In my last post, I talked about sensory processing disorder (SPD), and speculated on whether or not sensory issues might play a role in reactivity in dogs. I tend to think that while it may not fully explain reactivity (a lack of socialization and genetic anxiety disorders are other relevant factors), there may be some elements of SPD present in reactive dogs.
Ironically enough, yesterday I attended a training presented by Audrey Omdahl-Chaput of Metro Therapy on SPD! While I understood the basics well enough to write the last post, I was absolutely fascinated by Audrey's presentation. She discussed some of the neurology behind SPD, the symptoms and assessments they do. Now I kind of want to be an occupational therapist...
Anyway, today I want to talk about sensory diets. Sensory diets are often used in helping people with SPD find their “optimal arousal level.” Some people (and dogs) are “high strung” and need a way to reduce or better modulate sensory input. Others need more sensory input, and without it, are sluggish or lethargic. Either way, the goal of a sensory diet is to assess the sensory needs of a particular person (or dog), and meet them with complementary activities.
A sensory diet is not a cure or a complete treatment. Instead, it's a supplementary activity that helps support what is done in the therapy sessions. In dog terms, a sensory diet is more like management. What I really like about them, and the reason I am writing about them today, is that they provide a very structured, systematic way of thinking about environmental changes we can make to help support our dogs.
The first step is to figure out what our dog needs. Is he sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding? I suspect that most reactive dogs are in the latter category, and that their behavior is the result of too much stimulation. I certainly think this is true for Maisy, anyway. Keep in mind that, like people, dogs are not static beings, and thus they will likely show both seeking and avoiding tendencies at times. You will need to adjust the sensory diet to meet the individual's needs in a given situation. However, I think that most dogs will fall into one of the categories more often.
Once you've figured out your dog's general sensory orientation, it's time to figure out which senses are most affected; is he more sensitive to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch? (Touch can be further broken down into proprioception and vestibular needs.) This checklist is meant for kids, but I think it gives us dog owners a nice starting point to figure out which senses are feeling overpowered, and which could use a bit more activity.
Next, watch your dog. What specifically does he do? Does he run through the house like crazy? Does he avoid tile floors? Does he hate being touched, or does he seek it out? Do certain sounds or sights make him crazy? In addition to learning the types of sensory input that your dog is seeking or avoiding, you'll discover what the specific actions he uses to get those needs met. This will give you insight into the kinds of things he needs in his sensory diet.
Also pay attention to your responses. How do your actions affect your dog? Can you calm your dog down or rev him up when needed? What can you do that is most likely to get the response you want? You probably already intuitively know what your dog needs- all you need to do is use that knowledge more consciously.
Now that you have a pretty good idea of what your dog both needs and wants in his sensory diet, it's time to find the right ingredients. Here are the food groups from which you'll choose:
Proprioceptive input, which refers to the sensations from joints, muscles, and connective tissues that lead to body awareness. Audrey said that when proprioceptive receptors are fired, it sends calming signals to the brain. As a result, it seems like every reactive dog could benefit from proprioceptive input. Common suggestions for people include pushing and pulling activities, weighted vests, and squeezing things or being squeezed. I see some easy things to do with our dogs in this category- we can use Thundershirts (or a homemade equivalent), have them to wear a weighted backpack, and even teach them to pull a cart or on leash. Unfortunately, Maisy really hates wearing things, and the time I tried a homemade anxiety wrap, it made her worse:
(Suggestions on possible alternatives would be welcomed!!)
Vestibular input, the sense of movement and positioning in space, might include activities like rocking, swinging, running, or jumping. Running and jumping is easy enough, and we can teach our dogs to rock wobble boards and balance on yoga balls. Heck, pretty much the entire sport of agility works well in this category. Of course, this is all pretty stimulating input, but slower, more rhythmic movements can be calming and should be considered. Interestingly, Audrey said that the vestibular sense is processed in the same part of the brain that processes visual stimuli and is responsible for focus and attention.
Tactile input has to do with the sense of touch, specifically that of pressure, texture, temperature and vibration. This one is a little harder to adapt, because human suggestions depend on “messy play” with shaving cream, finger paints or play-doh. Thankfully, I don't need to figure it out because this article does it for me by discussing how TTouch can help.
Auditory input is a useful category since music is a very easy way to provide auditory input to people and dogs alike. I'm a huge fan of Through a Dog's Ear, the psycho-acoustically arranged music designed to calm dogs. The accompanying book encourages us to take stock of all the sounds in our dog's environment and consider how they might affect our dogs. For example, is your television or radio on constantly, and if so, can your dog escape to a quiet room if he so desires? How do different sounds affect your dog's behavior, and what can you do to modulate the types and amounts of auditory input your dog receives?
Visual input is important to consider as well since it can be so overstimulating for many dogs. Likewise, many suggestions for humans revolve around reducing visual stimuli. For people with SPD, the suggestions include using solids instead of patterns and neutral colors instead of bright ones. Since our dogs don't see the same way we do (according to the book Inside of a Dog, they see fewer colors, and have grainier/less focused vision, but are more sensitive to motion, have better night vision, and have a larger peripheral vision field than us) we will need to adjust these suggestions. Personally, I think the best thing we can do is close the curtains or otherwise block the dog's ability to look out windows all day long.
Olfactory and tasting input, the interrelated senses of smell and taste, is perhaps the most difficult to implement in a dog's sensory diet. For people with SPD, recommendations include using aromatherapy and playing “tasting games.” While I imagine we could use aromatherapy with dogs, I'm hesitant to recommend it since they have so much better noses than we do. I'd hate to overpower (and possibly overstimulate) them with our good intentions. However, I am a huge proponent of “sniff walks.” These are when you allow your dog to set the pace, and allow him to sniff when he wants, where he wants, for as long as he wants. Not only do they provide some slow, gentle vestibular input, but it seems possible they provide some important olfactory input. The trick is to watch and see if this helps your dog feel better or worse.
Now it's time to take all of our ingredients and mix them together in a way that makes sense given what we've already learned about our dogs. Since each individual's needs are unique, every recipe will be different, but the end result will be the same: a diet of sensory activities designed to help our reactive dogs cope with the world.
To be honest, I haven't done this kind of systematic assessment of Maisy's environmental needs, although since learning about sensory diets, I've been thinking a lot about what might benefit her. If I have time, I might write one up for her this weekend.
In the meantime, though, feel free to share ideas about ingredients that might fall in each “food group.” Although they aren't senses, exactly, I do think a good management plan for a dog involves careful consideration about physical and mental exercise in addition to some of the above ideas, so feel free to share other elements of management that might be helpful to someone with a reactive dog. And of course, I'd love to hear about things you're already doing with your dog!
*Again, I recognize that using the term "autistic" in my title is both inaccurate and a bit flippant. It was the catchiest thing I could think of, and really tied in with the previous post better, too.