulders up and down. You can also practice moving your rib-cage out to the sides. If you are feeling particularly stressed out and un-grounded, feel free to practice these techniques from Peter Levine: Two Simple Techniques That Can Help Trauma Patients Feel Safe.

You can also try one of these fancy whistles: The Shift. Or you could bite down on a plastic straw and exhale through that, same difference. 

2. Eat at regular intervals. Sometimes when we are not paying particular attention to our self-care routines, we can "forget" to eat or drink enough fluids. This is different from intentional fasting. When we consciously decide to fast, we prepare ourselves accordingly and pay attention to our bodies signals and needs. When we are in a state of hyper-vigilance or perhaps incessantly working as a means of escape, we can neglect the important signals the body sends us. This can result in dehydration, migraines, and upset tummies! Fueling your body with healthy, whole foods and lots of fluids will keep your energy up and your stress level down. Be aware of eating or drinking too much caffeine, or other stimulating substances, because this will have negative effects on your adrenaline levels. That's not to say we shouldn't indulge in a bit of chocolate or a sweet treat now and again. Because being TOO strict with what we eat can also lead to anxiety and a sense of lack.

3. If you can, get a massage. While we encourage you to give your dog calming massage, it's important to remember that we are also animals in need of touch! And while your dog may reward you with kisses and snuggles, it's not the same as getting true bodywork from another human being. If you can afford it, try to get a massage or some other type of bodywork, like a cranio-sacral treatment, every month or so. In conjunction, you can use other balancing treatments such as acupuncture, or having a soak in a float tank. If you are short on cash, draw yourself a warm bath and splurge on some essential oils. The important thing is that you take time to honor your body and let it relax.

4. Move and dance! There are many ways we move throughout the day, and a lot of those movements are automatic and unconscious. Taking some time to listen to your favorite music and just intuitively move your body can lead to relaxation and release of tension. You can also practice conscious explorations of movement with Feldenkrais. For this I recommend finding a local professional, or you can check out these free, online lessons: Getting Better Day By Day.

In addition to these very important activities, here are some tools I've found that reduce my stress levels and help me be a better owner, handler, and doggie-therapist: 

The products below are affiliate links, and I will earn a tiny (minuscule) commission if you click through and make a purchase. This does not change the price for you, and I have otherwise not been paid to promote these products.


The White Noise Machine

White Noise Machine


I am loving this White Noise Machine, and so are the doggies! My favorite sound so far is the heartbeat! Instantly calming. But for sleep I use some of the other ambient sounds. This machine has also had positive effects for my dogs with separation anxiety. If you don't want to buy a device, you can download this app: Rain Rain, to an iPad or tablet. The really awesome thing about the app is that you can mix your favorite sounds! Try mixing city rain with Shih Tzu snoring. Or mix ocean waves with the crackling fire. These combinations are amazing, and also great for dogs.


Balance Pods

Balance Pods


To aid in becoming more body-conscious, these balance pods are really fun! Stand up from your desk every once in a while to take a balance break. Your body will thank you. 

I think I will leave you with just one more tip: if you enjoy reading, put down your tablet and pick up an actual book! I went to the library today and checked out three books and I was in heaven. It it so nice to relax without that blue light. And if you missed part one of this series, which is all about rest and relaxation, check it out here: Your Oxygen Mask.



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