Living with Anxious Dogs
I read a great blog post this morning.
The author talks about how, in our efforts to be loving and compassionate new pet parents, we sometimes add to the anxiety that a newly-adopted dog can already bring to the situation. She gives some great tips on how to manage the first few days/weeks after bringing a new pet into the home.
In my work, I've met many dogs who reside on all spectrums of the anxiety scale. I've also shared my life with several dogs who have a low anxiety threshold. Too frequently, I feel that dog owners are shamed by trainers, vets, and other dog "authorities" for having anxious pets. I've been very fortunate to work with understanding professionals for my own pets, but it's very common to be accused of not socializing a puppy properly or not having the right pack leader skills. Adding guilt to someone's situation isn't helpful - in fact, it can exacerbate the situation because now an anxious dog could pick up on that guilt and feel that they are to blame.
If we look to the human species, there is also frequently a stigma surrounding anxiety. Too often, people with anxiety are made to feel that they aren't "right" somehow and that there is something wrong with them. While medications and counseling can absolutely be beneficial, the underlying message is that something is broken and needs to be fixed.
What if, for our dogs, we accept the fact that there can be differences in stress tolerance...and that such differences are what make our dogs unique? Every dog is not going to want to be surrounded by people, play with other dogs, or take each moment in stride, being, as they say, "bomb-proof". Let's quit shaming and bullying those pet parents who share their lives with sensitive, quiet types.
When I adopted my dog Darcy, he had lived in a very busy animal shelter for six months. He was picked up by animal control at three months old and, as a result, most of his formative, impressionable puppy time was spent in a noisy, overcrowded building with well over a hundred other dogs. Although I fell in love with him immediately, his affection for and trust of me took much longer. For several weeks, he was in a constant "freak out" mode. He had never been in a car, so even loading him up to go home was terrifying for him. At the time, I lived in a third floor apartment with no elevator. He had never seen steps before, so there were several days of carrying him up and down three flights of steps while trying to keep my 11-month old exuberant boxer mix from dragging us all down the steps in her excitement to get out and see the world. There were several consecutive days of leashed walks where he would pull out of his collar and try to run away from us. He was also unsure of changes in flooring, and walking from carpet to tile would result in an immediate and total halt of momentum. I remember walking into a pet store with him where they had painted ocean waves onto the floor. Even though the floor texture was the same, he wasn't keen on walking into the fake water.
To help Darcy, I knew I needed to look at the world from his perspective - not to anticipate what might freak him out so that we avoided it, but to stay one step ahead of freak-out mode. We took things one at a time and I always made sure he was able to have plenty of time where he felt safe which, for him, was playing or snuggling with his sister. He was also a happy boy as long as a tennis ball could join us in whatever task we attempted.
It felt like a long courtship between Darcy and me. Eventually, the things that freaked him out became fewer and farther between. I remember the unbridled joy I felt when he finally let me brush him. The moment when I knew he trusted me completely is still as clear in my memory as if it had happened yesterday. Every night when I went to bed, Darcy would try to keep me playing with the tennis ball. He would nudge it up to my face and when I was finally too sleepy to roll it back to him, he'd take it to his bed and go to sleep. On this particular night, he took the tennis ball and tucked it under my pillow as if to say, "Here, Mom...I trust you to keep my most prized possession."
Those of you who knew Darcy know that he grew into a very confident and joyful dog. He was my first "heart" dog and we knew and understood each other at as deep a soul level as you can, crossing boundaries of species and time. He became trustworthy off-leash and really the only lasting anxiety for him was thunderstorms. I believe our close bond started with his anxiety. By my coming into his world to help him, we fostered a communication and trust that was unbreakable. He chose to come out of his shell and be outgoing. Had he remained a shy, tentative type, that would have been fine with me as well. I currently share my life with a reserved, unsure, anxiety-prone dog and he is also the great love of my life. We don't play with other dogs, I don't have many friends come to the house, he has places to hide out from the world when it gets too stressful -- and he is a funny, happy, silly boy all the same. It's a different life for us, but it's one where he gets to be confident, be comfortable, and be the star.
If you have an anxious dog, see it as an opportunity to improve your communication with your dog and your attention to the world around you. Allow her the space she needs to feel safe. Love, patience and persistence are key. If you do seek out a dog trainer, I suggest a positive-reinforcement trainer who can help you work on trigger stacking in addition to other techniques that can help build trust and confidence.
Above all, appreciate your dog for the qualities that make him unique and love him for that which makes him special!