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Calming Sessions: Helping Our Dogs Be Centered, Present, and Peaceful

Dogs and People are similar in a lot of biological ways, including how our nervous systems work. We both have parts of our nervous systems that are designed to work very fast to protect us from imminent harm, as well as parts that work more slowly and allow us to reason, analyze, and choose how to respond. We can take advantage of what we know about both human and canine brains and nervous systems to create conditions that allow all of us to manage ourselves more fully.

Calming sessions combine hands-on, calming body work and “settling” practices that help dogs become more calm. Just like people, when dogs feel threatened, they react instinctively by going into fight, flight, or freeze. The sympathetic nervous system is extremely efficient: when it perceives a threat, it shuts down all “non-essential” functions – like rational thought – so all the body’s resources can be put toward fending off an attacker, running away as fast as possible, or staying so still as to be unnoticed. You may have witnessed your dog exhibiting one or more of these behaviors when they are startled, scared, defensive, or otherwise feel unsure of themselves.

While we may see something as welcoming, for many reasons, our dogs may not view them that way. Often, what we see as a benign situation – such as encountering new dogs or people – our dogs see as threats, and they respond in ways that are clearly not coming from a place of calm. Their brains are “pre-wired” to react quickly, before they have the chance to recognize there’s no real threat.

If we don’t help them catch themselves before reacting to a perceived threat, they go into fight, flight, or freeze, and it takes quite some time for the neurochemicals cortisol and adrenaline to subside so they can calm down. Some dogs redirect that nervous energy by “fooling around”, wriggling and jumping and wagging … which may seem fun or funny, but really is a sign that they are not in control, their sympathetic nervous system is, and they are experiencing stress. That stress takes a toll on their well-being, as well as ours.

Calming sessions are designed to help your dog’s brain recognize that there isn’t really anything to feel threatened by or react to. The work we do in calming sessions helps your dog settle so the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated instead of the sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system includes the reasoning brain that allows your dog to make better choices about how to react. Through a combination of gentle, circular touches and hair slides, special strokes, and centering practices, neurochemicals are released that calm your dog and slow down some brain waves so they can respond more appropriately and not go into fight/flight/freeze so readily. Over time, their brains “re-wire” so they are less and less likely to react unnecessarily.

There are several benefits from taking advantage of Calming Sessions. Your dog will be more relaxed so they don’t feel stressed by commonly-experienced situations, and as a result, you will be more relaxed too. Your dog will be developing the ability to move through the world and be able to handle unexpected stressors with equanimity. By engaging in these sessions, you will have a calmer dog who becomes increasingly more settled over time. All this will help them be the kind of partner you need to do your personal deepening work.