A Cute (?) Little Doggie Anecdote…

I have an essential oil diffuser on my desk at work.  It is a conversation starter on many occasions.  One exchange, in particular, is the catalyst for this blog post.

A young lady (20 or so), with a big smile on her face, asked me what was in the diffuser. I told her the allergy blend that was in it on that day and she promptly asked “Do you get your oils from MLM (Multi-Level-Marketing) #1?”  I replied in the negative.  Immediately “Oh, then you get them from MLM #2.”  Again, I told her no and that I blend my own.  She seemed confused as if those two companies are the only place to get essential oils of any value.  She recovered and then continued with the following anecdote:

We had to board our dog one time, so we took lavender oil and smeared it all over his body.  He was so cute, he tried to run and hide from us. (insert laughter)  Now, any time we open up a bottle, he runs and hides. (insert laughter again)  It’s just so adorable! (not verbatim)

This story was shared with me when I was just beginning my education with the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS) and, even though I knew what they had done was totally NOT OK, I had no idea how to respond.  Well, I’m three semesters in and I have more words to share now.

Just Because It’s Natural,  Does Not Mean It Will Not Harm

Think about all the things in nature that have the ability to harm you.  I live in South Texas so first thing that comes to mind for me is snakes; rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. What about plants like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and stinging nettles?  Animals: Bears, sharks, snapping turtles, deer with big antlers, chihuahuas, and monkeys that fling poo at people who visit the zoo.

According to Dorene Petersen, the president of ACHS, “Essential oils (EO) are volatile, sometimes colorless, non-oily, and insoluble in water substances that are extracted from plant material using either distillation or expression” (2016).  Bell states in her book Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals that choosing a “less is more” attitude when using essential oils with our pets is important (2012).  Any EO that you plan to use on your animals should be highly diluted before use, be of the highest quality, unadulterated, and some EOs should be avoided altogether.

Each EO is made up of a variety of chemical constituents that give them their therapeutic abilities.

  • Esters- gentle, tolerable, little risk of irritation
  • Alcohols- gentle and tolerable
  • Phenols- highly irritating and should be avoided with animals
  • Ketones- EOs high in ketones should be avoided with animals
  • Lactones- Mucolytic
  • Aldehydes- Potential skin irritant
  • Oxides- valuable for congestion, as an expectorant, since animals cannot blow their noses (Bell, 2012)

So What Are You Saying????

Should I Use Essential Oils or Not?

Yes, by all means, use EOs to help your dog.  This process is going to take time, though, so be sure to set aside enough time to do this correctly.

The constituents found in EOs can help your dog, just like they help you, but you must use caution.

“Dogs have a much larger nasal cavity than humans do, and as a result their sense of smell is 50-100 times stronger than ours.  While humans have approximately 45-50 million scent receptors, dogs average 200 million!” (Bell, 2012).

Also, remember that some essential oils should be avoided altogether when working with your dog.  There is a list in Bell’s book.


Someone said to me that they needed to board their dog, so they were going to send some lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) EO with him to the kennel since he struggled with separation anxiety. I’ll be honest, that may work, but more than likely it won’t.

We all have scent preferences and memories associated with aromas, animals do as well. We need to take the time to help them associate these wonderful botanicals with something good.  I am not a professional dog trainer, but I have trained several dogs, to be pets as well as service animals for myself and others.  It takes time, patience, and a willingness to believe in the process.

My good friend, Beverli, is a professional trainer with Service Dog Express.  I talked with her about the steps to prepare your dog for boarding with essential oils.

1. Choose Wisely

Bell does a wonderful job in her book listing the EOs she recommends for use with dogs and listing the benefits of the constituents.  Here is a condensed list of ones that can help for anxiety and separation:

  • Sweet Basil- Ocimum basilicum- Separation Anxiety
  • Roman Chamomile- Chamaemelum nobile – Calms the central nervous system
  • Clary Sage- Salvia sclarea– Calming, sedative, and euphoric
  • Lavender- Lavandula angustifolia– Sedative
  • Organic Lemon- Citrus limon– Calming (use with care; photosensitising)
  • Lemongrass- Cymbopogon citritus– Sedative
  • Sweet Marjoram- Origanum majorana-Calming
  • Neroli- Citrus aurantium var. amara– Calming, stress reduction, anti-anxiety
  • Organic Sweet Orange- Citrus sinensis– Calming (use with care; photosensitising)
  • Rose- Rosa damascena– Stabilizing to the central nervous system (VERY expensive)
  • Ylang ylang- Cananga odorata– Deeply calming almost narcotic effect (2012)

So, you can see there are many oils to choose from.

Personal Preference

Each dog will have their own personal preferences.  You need to figure out which EOs they like.  So, let’s have a sniff test. This process is going to take some time, because you don’t want to cross-contaminate the aromas.  You’ll need to test one oil at a time and ensure that there is time for your dog’s nasal passage to clear before testing another.

  1. Label a perfume blotter or piece of white paper with the name of the EO.
  2. Place a drop of the EO on the paper
  3. Bev suggests crumpling up the paper into a loose ball and placing several into an open area
  4. You need to be relaxed; pretend nothing is going on, do NOT make this a training exercise
  5. Lead your dog over to the area and watch for reactions

Bev reminded me that your dog will take its cues off of you.  If you’re stressed, he’s stressed.  If you’re anxious, he’s anxious.  If you’re relaxed…you get the idea.  So, when you’re doing this exercise, make sure you’re in the right frame of mind.

Once you’ve placed a couple of paper balls down on the floor.  Just take the dog into the room.  If he is anxious, he may not be the least interested in what you’re trying to do. Do not worry, just try again later.

Possible Reactions Could Include

  1. Running from the smell- Avoidance
  2. Rolling on the smell- Acceptance (Bev says “This is a DEFINITE keeper”)
  3. No reaction- Disinterest (Bev says “Does not mean dislike. Try this one again)

Then take your dog outside to play, go potty, or whatever to let its nasal passage clear. This needs to be an enjoyable process for your dog or you will be creating a negative association with the aromas.  That is NOT what we want to do.  We are trying to get your dog to associate these smells with something good.

At this point, after you’ve decided which EOs you pup likes, If you want, you can try blending two or three together (no more than three) and repeating the whole process to find a blend that really strikes a good nerve with your pup.  Once you’ve determined which scents your dog likes, you can actually begin the training process.  (I told you this will take some time)

2. Choose an activity

What Does Your Dog Like To Do With You?

Photo credit: Daniel Holman Studios

My service, therapy, and all around amazing girl, Wags, loves belly rubs, massages, and playing chase-every dog is as individual just as we are.  You need to know what makes your dog happy for this next step.

Bev works with all breeds of dogs from Great Danes down to toy chihuahuas.  She suggests that

  • small dogs may like to snuggle.  Get on couch, have three wadded up oil balls, have them check them out
  • Medium dogs will probably enjoy retrieving so start an rousing game of fetch and add oil balls into the game.  They may not retrieve them right away because of the funky smell, but you should see either acceptance or avoidance
  • Large breeds tend to lean.  Stand by a table or countertop, have the oil balls on table, and let them smell.  If they’re interested in one put it in your pocket.  If they are more attentive to you while it’s there, it’s a keeper.

This is not an exhaustive list, just a place to start in case you don’t know.  Once you’ve figured out how your dog likes to be loved, you need to start loving on him/her in the presence of those EOs that they liked.  Just place a few drops into a glass or ceramic bowl (the EOs can dissolve plastic) in the room.  Any time you are rubbing her belly or playing chase have those oils out.  Remember less is more…you do NOT need to permeate the house with the smell, just have it there.


Give it a few days, try a new one each day.  Over time your canine pal will begin to associate that aroma with good things; being with you (his favorite human), belly rubs (his favorite past-time), playing chase (his favorite activity), or whatever thing you love to do together.

3. Pavlovian Response


So, what we are really doing is what is known as classical conditioning that Pavlov accidentally discovered in 1902 (McLeod, 2013).  You’ll be taking something that your dog already does (love being with you), introducing a new stimulus (essential oil) to bring about a desired response.  It just takes time and, as I’ve said multiple times, each dog is an individual, it may take quite some time for some to get it and no time at all for others.

You’ll know your bestie gets it when you pull out your EO and he “assumes the position.”

The next time you have to board your pet, take him to the groomer, or just be away for an extended period, put a few drops of his favorite EO onto a his best-loved blanket.  He will have sweet dreams of belly rubs and playing chase with his favorite human.

Take Away

Training is training.

Bev says “your dog is willing to do whatever you ask because they love and trust you, but consistency is a must! It will take dedication on your part and it cannot be rushed.  If you put off this process until the last minute, just wait until you have another opportunity.  Otherwise your dog will associate all of the oils with anxiety and negativity and this will be a huge setback. “

If you will commit yourself to the process, you have the opportunity to help your anxious pup go into his next boarding situation in a natural and holistic way instead of using pharmaceuticals to achieve a calm state.

The poor dog you read about at the beginning of the blog was not trained to love these natural scents.  He associated the EO with being boarded and away from his family.  How much better would it have been had they taken the time to understand their companion?

As always, please take the time to find a Registered Aromatherapist near you to ensure you are not causing harm to pet.


Bell, K. L. (2012). Holistic aromatherapy for animals. Scotland, UK: Findhorn Press.

Definitions. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/

McLeod, S. (2013). Pavlov’s dog. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html

Petersen, D. (2016). Aroma 203. Portland, Oregon: American College of Healthcare Sciences.

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