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Face touching & PNS | Cambridge Puppy Training

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

I have a confession to make, my name is Gail and I touch my face a million trillion times a day, it seems. Or so I have recently discovered. We've all seen the endless advice regarding Covid-19 and how to keep ourselves and our families safe. Luckily (most!) of us are sticking to this government advice well, whilst it's hard to adapt to a new 'normal', I like to think as a society we're doing well together. One of the things we have been endlessly advised on is ensuring you do NOT touch your face!!! NO hands on your face!! Well, personally speaking, I have found this to be highly enlightening over the last few weeks. Little did I realise, until I was prohibited from doing so, that I actually touch my face a million trillion gazillion times a day. Who knew??!

Well I have found this to be quite fascinating and following the BBC News Channel as I do so religiously, I have listened as various doctors have talked about this. What we do, why we do it, and how to stop it. This, in turn, of course got me thinking about the parallels in behaviour with our beloved dogs.

The Autonomic Nervous System serves as a bit of a 'go between' for the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the internal organs such has the heart, and various glands. Within the CNS we have 2 systems, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).

The Sympathetic Nervous System will activate the 'fight or flight' response, in people as it does in dogs. This system will prepare your body for action!! Us, and dogs, will be ready to get into some fisticuffs (fight!), or prepare to run away and hide (retreat, or flight). So, fight or flight. This is all done via the Sympathetic Nervous System.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is, in this instance, the more interesting however. This is the 'rest and digest' response, this system will help to 'settle' or encourage a little bit of balance, or equilibrium, within our systems. For us humans, there are certain areas on the face, pressure points, which will activate this PNS, and this is really designed to be the bodies internal coping mechanism. By subconsciously touching certain areas of the face, we are effectively trying to calm ourselves down! Relaaaaaax. This can be the forehead, chin, mouth and these will help to soothe us and provide some unconscious level of protection.

For me personally, I have realised I touch my face a thousand trillion times when I'm driving, I don't like driving and I'll never be the most confident of drivers. Now I've been told not to touch my face, I am suddenly finding myself constantly trying to keep my hands at '10 and 2' to avoid face touching!!! Arrrghhhhhh the dilemma.

Dogs, are much the same as us. They too, have the same systems with similar effects. Dogs won't sit there rubbing their forehead when driving, but they will display their own self-soothing gestures to assist in calming situations or create internal balance. These gestures can be seen as yawning, sneezing, licking, displacement behaviours of varying intensities, sniffing, excessive grooming, spinning, and even humping and barking (we don't like those so much!!). I'm not suggesting every time your dog sniffs the ground he is desperatly trying to create an internal equilibrium via his Parasympathetic Nervous System, he could simply just be checking pee mails. But you never know!

Self-soothing behaviours are not necesssarily 'bad', but they are interesting to be aware of. My face touching when I'm driving is not overtly wrong (although it is likely terrible for my skin!). However at the moment, it IS a problem. So, how can we change such a natural, unconscious, automatic response, when it seems such an innate and naturally-occurring behaviour?? Well I can start to think of things that will relax me, think of things I can do to try and calm situations or life in general, to attempt to alleviate this unconscious NEED I seem to have to TOUCH MY FACE. I could divulge in immediate stress relief, such as calming classical music whilst I'm driving (A side note, there is evidence to suggest certain classical music has a calming effect on dogs!). I could invest in some lavender air-freshener in my car. I could use some rescue remedy. I could drive routes which are far less stressful than central Cambridge. I could go on.

Dogs are much the same. We can look at why a dog may feel it needs to display certain self-soothing behaviours. Again, these behaviours are not always bad, indeed if we simply 'stop' a dog from performing some of these behaviours we create much MORE stress and end up with a wealth of stereotypic behaviours which would be a nightmare! That's for another day though. Is the behaviour a problem? If not, let your dog go for it. If it is a problem, look at what could be causing this underlying stress and look at ways of managing it. Provide alternatives? Whilst I can start to take steps to relax myself so I don't feel this NEED to touch my face, so we can also do the same for our dogs.

*I would like to state I am perfectly capable of driving around without too much drama and my face touching is a perfectly well-controlled behaviour which I do not need to seek help for ;)

Musings.....what else is there to do at the moment but write such musings. I hope you're all taking jolly good care of yourselves!!! Sending love to you all :)

If you're struggling with your puppy, need guidance, advice or just simply like talking about puppies, do get in touch! :)

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