In every obedience match, tracking test, field trial, agility event, show ring, athletic competition and puppy kindergarten class, owners and handlers are eager to find whatever strategies, products, and equipment will give their dogs an advantage. One healthy shortcut to the winner’s circle comes from Mother Nature, for with the help of medicinal herbs, dogs can concentrate despite distractions, relax under stress, keep their joints limber, improve their coats, increase their stamina and possibly even improve their sense of smell. Best of all, you don’t have to be an expert to use herbs safely and effectively.
While some preparations are not appropriate for use with pets, most herbs are safe even in the hands of novice users. Their side effects are minor, if any, and their use is supported by centuries of experience around the world. For best results, follow all instructions presented below; for more detailed information, see the recommended reading list. Consult a holistic veterinarian or herbalist before giving medicinal herbs to a dog taking prescription drugs.
Herbs for learning Whenever you want your dog to pay attention, two groups of herbs will help. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Anthemis nobilis) are nervines, herbs that nourish the nerves, and either one can help prevent your dog from being distracted, hyperactive, or overstimulated.
Memory tonics such as gotu kola (Centella asiatica), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) enhance blood circulation and help stimulate clear thinking. Thirty minutes to an hour before class begins, give your dog a blend of nervine and memory tonic herbs, such as a tea brewed from equal parts of valerian and gotu kola, a tincture made of equal parts chamomile and rosemary, or capsules containing ginkgo and valerian. While most people describe valerian as smelling like old socks, most dogs enjoy it and many cats actively crave it. This fragile herb’s volatile essential oils are best preserved in alcohol tinctures. If brewed as a tea, valerian should be infused (steeped) rather than simmered, which is unusual for a tea brewed from roots, and dried valerian should be stored in a sealed glass jar, not absorbent paper. Mental acuity also helps a dog’s physical performance. No matter what the canine sport your dog participates in, his ability to concentrate and make fast, accurate mental connections can be enhanced by the herbs described above.
Herbs for scent work Memory-tonic herbs improve circulation throughout the brain and body, and some herbalists speculate that they may improve a dog’s sense of smell. Ginkgo, gotu kola, and rosemary are even more effective when combined with small amounts of stimulant herbs such as cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) or ginger (Zingiber officinale), which can be given in capsules. To experiment, give the herbs 30 minutes to an hour before the activity and repeat two hours later if needed. Valerian and/or chamomile can be used at the same time to improve concentration and focus. Unfamiliar herbs may distract your dog’s nose, so don’t wait until the day of an event to introduce them; start weeks ahead so that his sensory system can adjust as you experiment.
Herbs for stress A growing number of boarding kennel operators, humane society shelter workers, handlers of traveling dogs, and veterinarians know what a difference calming nervines can make for any animal who is anxious or confused. Valerian, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), hops (Humulus lupulus), oatstraw (Avena sativa) and chamomile help dogs adapt and relax.
Although these herbs are considered sleeping aids, none of them will sedate an active, alert dog the way pharmaceutical tranquilizers do. Instead, they allow a resting dog to relax and sleep by relieving nervous anxiety, and they help a wide-awake dog remain calm.
In addition, adaptogen herbs help dogs cope with stress. Adaptogens gradually correct imbalances, such as by raising or lowering blood pressure, reducing or increasing pulse rate, or correcting blood sugar levels, and when taken on a daily basis for weeks or months, they have been shown to help stabilize a dog’s responses to stress. The most famous adaptogen herb is ginseng (Panax ginseng or P. quinquefolius), but other adaptogens gaining popularity among dog owners are fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), schizandra (Schizandra chenensin), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous). Like tonic herbs, adaptogens work gradually and require months of use before their benefits are apparent. An additional benefit of adaptogens is that they help increase stamina and endurance. This effect can be helpful for dogs that run or jog with their owners over long distances, as well as hunting, tracking, or sled dogs.
Herbs for the skin and coat One of the best herbs for topical application is aloe vera juice or gel, which can be rubbed into the skin to soothe irritation, relieve itching, and speed healing. Chamomile tea is an excellent final rinse for all but white-coated dogs (it can temporarily darken white fur) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) tea is recommended for dark coats; both are natural hair conditioners. Work the rinse deeply into the coat and let it dry. Topical application offers temporary relief, but the real solution to skin and coat problems comes from inside. In addition to improving the diet, consider giving “alterative” (often called blood-cleansing) herbs such as burdock root (Arctium lappa), dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale), dandelion root, red clover (Trifolium pratense), stinging nettle, and yellow dock root (Rumex crispus).
Gradually, over a period of weeks and months, these herbs restore normal body function and act as general tonics for improved health and appearance. In addition, bitter herbs such as dandelion leaf, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), feverfew (Tanacetum partenium), or commercial preparations such as Swedish Bitters stimulate the gastrointestinal tract, improve digestion, and indirectly improve coat condition.
To use a bitter herb, add small amounts to your dog’s first bite of food or simply place a pinch of the herb or a drop of tincture in her mouth. She won’t like it, but in response to the bitter taste her digestive organs will secrete bile and other fluids. If you accustom your dog to receiving bitters with each meal, she will usually come to accept them eagerly as she associates their taste with food.
Last, adding aloe vera juice or gel to food helps improve digestion and relieve skin and coat problems. Give up to 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight daily or half that amount if the product is concentrated. To use fresh aloe vera, peel the leaf, remove the inner gel and rinse it with water to remove any trace of the rind, which can have a laxative effect.
Herbs for limber joints Conventional medicine considers arthritis irreversible and incurable; its only treatment is with symptom-suppressing drugs that temporarily alleviate pain, thus increasing mobility. However, holistic veterinarians are finding that a well-balanced all-raw diet can actually reverse the arthritic process, keep bones strong, maintain flexibility, and help prevent injury. Arthritic dogs fed commercial food may be helped by nutritional supplements such as glucosamine sulfate, chondriotin sulfate, or blends of herbs, but they usually begin limping as soon as the supplement is discontinued, something that wouldn’t happen if these supplements actually cured the condition.
Boswellia (Boswellia spp.), devil’s claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens), yucca (Yucca spp.), white willow bark (Salix alba) and feverfew offer relief from symptoms, but they should be considered only part of the arthritis protocol. All of these herbs are appropriate for dogs recovering from injuries. External applications of arnica (Arnica montana) tincture speed the healing of muscle sprains and bruises by increasing capillary blood circulation. Arnica tincture is an important first-aid remedy; if used within a few minutes of injury, it prevents pain, swelling and bruising. Apply generously on unbroken skin and repeat as needed.