It may surprise you to know the practice of using weight and pressure to relieve stress and anxiety began with animals, not humans. Temple Grandin, an animal behavior expert, author, and well-known autism advocate suggested using a specific kind of pressured chute for cattle to calm them during veterinary procedures, and even at slaughterhouses. She observed that chutes designed to immobilize them tended to calm them down as well.
Her next step was to design chutes specifically for the purpose of applying a calming deep pressure to the sides of the livestock. It was only after she tried using the same techniques on herself, building a human squeeze machine to calm her own anxiety, that she began her research on deep pressure’s effect on students with autism.
Another animal that seems to find outside pressure relaxing is the cat. Cats will curl up in the smallest possible space. A trophy cup, a salad bowl, a purse, anything a cat can barely fit into, is where they want to be. A tight space conserves heat and hides them from potential predators. And for any animal born into a litter, where they were once part of a jumbled, intertwined mass of fur, close quarters are associated with the nursery, or in the case of dogs, the den.
Scientific studies have clearly shown that weighted blankets provide a kind of positive physical pressure that helps some people deal with anxiety and stress among other things. Could this work for your dog? How can you recognize if your dog is stressed or anxious? What kinds of things typically upset dogs? How might a weighted blanket help and how do you go about choosing one specifically for your dog?
Anxiety in dogs
Some dogs are more nervous than others, and if your dog is generally stressed, without any clear indication of the trigger, then a trip to the vet should absolutely be your first stop. A dog that seems upset could just as easily be sick or in pain, so ruling that out is important. Typically dogs are stressed by specific things, most often noise, separation, and travel.
Animals were not meant to live in human environments, so it isn’t surprising that the hubbub of our cities is stressful for them. Busy cities are a constant source of unnatural sounds for an animal. Trains, subways, cars, motorcycles, and crowds of people create a generally noisy background that can be very difficult for pets to tolerate. This background noise and accompanying low-level anxiety in your dog is the hardest to recognize and is less likely to be helped by an intervention like a weighted blanket.
If you don’t have a specific stressor, and you can’t somehow muffle the noise or otherwise insulate your animal from the city, medication or specific training to desensitize your dog may be your best bet. Although a weighted blanket still might help if your animal is used to it, knows where to find it, and can seek it out himself when he knows he needs it. Seeing a vet is also important because the symptoms of chronic stress, peeing, pooping, vomiting and diarrhea, are also the signs of illness.
Loud temporary noises
Noise from fireworks, vacuums, and thunderstorms are a different case, and this is where weighted blankets for dogs can be so helpful. Noises that are intense, unusual and scheduled allow you to plan ahead and weighted blankets are an ideal way to help your pet ride out the festivities from the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve or other celebrations. Before the fireworks start, sit down with your dog, cover him with the blanket, and get him settled in.
When the noises start he may feel grounded and calm enough to stay put until it is all over. The same is true for using loud appliances such as blenders or vacuum cleaners. Get your dog settled before you flip the switch and hopefully your dog will just stay tucked in until you’re done. Thunderstorms are less predictable than fireworks, but you can watch the weather report and be prepared, or just get out the blanket as soon as you hear the thunder.
If you can’t be with your pet, make sure the blanket is out and accessible. A pet accustomed to a weighted blanket will likely seek it out when the noise starts. Dogs are creatures of habit and like to have their “spot”. Whether it is in front of the fire, by a window, their special dog bed, the foot of your bed or even on your pillow, they return to a place of comfort and security. Even if you aren’t there, if your dog has come to see the weighted blanket as a secure spot, then he will seek it out when you are gone.
How can you tell if your dog is stressed by noise? Well, if your pet’s behavior is different during thunderstorms, then you probably already have your answer. Otherwise, typical behaviors you will see in dogs with noise-induced anxiety are trembling, hiding and restlessness.
Weighted blankets have been shown to positively affect the central nervous system in people, calming the fight or flight reaction, and there is no reason to think that they wouldn’t have a similar effect in animals. But on top of that, a weighted blanket may specifically help with the symptoms. The weight itself will calm the trembling and discourage restless movement. And if your dog feels so inclined, under a blanket is a great place to hide.
One important warning – although some experts advise that crates mimic a dog’s den, and are therefore a good place for them to feel calm and secure, it is not a safe place during a storm or fireworks. Your dog could easily be injured struggling against the cage in a panic.
Separation anxiety is a common problem for dogs. Some breeds, in particular, don’t like being away from you. German and Australian Shepherds, Labrador retrievers, bichon frises, border collies, and spaniels tend to particularly hate separation. If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety he may cling to you when you are around, and bark or chew when you are gone.
When you aren’t there to hug your anxious pet, a weighted blanket can be a very nice substitute. Getting your dog used to the blanket ahead of time is especially important with separation anxiety. It might even be a good idea to use the blanket first yourself before you give it to your dog. The fabric will retain your scent and smell like you, which is very nice for your dog when you aren’t there. After that, cuddle with your dog under the blanket, and finally, leave it in a place you know your dog already likes to be.
If living in cities isn’t natural to dogs, moving at 50 mph is even more unnatural. Yes, some dogs absolutely love to ride in a car and feel the wind, heads out the window, tongues hanging in joy and abandon, but other dogs, not so much.
Of course, you don’t want your dog to be miserable, but beyond that, a restless dog moving around in a car is dangerous. Even if you have a doggie seatbelt and crowding your arm or jumping on the steering wheel isn’t really an option, if your dog is straining at the restraint, whimpering, barking, even vomiting or peeing, the driver will be dangerously distracted. You may have nerves of steel but the trip will be, if not hazardous, then certainly not enjoyable, with an anxious dog along.
If traveling upsets your dog, you might notice hiding, whimpering, peeing, really any combination of the symptoms you see with separation or noise. A weighted travel blanket is an excellent way to keep your dog still and calm, maybe even sleeping, while riding in a car. There are lots of fun places to take your dog and it would be a shame to stop going to the park or beach or to leave your pet at home without you, because the car ride is too stressful.
Why a weighted blanket?
Weighted blankets are a simpler, safer and cheaper treatment for anxiety in dogs than just about anything else you might try.
Safe and natural
Blankets have no side effects, can be used in combination with any drug your dog may already be taking, and if they don’t work, can be discontinued immediately. They can’t constipate your dog, decrease or increase appetite, and while they are relaxing, they won’t make your pet lethargic. A weighted blanket is a completely natural approach.
Some people find that training and behavior modification can help their pet with anxiety, or at least help the pet owners with annoying behaviors resulting from the anxiety. But compared to a weighted blanket, training demands a huge investment of time, effort and energy on your part.
Vet bills and medication are expensive, and so is training. But the largest cost with an anxious dog may be the damage to property if the anxiety goes unchecked. Anxious dogs can destroy furniture, clothes, curtains, shoes and rugs, even walls and floors with chewing, clawing, peeing and defecating. It’s discouraging, it’s expensive and it doesn’t foster good a good relationship between you and your dog.
A weighted blanket, although considerably more than a regular blanket, is relatively inexpensive compared to medicine or property damage. It costs about as much as one office visit and prescription or a decent pair of shoes you have to toss. Trying a weighted blanket first may solve the anxiety problem, and if it doesn’t, you still have the blanket, which your dog will likely enjoy, even it isn’t a miracle cure.
And on the off chance that your pet truly hates the blanket, they are washable, so you might want to see if you enjoy a weighted blanket to cuddle up with as you read or watch TV.
Where can I find one?
Most companies that sell weighted blankets for people have small and child-sized ones available. Hiseeme sells a child and teen blanket that measures 41X60” and is the appropriate weight for a larger dog. The cover is a cuddly minky fabric, one side a bright print and the other a solid. Both the cover and the blanket inside are washable.
For smaller dogs, you might consider a weighted lap pad. These pads are often used for children with ADHD or autism and come in a variety of sizes and weights. Reach Therapy Solutions has lap pads in sizes from 14X17” to 18X24”. They don’t have removable covers but the blankets are washable and the fabrics include some truly adorable animal prints.
Weighted blankets are not the only way to provide your dog the benefits of deep pressure. Thundershirts, weighted vests, and weighted blankets are the three main types of products using deep pressure to calm dogs. In many cases, weighted blankets come out on top because they are the only one of the three under your dog’s control.
The Thundershirt is one popular product for reducing anxiety in dogs. It is a tight, wrapped shirt that you put on your dog in potentially stressful situations. In one survey 98% of vets surveyed reported success with this product. Its track record of success is one decided advantage to trying a Thundershirt. In contrast, weighted blankets for dogs is a new idea which is promising, but there hasn’t been much research carried out to back it up just yet.
One disadvantage to the Thundershirt is that the shirt stays on until you take it off and if overused, your dog can eventually become accustomed to the pressure, thus minimizing its effectiveness.
Another option is a weighted dog vest. These are both calming to the dog because of the effect of deep pressure and have the added advantage of providing exercise to exhaust hyperactive anxious dogs, allowing them to rest. But again, the owner has to take the vest off again or the dog will just get used to the constant added weight. Also, keep in mind that weighted vests are not recommended in dogs younger than two years.
To some extent, the benefit of a weighted blanket depends on your dog. For anxious or stressed dogs, especially ones periodically exposed to stressors such as noise or separation, consider a weighted blanket before a more invasive or expensive option. For all dogs, not just ones who suffer from anxiety, they are particularly nice for visits to the vet, other travel, or during holidays and celebrations.
Special circumstances such as when people are upset and the dog is picking up on the human stress, when your dog is temporarily in pain from an injury or procedure, or when strangers are in the house, are other times that even normal, healthy dogs might enjoy a little extra calming pressure from a weighted blanket.