Do You Have an Anxious Dog? Try Swaddling

Research, practice shows that swaddling can soothe anxious animals. Learn how to wrap your pup.

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Neurodevelopment, newborns, and nervous furry friends. Normally, you might not think of an immediate connection here — but as it turns out, a behavioral tool that links the first two can have measurable advantages for the third. If you’re a parent, you may have employed this tool countless times without ever considering the science behind the approach. Known alternately as “maintained pressure,” “deep touch pressure,” and “swaddling,” it can lead to pronounced, lasting levels of soothing, stress-reduction, and even sleep.

According to Dr. William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book, brief intervals of swaddling represent one of the most time-tested baby-calming techniques — possibly because this “closely-wrapped” feeling reminds infants of being safely supported in the womb.

Yet perhaps there’s more going on than meets the eye. I’ve talked with parents who say they use a swaddling approach with autistic children experiencing anxiety. Having done music work with autistic grade-schoolers, I’ve seen firsthand how disorders on the autism spectrum can strongly impact social interaction and sensory stimulation. Unfortunately, however, the same “sensory overload” feeling that can lead to anxiety often makes it uncomfortable (or entirely impractical) for those with autism to seek the comfort of close human proximity.

Swaddled baby by Shutterstock.
Swaddled baby by Shutterstock.

Diagnosed with autism in 1950, Dr. Temple Grandin has conducted eye-opening research that appears to suggest certain correlations between human and animal sensory perception. Dr. Grandin earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College; a master’s degree in animal sciences from Arizona State University; and a doctoral degree in animal sciences from the University of Illinois. But she has publicly recounted bouts of overwhelming anxiety in her younger years. She mentions discovering that sustained deep pressure would frequently help to alleviate such feelings. In particular, she says, wrapping herself in blankets or soft cushions would often prove especially calming.

In her 1995 book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Dr. Grandin goes on to suggest that animals often see, feel, and think in remarkably similar ways to people with autism. She theorizes that generally, animals are much more sensitive to environmental stimuli than human beings might typically presume; often becoming startled or even traumatized by provocations some of us might classify as mild or virtually unnoticeable.

During her studies, Dr. Grandin noticed that using maintained “deep pressure” techniques on livestock animals would often trigger a calming response. She was later able to adapt one technique — informally termed a “hug box” — into a reassuring anxiety aid that she herself would use. Dr. Grandin has since become well-known for pioneering and fine-tuning several innovative developments in the fields of animal welfare, livestock treatment, and neurology.

Years ago, I began exploring the TTouch method to help with companion animal calming — and I was intrigued to discover some of these same principles at work. Developed by Canadian horsewoman Linda Tellington-Jones, TTouch reflects her studies with scientist-clinician Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. Dr. Feldenkrais advocated an “Awareness Through Movement” method designed to stimulate neural pathways to the brain. Accordingly, Tellington-Jones began adapting a series of non-threatening kinetic touch patterns and sensory manipulations in her work with horses, and eventually dogs.

Dog wrapped in a blanket by Shutterstock.
Dog wrapped in a blanket by Shutterstock.

It was a certified TTouch practitioner who first alerted me to the calming benefits of canine “wrapping.” She explained that this specialized technique is thought to engage the parasympathetic nervous system — increasing breath awareness and easing muscle tension, while encouraging blood pressure and heart rate to stabilize or even decrease. I was especially amazed to learn that all this could frequently be accomplished using little more than a simple elastic bandage.

I was taught that effectiveness (and safety) had much to do with the actual method of wrapping. The wrap needs to create a snug and supportive “hug” effect for the dog; but it can’t be applied too tightly. Careful, periodic monitoring is key. As I mastered the approach and began using it with various canines, however, I was impressed with the consistent degree of calming it seemed to produce.

Using the wrap technique with your own anxious pup isn’t difficult — but again, responsible supervision is important. Generally, you can use a fairly narrow athletic bandage for smaller dogs; and the wider variety for larger dogs. Simply start by bringing the bandage under the chest, and holding it on either side of the ribcage (as if you’re going to pull the dog upward). Bring both ends up over the top of the back, cross them, and bring the ends down over each shoulder in an “X.” Bring both ends back underneath the abdomen, then up over the back again. Finally, tape or tie the ends snugly (but not tightly), and re-check periodically.

For the sake of convenience, you can also purchase one of several “wrap” garments that have seemingly begun to saturate the marketplace in recent years. Two of the more familiar brands, Thundershirt and The Anxiety Wrap, offer a snug, soft, and comfy fit. Thanks to convenient touches like weight-specific sizing and handy fastener tabs, achieving the optimal level of maintained pressure for your pup is now easier than ever.

Whichever approach you choose, it’s especially reassuring to realize that there’s some actual science underscoring this technique. You may find yourself as amazed as I was to witness the calming effects firsthand. What an intriguing reminder that in the end, we humans and our furry friends have quite a few similarities after all.

Top photo: Dog wrapped in a blanket by Shutterstock.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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