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Parenting Dogs with Sensory Processing Sensitivities (cSPS)

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

By Sparky Smith, MSST, ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC., IAABC - CDBC, MCMA, SSBB

Do you have a dog who is overly sensitive to noise and objects like blenders, vacuums, or even their food bowl? Maybe they become easily overwhelmed in certain situations when loud trucks go by, or when you've just cleaned the house with a fragrant cleaner? If so, then your dog may have Sensory Processing Sensitivity (cSPS). The disorder, cSPS, can be described as having a “high sensitivity”. These are categorised by how quickly the dog becomes excited, low threshold for sensory input, and low emotional regulation when environmental context changes (Braem, 2017), all of which can be associated with physiological and behavioural overarousal. Many dog parents struggle with understanding their dog's behavioural issues. Some may find it difficult to determine why their dog reacts differently than others do in certain situations. Generally, these responses are thought to occur due to an underlying mental health issue such as anxiety or fear; however, these behaviours can also be attributed to a condition known as cSPS. If you feel that your dog has atypical sensory processing, it’s worth consulting a professional Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, trained in the understanding of what is normal sensory processing and what is abnormal sensory processing to assess your dog.


If, as a parent, you're dealing with a vet diagnosis of cSPS, it can feel like navigating a roller coaster. You never know when the peaks and lows of various sensory-triggers are going to come - so you have to be proactively prepared.


Parenting any dog requires patience and capabilities to teach and develop, but with cSPS, it requires a lot of compassion and understanding as well. It’s important not to ignore your dog's behaviour, as it might not only cause stress and reduce his/her quality of life, but it could worsen over time.


In this article, we will discuss how to recognize signs of cSPS in dogs to bring up to a qualified professional, as well as providing strategies we use to help dog parents manage the condition.


In this article we answer

  • Can certain breeds of dogs be more prone to sensory sensitivities than others?

  • What do I need to know about dogs with sensitivities?

  • How are dogs with sensitivities challenged in normal environments?

  • What does it feel like for my dog to have cSPS?

  • Are there any treatments or strategies that can help reduce my dog's anxiety caused by their sensitivities?


Can Certain Breeds of Dogs be More Prone to Sensory Sensitivities Than Others?


We don't know. Studies have been contradictory on the effect of breeds on the likelihood of cSPS. It is possible, however, that specific breeding lines that are affected by genetic peculiarities may cause them to be sensitive to one or more of the senses.


Whether it is abnormal or not depends on reviewing the history of their human dog parents for mindset, beliefs, and other factors related to the dog's welfare. Also, the review includes the dog's past (known/potential) trauma, in combination with their lineage (if known), the behaviours observed, and the physical symptomatology that helps to understand what is happening in the brain and body.


What Do You Need To Know About Dogs With Sensitivities?


The sensations experienced by some humans with sensitivities combined with knowing how they influence social interactions with others, can help us help our cSPS dogs. Dogs with sensory sensitivities can experience a sense of being overloaded through sensory inputs, similar to having every noisy appliance in your home running at the same time. Just like us, dogs can be overwhelmed by too much stimulation and noise. But, for a dog with heightened sensitivities, it can feel like being bombarded by a number of televisions or radios all tuned to different programs and at full volume. These environmental factors can make it difficult for cSPS dogs to think, hear, speak, and see clearly. Over-, and even, under-reactivity, through one or more of the sensory channels can contribute to a dog's emotional, physiological regulation and sense of safety (4,5,) In other words, they too can be influenced in their interaction with others.


How Are Dogs With Sensitivities Challenged In Normal Environments?


For a cSPS dog, the environment around them is constantly transmitting and receiving information that can be overwhelming. We know that dogs with cSPS have more probability that behaviour problems will arise(2). You may observe them become easily distracted or agitated by loud noises, heavy scents or sudden movements. They may also have difficulty focusing on your requests due to the constant bombardment of stimuli from their surroundings.


Many dog parents may feel their dog is ignoring them, however, if a dog has cSPS, then the need to reframe this perception is key to helping them manage better. Dog parents need to tap into their compassion for an animal's suffering. The dog may be merely trying to cope with an avalanche of triggers and simply cannot hear the voice they love most.


It is important to note that human dog parents can also suffer from sensory processing sensitivities (SPS). Research has shown that it is possible for SPS suffers to be more likely to use aversion (like harsh correction) in training their dogs which can make a dog's cSPS much worse (1).


It is important to recognize when a dog may appear to have sensitivities and to shift the caregiver's mindset to one of compassion, especially if it reacts poorly when feeling overwhelmed.


What Does It Feel Like For a Dog To Have cSPS?


Let's create an experience for you the reader to help relate to a dog's emotions.


Turn on every sound-inducing appliance and devices you have. If there is a volume switch, keep it at a normal level that you listen to. One by one, turn everything on, from children’s toys, your television, your favourite playlist, the vacuum cleaner, even your electric toothbrush. Open your windows to increase the sounds to include traffic or the wind, and the smells. You get the idea: complete chaos. You are likely distracted from all the external pollution. You may find your heart beating faster. You may be feeling stressed. Your breathing may be more laboured. Remember that stress levels begin to wreak havoc within our bodies. It would be difficult to speak, listen or fulfill a request no matter how gently or compassionately it is given. This frustrating and overwhelming feeling is akin to being in acute sensory overload that a cSPS dog experiences.


Dog parents must raise their awareness, ask better questions of the behaviour, and then, implement 'management', and capabilities to 'build' new ways for the dog to think, feel and behave.


Are There Any Treatments or Strategies That Can Help Reduce My Dog's Anxiety Caused By Their Sensitivities?


Yes. There are some strategies to help. As a dog parent, learning better questions when witnessing behaviours helps to identify the best response, such as, "What does this behaviour tell me about what is going on with their brain and body?", rather than the limiting and narrow-focused question of, "how do I fix my dog". Lessons on brain, body and behaviour connections and what responses should be given can be found in our Dog Parentology courses.


Proactive tactical environmental changes that can be done today, we tag as either 'Manage" or "Build". This simple way of understanding that we need to manage the environment before we build new ways for the brain and body to function to see long term behaviour changes. Dog parents should consider management as a first step, then proactive measures of 'build' to teach new ways to think, feel and behave. Management looks to create a structure to allow the dog to feel safe and away from as much sensory input as possible, while avoiding isolation. Below are seven "Manage", and "Build" strategies to help establish some preliminary support for a cSPS.


1. Manage: Create a Safe Space


Find a safe space that is quiet and comfortable. It needs to be available at all times. Dog parents who sleep with their dogs must ensure their room remains open and accessible. Managing cSPS requires the dog to voluntarily retreat when feeling overwhelmed. Other places to consider can include behind a chair, or a bed in a quiet corner. We like a crate, usually the soft portable tent kind. The crate and room door is always open when treating cSPS, as it is not about restricting movement, but about providing an accessible den-like space where the dog feels safe.


Dog parents must work with all members of the family; pet, child or other adults - to establish advocacy. Rules to advocate for the dog would include: leave the dog alone when they are in their safe space.


Also, for consideration, environmental external factors, like people running, loud noises, heavy scents, all should be sharply reduced allowing for recovery. Avoid conflicts that are not necessary during an cSPS episode. For example, you have contractors in to replace your bathroom and your dog takes a parent's glove into their safe space and is found resting his head on it. If there is no imminent threat of the dog swallowing the glove, just let the glove remain with the dog. They are likely to find comfort in the smell.


Using these ideas, dog parents can easily help a dog with cSPS to decompress away from noise and activity. By providing them with this safe space, you are helping them cope with their sensory sensitivities in order to live a happy life.


2. Build: Establish Trust Through Predictability


Dog parents with traumatised or rescued dogs learn quickly that predictable routines and steadiness in all things are key to building trust in order to guide the dog to calmer emotions (co-regulation). A dog with cSPS will highly benefit from dog parents developing consistency in their routines as a super-strength. This is a building stage where unlike management, we teach dogs they are safe through predictability and consistency. Watch the clock and keep to your schedule; regular feeding, exercise, enrichment and playtime creates a more secure environment and builds a bond perfect for applying guidance when emotions heighten.


We always recommend feeding dogs with behavioural issues with more frequency than a dog without issues. For example, spreading their food allocation to 3-5 times a day. This even helps to maintain blood sugar levels.


3. Build: Capabilities to Ask and Answer Better Questions. Design and Attend Mindful Experiences for Your Dog


Become a mindful parent by parking your ego. Refuse to hold onto specific results that occur on a specific schedule. Rid yourself of rigidity and become adaptive to what you are observing. Simply wanting a certain result and projecting it forward as the truth will undermine a positive and trust-affirming experience to build with your dog.


You may reflect on your own family when you consider this strategy. Perhaps you remember a time when mom wanted a nice family dinner, but your two brothers decided to start up an old feud. Not a nice family dinner, and it remains a sore point for years to come.


Remember, if you choose to believe in one absolute reality and then, plan experiences to teach your dog, the door is closed to accurately reading and listening to your dog. Observing behaviours is a habit to be honed, one of curiosity, where the questions change from, 'what will I do with this behaviour', to 'what does this behaviour tell me about how the dog's brain is interpreting this experience?'. Be curious and explore what is missing in their coping abilities that needs to be worked on.


4. Build: Relationships, Bond, and Co-Regulation


Bonding and strengthening your relationship with your dog requires new capabilities. More true, if you haven't had a dog in the last 4-5 years, or you haven't recognised the enormous evidence-backed breakthroughs in animal science in the last few years. If you've been working on your own self-awareness of your own behaviours and reactions, through mindfulness and meditation, you've got an advantage. A dog parent's approach to dogs struggling with behavioural issues has shown to be critical. Being aware that you are not always in intentional control of your behaviour, than as a dog parent you can more easily adopt the fact that nor is your dog. They are not choosing these behaviours. Rather, many reactions and behaviours serve to protect the dog from further trauma and poor experiences.


Relationships of trust put you in a better place to teach. Identifying the outcome of any engagement with your dog must be completed by this statement, ... 'without undermining my trusting and cooperative relationship.' This is a helpful checkpoint to ensure your engagement is going to work for the betterment of your dog. For example, "I want my dog to learn the garbage truck noise is not to be feared" ...ends with... "without undermining my trusting and cooperative relationship".


As you explore how behaviours identify missing coping abilities, it is also important to reflect on your own emotional control (regulation) and how you demonstrate in your life a "cooperative behaviour'. You dog will be watching, learning to trust you, and they will be learning morality and cooperation through your role modelling. Many are surprised that dogs are moral subjects, "... that is, beings who are capable of behaving on the basis of moral motivations (Rowlands 2011, 2012, 2017)...)(7)


Once your parenting capabilities exist and you are able to question behaviours differently - analyse what is happening in the brain and body connections - a strategy can be developed to help the cSPS dog.


A skilled dog parent may discover their dog is working from their bottom-level brain, also referred to as the reptilian brain. This is what you and your dog are born with - the ability to instinctually detect and protect against threats. When you respond to the signals from your bottom-level brain, you might perceive certain urges to take action, yet the underlying reasons behind those impulses may remain elusive to you. The same with your dog. So asking your dog to 'control' their responses, through training, is impossible.


Conversely, the top-level brain, also referred to as the 'thinking brain' provides us with more control and better decision-making. Dogs with poor early years and cSPS may have an underdeveloped top-level brain. So on one hand, the instinctual brain operates solely on survival instincts, lacking the guidance and regulation from your top-level thinking brain.(8)

The one-size-fits-all approach generally applies to a dog observed displaying fear and anxiety signals around sounds. It goes like this: introduce them to new sounds by incremental exposure, gradually increasing the intensity over time as the dog adapts and learns that they are safe. For dogs with cSPS this strategy is not adequate. It doesn't provide for lifetime change. And, it assumes the dog can be 'trained' to control their emotions and behave a certain way, which is not true in every situation. It is why solutions must go deeper and with the necessary 'brain, body and behaviour' connections understood to find effective solutions that support healing and development.


4. Manage: Exercise Regularly


Regular exercise is helpful for dogs with sensory sensitivities as it helps release endorphins which can reduce stress levels and improve overall well being. Exercise should be planned to manage cSPS sufferers, by releasing endorphins and not increasing cortisol. Exercise (a) should not be confused with teaching sessions (b), as there are two differing outcomes; a. an activity that achieves a reduction in anxiety, compared to b. to build capabilities through instruction. It should also be noted that dogs do not require being walked to be exercised. In fact, dogs with cSPS are to be managed through the use of low intensity stimuli, such as quiet backyards to play, run, and be engaged with low stimulus games. Puzzles, as with any enrichment that supports beneficial behaviours, provide mental stimulation for calming the dog's brain(6).


5. Build: Dog Parenting Capabilities

Take a course to elevate your accuracy in reading your dog's body and brain connections, like PivotalChange.ca's new online platform; Dog Parentology. Here you can experience the knowledge and lessons of award-winning and exceptional success rates of in-person programs but online in the comfort of your home. "Skillful Dialogues" courses, can deliver preliminary lessons on parenting with awareness of signals and emotions, while delivering a strong relationship. You learn how to pay close attention to your dog: what to look for, with factual understanding of the brain, body and behaviours. It helps dog parents connect and respond to dog's emotional signalling.


6. Manage: Protect Their Well-Being


Every dog parent should have a plan enabling them to act during times of distress. Panting, trembling or cowering is a call to immediately remove a dog from an overloaded situation. Guidance and well established calming cues from our Start Right: Behaviour Foundations course (registration opens in July 2023), which teaches dog parents how to use their brain and body to calm a dog with all methods based on kindness and compassion.


7. Build: Be a Role Model


A dog parent to a cSPS dog needs to be predictable and consistent in all their interactions with their dog and model calmness and trustworthiness. Studies have shown that a parent's personality can worsen the condition in their dogs. The study considered the parents age, sex, profession, communication style and other social factors.


"Owner personality influenced the likelihood of decreased stranger-directed aggression, non-social fear, touch sensitivity and dog-directed fear"(1)

As changing aspects of one's personality is difficult, we've created a simple role-based approach for dog parents. You can learn more about it in our course, "Understanding the Emotional Connection: A Guide to Successful Dog Parenting" (Registration June 16th, 20233). It covers the evolution of dog parenting as a legitimate evolutionary role in society, outlines key capabilities and breaks down six roles and their outcomes to help facilitate strengthening capabilities. All that is needed is the will to become the best parent your dog could have and a commitment to build the key capabilities to succeed.


Final Insights


When thinking about a parent-dog relationship, cSPS adds complexity. Desensitization is the go-to solution commonly prescribed. It is meant to teach a dog to control or adapt their fear to a state of acceptance. It is commonly designed to address only one singular problem, or one type of environmental sensitivity. In cases we've seen and resolved, solutions like this fall short.


Take Lulu, a three and half-year old Shitzu, who had a sensitivity to noises in a condominium. At least this is what her dog-parents reported, but the long-term solution was not found in simply training her parents to conduct desensitisation exercises to help her accept the noises.


The broader view told us that Lulu was acting from her instinctual lower-level brain. Getting her to use her top-level mind required us to build an understanding of voluntary choices when feeling fearful. By developing and engaging her top-level brain, she would be able to learn how to communicate in an acceptable manner when she needed assistance. Her parents needed to develop her capabilities to the extent that was possible given a traumatic past which robbed Lulu of normal top-level brain development. The parents also needed to create a shared understanding and connection that 'they have her back'. Parents needed to convey a shared understanding with Lulu that their assistance would always be offered when heightened emotions were being felt.


At PivotalChange.ca, we use the backbone of science to solve complex behaviour problems and the power of systems thinking to develop a pathway to resolving persistent behaviour problems. If you believe you have a dog with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (cSPS), navigating their heightened sensitivities can be challenging but not impossible. Recognizing the signs of cSPS and seeking professional help from a Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist is crucial for understanding and managing your dog's condition effectively. Remember that certain breeds may be more prone to sensory sensitivities, although the role of genetics is still unclear. Dogs with cSPS can feel overwhelmed by everyday environmental stimuli, making it difficult for them to focus and respond to simple requests. It's important to approach their behavior with compassion and provide a safe space where they can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. Building trust through predictable routines and developing a strong bond with your dog are essential strategies. Additionally, being mindful of your dog's experiences, practicing emotional co-regulation, and implementing proactive environmental changes can help reduce anxiety caused by their sensitivities. Finally, regular exercise can release endorphins and contribute to your dog's overall well-being. By implementing these strategies, you can support your dog's quality of life and help them cope with their sensory sensitivities more effectively.


References

1 - Braem M, Asher L, Furrer S, Lechner I, Würbel H, Melotti L. Development of the "Highly Sensitive Dog" questionnaire to evaluate the personality dimension "Sensory Processing Sensitivity" in dogs. PLoS One. 2017 May 16;12(5):e0177616. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0177616. PMID: 28520773; PMCID: PMC5433715.

2 - Bräm Dubé, M., Asher, L., Würbel, H. et al. Parallels in the interactive effect of highly sensitive personality and social factors on behaviour problems in dogs and humans. Sci Rep 10, 5288 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62094-9

3 - Stroh, David Peter; Stroh, David Peter. Systems Thinking For Social Change (p. 54). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

4 - Mota-Rojas D, Marcet-Rius M, Ogi A, Hernández-Ávalos I, Mariti C, Martínez-Burnes J, Mora-Medina P, Casas A, Domínguez A, Reyes B, Gazzano A. Current Advances in Assessment of Dog's Emotions, Facial Expressions, and Their Use for Clinical Recognition of Pain. Animals (Basel). 2021 Nov 22;11(11):3334. doi: 10.3390/ani11113334. PMID: 34828066; PMCID: PMC8614696.

5- Clara Wilson, Kerry Campbell, Zachary Petzel, Catherine Reeve. Dogs can discriminate between human baseline and psychological stress condition odours, 2022 Sep 28, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274143

6- Morgan Garvey, et al. Implementing Environmental Enrichment for Dogs, Mar 2016, Center for Animal Welfare Science, Perdue University.

7-Monsó S, Benz-Schwarzburg J, Bremhorst A. Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters. J Ethics. 2018;22(3):283-310. doi: 10.1007/s10892-018-9275-3. Epub 2018 Sep 27. PMID: 30930677; PMCID: PMC6404642.

8- Kolber, Aundi. Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode--and into a Life of Connection and Joy (p. 29). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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