Dog Sensory Overload: Coping When Your Dog Jars Your Senses

December 14, 2023
Image shows the profile of a cartoon head with a brain inside it. Lines point to circles coming off of the brain with symbols indicating the 5 senses. Taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch. Above that are an image of a German Shepherd and a person with their hands resting against their head and a stressed expression.

Dog related sensory overload comes from many parts of the dog parenting experience. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by your dog’s sounds, smells, touch, motion, proximity, or continuous needs; this blog post is for you.

Dog related sensory overload looks different for every individual. Often it is those of us with neurodivergence and mental health issues who are most vulnerable to the experience. Not to mention the more severe reactions to it. But it can happen to anyone. In this article I won’t pretend to know your individual experience with sensory overload. What has generally worked for myself and my clients may not work for you. But I hope you find some nuggets here that you can use in your own life.

Please note that I am an Amazon Affiliate and there are affiliate links throughout this blog. I receive a small commission when you purchase through those links. Funds from the affiliate program fund training scholarships for people with disabilities at Wise Mind Canine. 

My Experience: Katie has her arm around a German Shepherd as they look out at a lake with a mountain in the background.

My personal experience with my sensory overload reaction has changed with time. The biggest changes in my response stem from strategies for reducing emotional vulnerability, learning ways to proactively head off the experience, and building coping tools for the moments I hit sensory overload anyway. However, it started in a form that I had less control of in the moment and resulted in behavior I’m not terribly proud of to this day. But over time my dogs and I got through it, and today I’m typically much more able to work with them and me in healthy and productive ways. Notice I didn’t say I STOPPED having sensory overload. That’s not usually how this works at all. I just learned to work through it more effectively.

Here’s the thing though, that took years, and the interim? It wasn’t always pretty. The human experience is complicated and messy after all! So know as I talk about this, that I too have experienced shame, guilt, embarrassment, frustration, and even anger over my behavior in sensory overload. It’s not just you. I know it’s not something all of us can control. Just remember, you’re not the person you are when your lizard brain takes over and tries to protect you. At the same time, it’s important to strive for better reactions for the wellbeing of the dogs we love. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

What Are You Learning Today?

  • What’s sensory overload?
  • Dog related sensory overload triggers.
  • Coping tools and proactive strategies for sensory overload related to dogs.
  • Making up after dog related sensory overload gets the best of you.

What’s Sensory Overload???

Image shows the profile of a cartoon head with a brain inside it. Lines point to circles coming off of the brain with symbols indicating the 5 senses. Taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch. Above that are an image of a German Shepherd and a person with their hands resting against their head and a stressed expression.

The Experience:

(Trigger warning, I’m going to describe an experience that could result in sensory overload, skip to the next section if needed!)

Imagine this. You’re happily decompressing with a good book or your favorite TV show after a LONG day. Meanwhile your dog has boundless energy. They’re pacing the room. You can hear the tapping of nails that clearly need to be cut against the hard floor with each step. The only thing that stops the pacing are the random moments your dog suddenly lets out a loud booming bark or maybe many in succession. Either because they heard something outside or because there’s something upsetting to them on the TV screen. When your dog isn’t barking, they’re panting or vocalizing or giving loud sighs. Every time they pass where you’re sitting there’s a cold wet nose dragging against your arm or leg. EVERY TIME.

You’re not even sure WHY your dog is so agitated. You take an inventory of all of their needs. Nothing is coming to you as a clear solution, and you’re so tired. Your dog has had plenty of exercise, you trained them earlier, you played, they’ve had a food puzzle or two. Maybe you’ve even tried offering something like a Kong or a bone tp help them settle down. No luck. On this pass your dog paws at you and lets out yet another bark or whine. You finally snap. You yell out, you push your dog away, you grab their collar and march them somewhere else, anywhere else. They start barking from where you just left them and now you’re crying on the floor or yelling out again. BECAUSE YOU JUST NEED IT ALL TO STOP. RIGHT NOW.

A Note About Spectrums of Sensory Overload:

Please note, I’m describing a really mild presentation of sensory overload because at its worst it can involve behaviors that are tough to talk about. As well as create situations that are truly worrisome, both for the person experiencing overload and the dogs in question. If that’s your level of experience, the rest of this blog DOES have you in mind, despite this description.

Sensory Overload Can Make You Feel:

  • As if you need to run or flee.
  • Angry
  • Overwhelmed
  • Unsafe
  • Afraid
  • Frozen

What it is: 

Sensory overload is when the sensory input hitting your brain reaches a point of overwhelm and dysfunction where you simply can’t continue to process sensory input. Your body takes action to protect you and shifts from the thinking and reasoning part of your brain to your lizard brain whose job is to keep you safe. That typically triggers a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. And that’s where one factor of huge variability comes in, because what we do in fight or flight really depends on what nature and nurture gave our brains at baseline.

Me? I have complex post traumatic stress, a dissociative disorder, sensory processing differences and medical conditions that basically amount to a nervous system that thinks it’s on fire at all times. My fight or flight response at baseline is either explosive or a complete shut down. It can be intense and loud or it can lock me in a situation where I’m not getting to make conscious choices. There wasn’t a whole lot in between and it took years of treatment to shift it. Know that when I talk about solutions later, I am well aware that for many of us, this isn’t adjusted quickly.

Responses to sensory overload can look like: 
  • Yelling/Shouting
  • Throwing/Slamming Objects
  • Running away.
  • Freezing in place.
  • Dissociating.
  • Crying.
  • Stimming.
  • Pacing.
  • Self Injury
  • Physical contact with an animal.
  • MORE…

Now the other piece of variability in dog related sensory overload, is how vulnerable you are to it and what triggers you. That’s another bit of nature and nurture soup. For instance, I’m highly sensitive and vulnerable to sensory overload at baseline. What doesn’t bother the average person might rapidly send me over the edge into sensory overload. Personally, I don’t do well with sound, frenetic movement, being pulled on or jerked suddenly, constant needs (like in puppyhood), and touch in certain contexts. Your responses, thresholds and particular triggers for sensory overload are likely different than mine as this tends to be a very individual experience!

Dog Related Sensory Overload Triggers:

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are major sources of sensory overload within the experience of living with and caring for dogs. However that is not to say that these things are upsetting for everyone. There are pieces of the dog sensory experience that I find uniquely soothing and calming. Like the feel of running my hands through my German Shepherd’s fur or feeling my dogs’ chests rise and fall as they breathe. If you’re a dog owner, there is likely some small subset of these things that you enjoy. But you’re joy is definitely someone else’s sensory nightmare.

Sound:A small dog wearing a bandana barks while lying on a rug. There's a person in the background.

Dogs can be loud! Barking, whining, snorting, trilling and more. They also make sounds with their mouths when they chew, eat, lick and pant. Most often I meet people who are jarred by sudden barking or driven to anger by continuous whining. Sound is my TOP sensory overload trigger, so I understand this one! Especially with my youngest dog who has a sound for everything. For many people there’s a big difference between sound they were expecting versus sound that is sudden. Similarly, sound that is intermittent, versus sound that is continuous. But for some, any amount of sound is a misery.

Smell:

Dogs come with all sorts of smells. Not just from the dogs directly, but from the items we put on their fur and give them to eat or chew too. Some dogs have very pungent smells from their skin and coats. While others, especially puppies, can struggle to take their bodily functions outside where they belong. Meanwhile, gather multiple dogs together in your home and you’re often battling a general dog smell in the house. Personally, I’ve found the smells of a lot of dog products to be most grating. I’ll never forget the Christmas I almost cleared the family gathering by handing my dog a bully stick or the time I opened canned salmon to make homemade dog treats. By far the worst smell for me is my oldest GSD’s hydrolyzed prescription food.

Touch:

Dogs touch us and we touch them, not to mention all of the things we touch while caring for them. Usually this comes into play with sensory overload because of the way dogs touch us. They may lick, run their cold noses across or skin, rub their bodies across us as they walk and more. My partner loves to wear shorts year round in the house and we have a senior dog who loves to run his nose across the back of his knee, it’s a huge thing for them to navigate. Of course there are also the things we touch while caring for them, picking up dog poop, vomit, and cleaning up urine aren’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But if you have sensory issues related to those things, it’s even worse. My issue is a little more tangential, I hate touching wet dog food or other gooey concoctions for making frozen Kongs. It’s a labor of love every time while shivers run down my spine and it takes everything in me not to yelp and run away from the task.

Motion/Energy:

Dogs like to move, pacing, running, jumping, wrestling, you get the picture. Just like us, they have different energy levels too and spend varying portions of their day doing these things. When I think about energy, I’m also imagining the intensity of that motion and the emotion behind it. A pacing Belgian Malinois has a different energy to them than a pacing Labrador Retriever. Combine a group of dogs together in a multi dog household and you’ve got all sorts of increased movement and energy to contend with. Sometimes all of that motion and energy is enough to jar someone into sensory overload. I know it gets me on occasion. Especially pacing, as that’s what I do when I’m anxious and just seeing it can get me going with my own anxiety at times.

Proximity:

Individual dogs and breeds have higher tendencies to stay near their people as often as possible. If you’re a person who enjoys some alone time and personal space to recharge, you may see a high proximity dog as overwhelming. Dogs who invade personal space or who are constantly underfoot can also trigger touch just by nature of being so close. Making proximity/touch sensory overload triggers a bit of a double whammy. Your tolerance for your dog’s proximity may vary day to day, hour by hour, depending on your mood or emotional state. I know that when my PTSD symptoms are out of control for an extended period I begin to feel sensory overload with 3 dogs around me. Even if typically that’s actually a helpful and welcome experience.

Needs/Demands: A small terrier stands in front of an empty dog bowl looking up at the camera.

Dogs vary in terms of how much they need and want from us, both as individuals, and over time. I see this form of sensory overload in my clients most often with puppies whose needs are vast and constant. There’s nothing like low sleep, nonstop pulls on your attention, and a pile of associated training and outings to get a person into a bad state. In fact, if this is you, you should check out my Puppy Blues Webinar. Other times you may have a dog with behavioral complexities you didn’t expect or a personality that’s just a little more interactive than you planned for.

During the pandemic we had a period here where all 3 dogs had some fairly intense medical needs at the same time. I remember crying on the floor when dog 3 decided to join in on the “urgently needs veterinary care” train. It was just too much. I also see sensory overload a LOT in my clients with dogs that fall into the higher end of the hyperactivity/impulsivity spectrum. Whatever the reason the needs/demands exist, and the threshold at which you become overwhelmed, having a living being depend on you for everything can absolutely lead to sensory overload.

Coping Tools and Proactive Strategies for Dog Sensory Overload:

I love this part, this is where I get to use my experiences as a neurodivergent person to help you out as well! In this section you’ll find my tried and true strategies for coping with sensory overload. While I am not a mental health professional, I do have a lot of experience in this area from my own treatment over the last decade. However, if you are experiencing a more severe presentation of sensory overload and it’s impacting your daily quality of life I highly recommend connecting with the mental health professional of your choice! Often, working in tandem with both a mental health professional and an understanding dog trainer can help handcraft solutions tailored to your life and your dogs. If you’re interested in working with me in a dog training capacity you can schedule a free consultation HERE.

Coping Tools:

When you read about these coping tools I want you to keep something in mind. You may read this today and think that this strategy cannot and will not work for you. I’ll be the first to tell you that you might be right. But I want to change that statement slightly. These coping skills might not be right for you RIGHT NOW. You see that’s different. That’s holding space for a you who can have mastery of themselves when sensory overload strikes. Who can grow and change and learn new skills.

When I first started on my journey of coping with sensory overload I couldn’t use these skills in the moment either. It took practicing them when they weren’t needed, applying them to less distressing situations, other help from my therapist, and even medication to bring me where I am today. You’re not looking for overnight change here. You want gradual growth and skill-building over time. Coupled with proactive strategies to prevent as much sensory overload as possible while you do. And if you think those instructions for you sounded a hell of a lot like good dog training, you would be correct.

  • Use the STOP Skill either when you are approaching sensory overload (ideal) or when you have already reached it: A cartoon image of a Stop Sign.
    • Stop: 

      When you are able, and can recognize that your emotions are slipping, stop what you are doing, freeze, don’t act on what your body is telling you to do for a moment.

    • Take a step back: 

      Give yourself space from your dog(s). Close a door or a gate between you and your dog(s). Walk outside or to a different floor of your home if needed/able. If you have to move your dogs to a place of safety first (crate, pen, dog safe area in your home), do so quickly with the least emotion possible or call someone else to handle this for you.

      • Get into a space away from your dogs.
      • Use a Distress Tolerance Skill or multiple skills to help yourself calm down.
        • In extreme scenarios you will want to use the TIP Skill (see medical warning in handout). It combines using cold water to trigger the dive reflex, with intense exercise (for you, keep any physical disability or medical issues in mind), and ends with paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. This is a hard, manual, reset of your nervous system My favorite free resource for paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation comes from the PTSD Coach VA App but you can also look up videos on YouTube.
    • Observe: 

      Once you have calmed down, it’s time to use your renewed ability to think clearly. Think about the circumstances surrounding what happened that led to this moment.

      • What were your dogs doing?
      • What were you doing?
      • What part(s) of this sensory experience were most triggering to you?
      • Did you have signs that you were escalating toward sensory overload?
      • What were they? What did you feel in your body?
      • Have all of you had your needs met today?
      • Was anything making you or your dogs more emotionally vulnerable today?
      • Were your dogs trying to communicate a need?
      • What was it?
      • How did you respond to this situation today?
      • How did the dogs respond to what you did?
    • Proceed Mindfully: 

      Ask yourself:

      • Is the way you acted today in line with who you want to be toward my dogs? If not, how would you like to behave in the future?
      • Can you respond to earlier signs that you’re approaching sensory overload, before you lose control or act contrary to your goals of how you’d like to treat your dogs?
      • How can you better care for both your dogs’ needs and your own so that everyone feels more emotionally regulated and overwhelming sensory stuff is less likely?
      • Is there a training need here? Could training a different behavior for this situation lead to less of the sensory experience you just had?
      • Are there any proactive strategies you could take to prevent this experience from happening again? In dog training this looks like management, changing the environment to make a behavior less likely. For you, the idea is similar, what tools do you have at your disposal?
      • If your response scared your dogs, how can you begin to repair the relationship? How can you change the response in the future?
        • The answers here often are not simple by any means!
      • Do you need support to make behavior change or environmental change for you or your dogs? Where is that support going to come from.
  • Accept what happened and forgive yourself.
    • What’s done is done. No amount of regret, anxiety or worry can take it back. Spend that energy on future change.
    • YOU, the real you, is not who you were when sensory overload happened. You are still responsible for the consequences of your actions but every future moment is an opportunity to grow and change. 
    •  No one is the perfect dog guardian or parent. We all have bad days. Some of our bad days have more intense expressions than others. 
    • You do not have to be perfect.
    • You do not have to stop having sensory overload to be a good dog parent. It’s really OK if this happens to you.
    • You do not have to change how you respond to sensory overload all at once. Every little change counts. For some of us this can take months or years.
  • Make proactive change where you can to prevent this from happening again.
    • That’s the next section!!

 

Proactive Coping Tools For Sensory Overload: 

Now, this is the section you probably thought you were signing up for by reading this blog. It should be noted that some of these solutions are for you and some of them are classic management strategies in dog training.

Amazon Affiliate Links Alert: I am an Amazon Affiliate. I may receive a commission when you purchase via these links. At Wise Mind Canine this revenue supports the scholarship program for clients with disabilities.

  • Sounds:
    • Proactive ear plug use is amazing for this and you don’t have to wear anything on your head. If there’s some wiggle room in your reaction, you can put them on in response to dog sounds. As a migraineur, who often experiences sound as physical pain,  I’ve got some favorites:
      • Loop Engage Plus: You can still hear conversations and your own voice without sounding like everything is underwater. Add the Loop Mute inserts for more protection and relief.
      • Decibullz Custom Molded Ear Plugs: Your voice will sound like it’s underwater when you hear yourself speak but the sound coverage is really great. I use these both at home and at concerts. Custom molded to your ears.
      • Vibes Ear Plugs: Comfy, small, not super visible to others.
    • Bluetooth Ear Buds with Automated Noise Cancelling. These work if different sound is acceptable in preventing sensory overload.
      • Jabra 85t: Just sharing what works for me, there are SO many options at a variety of price points. Some with more or less noise cancelling.
    • Use sound masking strategies so that your dog is less likely to bark at things they hear outside your home:
      • White noise machines
      • Background music. Smart speakers are great for coverage over an entire home.
      • Box fans
      • If your dog is sound sensitive and barks in response you can sometimes teach them to wear ear protection of their own like this and this for extra relief during noisy periods.
    • Block your dog’s view out of windows/doors/fences so they are less likely to bark at things they see:
      • Gates to keep them away from the part of your home where they can see triggers.
      • Window film, they can’t see out, but light gets through!
      • Cover fences that can be seen through using fabric or additional opaque barriers.
  • Smell:
    • For short term but terrible smells, put a drop or two of peppermint oil on a surgical mask and wear it on your face.
    • Ballard Pet Odor Eliminator Candle:
      • I learned about these at my veterinarian’s office. These candles aren’t perfect but I think they really do help.
    • Look for odor free versions of your dogs favorite chews or chews that have less odor:
    • Let them have the things you don’t want to smell OUTSIDE. 
      • Use a long line if you don’t have yard access.
      • Rent a Sniffspot and give the item there, off leash.
    • Keep your dog bathed and well groomed.
      • But don’t go overkill, you can create imbalances in their skin (and more odor!) from bathing them too much.
      • Brush out their coat regularly.
    • Work with your veterinarian to feed your dog a nutritious diet.
      • What you feed can impact things like coat quality and skin in ways that create extra odor.
      • Some dogs can be gassy on particular foods.
  • Touch:
  • Line symbol of a hand representing touch with a black and white cartoon image of a woman crouching to pet a dog in front of it.
    • Keep your dog bathed and groomed so their fur stays at a texture you can enjoy.
    • Wear pants, long sleeves etc, basically covering any skin you don’t want a dog’s nose or tongue to touch.
    • If you know you’re not in a mood to be touched, put your dog behind a gate with something to do.
    • Teach a behavior that helps your dog move away on cue like go to mat or back up.
    • Explore the kind of touch you DO like from your dog.
      • Reward that kind of touch and you’ll see them offer that option more and more.
    • Use a dog poop scooper so you don’t have to experience the feeling of cleaning up with only a bag between you and the poop.
    • Use rubber gloves when dealing with dog bodily fluids.
    • Wear gloves when you pet your dog if their fur isn’t a texture you can handle.
    • Place a gate around your entryway so you don’t get jumped on when you enter your home.
    • Use a leash belay to prevent jerking on leash until you can work with a trainer on loose leash walking.
  • Motion/Energy:  Katie plays with a German Shepherd who is jumping up on his back feet in a field.
    • Funnel your dogs outside when their energy/motion get too high for you to cope with.
      • If you don’t have a yard you can send them into another floor of your residence or into a room you cannot see.
      • Can’t do that? Try removing yourself, go sit in your car, take a walk, run an errand etc.
    • Teach games like tug and flirt pole to burn through energy quickly.
    • Proactively increase access to physical exercise so that your dog can vent energy before it escalates to a point of bothering you.
    • Teach your dog how to relax inside your home so that they spend less time in motion.
    • Meet your dog’s needs in general and for mental stimulation to get a more relaxed dog.
  • Proximity: A corgi is touching a person as they sit on the couch reading.
    • Teach your dog to move away from you by backing up.
    • Show your dog where you’d prefer for them to be while you do activities like cooking or watching TV by training a place behavior.
    • Help your dog learn to separate from you peacefully and quietly.
    • Give your dog a solo activity to do, like a frozen Kong or a long term chew.
    • Use a gate, door, or exercise pen to give yourself a break from your dog.
  • Needs/Demands: 
    • Often, some of the solution is going to take using distress tolerance skills (link earlier in the blog) to cope until your dog reaches a different developmental stage.
    • If you’re the primary caregiver for your dog, but live with multiple people, ask for help with meeting some of these needs.
    • Don’t have someone else to rely on? But have money to outsource some things? Try:
      • Doggie Daycare
      • Dog Walkers
      • Groomers
      • Dog Sitters
      • Dog Trainers
        • Day Training
        • Board and Train
    • Prioritize ways of meeting multiple dog needs at a time, quickly!
    • Puppies:
      • Focus on quality when it comes to socialization.
      • Learn about combatting the Puppy Blues
      • Make exercise pens fun and enriching so that you can have more time to breathe.
      • Give yourself permission to take a break.
        • Invite some people over who’d love to spend a few hours entertaining a puppy.
        • It’s absolutely OK to put your puppy in a puppy safe area and leave.
      • Remember that this is just a life stage, this is NOT forever, no matter how much your brain feels like it is.
      • Join Practical Dog Life and check out the free guides and information on puppy raising.
      • Additionally, if you need disability friendly puppy raising advice and support? I’ve got you!  Schedule a free assessment here at Wise Mind Canine.
    • Other Life Stages:
      • First, think of ways you can meet your needs and your dogs needs at the same time.
        • When you’re overwhelmed, it’s often your needs that are first to go. Undoubtedly this leads to increases in your emotional vulnerability. Try to do both, together.
      • Second, just as with puppies, it’s OK if you have to walk away and prioritize yourself first in this moment.
      • Third, recognize that barking at you, pawing you, licking you and other behaviors can be learned ways of getting your attention to get their needs met.
        • You can meet those needs more proactively so your dog doesn’t have to demand them. That lets you meet needs more on your own terms.
        • Absolutely give your dog a more appropriate way to ask for what they need so that the way your dog asks doesn’t trigger sensory overload.
      • Fourth, it never hurts to call in a professional to help you get to a solution more efficiently.

Making Up With Your Dog When Sensory Overload Goes Wrong:

You can have all the coping tools and proactive strategies and STILL react to sensory overload in a way you’re not proud of toward your dog. That’s lizard brain for you. Ultimately what matters is that you help your dog recover from stress and do what you can to repair your relationship.

Yes that’s hard sometimes. You might feel ashamed of your behavior. Nevertheless, I want you to remember that every moment with your dog is a place to try again. To learn new behaviors, proactive strategies, and coping tools. Dogs are forgiving, and with the right help, you all will come back from this moment just fine.

Steps to make up with your dog: 

  • First, help yourself, so that you can be regulated enough to help your dog.
  • Learn about dog body language so that you can respond to their subtle signs of stress.
    • All to often people don’t realize that the way they’re trying to help is actually adding further stress to their dog.
  • Support them the way THEY need:
    • Your dog might need space.
    • They may need physical contact and comfort.
    • Others need interaction and activity with you.
  • Add good things to their lives over the next few days to help them decompress: 
    • More enrichment.
    • More PLAY.
    • Chews.
    • Exercise.
  • Spend active time with your dog, doing activities you both enjoy, once your dog is ready. 
  • Do your best to work on the coping tools and proactive strategies to: 
    • Make your response to sensory overload less intense in the future.
    • Prevent sensory overload from happening to you as frequently.
  • REMEMBER, you can have sensory overload issues AND be an excellent and caring human for your dog. It’s not an either/or situation. To this day I have moments of sensory overload with my dogs. They’re not irreparably damaged. They’re not miserable. They’re not scared. We pick up and move forward together each time. You can too. 

Final Notes:

This blog was a request from social media and it took a long time to write as it took a great deal of thought and explanation. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope this helped!

If you’re experiencing sensory overload surrounding caring for your dog I want you to know that you’re not alone and it doesn’t make you any less of a wonderful dog parent. You’re allowed to be you. You’re allowed to struggle and be imperfect. Some of us are just operate with nervous systems that are primed for sensory overload. We don’t need to be fixed. We’re not broken. We just learn to live with it in ways that align better with how we want to show up for our dogs. If you need a gentle place to work on this with your dogs, you know where to find me.

 

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