Monday, July 8, 2013

On Dogs and Anxiety

We have two adorable dogs. 

Julia is almost eight years old. A beagle-Cattle Dog mix, we adopted her from our local animal shelter when she was almost a year old. When we first brought her home, she was friendly to strangers and other dogs but within a few months of living with us she became much more defensive and distrustful of both. Jolene is just a year and a half. She’s a Pomeranian-Corgi mix and just like Julia she has transformed from a friendly-to-everyone pup to a more aggressive and defensive dog. While both dogs understand some rudimentary commands like sit, stay, and shake paw, neither dog consistently behaves in the ways we’d prefer and I frequently worry about their interactions with other dogs and people. 

After a recent visit to the veterinarian wherein Jolene had to be restrained and muzzled to allow for examination we knew we had to do something. I have often seen other people out and about with well-behaved dogs and it seems like magic to me. I feel there must be some trick, some technique that I do not understand and it makes me sad because I want to be a good dog owner and I want my dogs to be well behaved and liked. I’ve dabbled in a few techniques I’ve read online but nothing produced lasting results or tampered their aggression and defensiveness. 

This week we finally turned to outside help. I was hoping that one of those affordable PetCo workshops would do the trick, but our vet said we’d be better off with a professional dog trainer so we reached out to the folks at Good Dog Workshop in Warrenton, Virginia. Our first session was at their location - a large farm out in the country. We met the business owners Brian and Christine and reviewed our concerns and the history of our dogs’ behavior. 

Before we even started any of the physical work with Jolene and Julia, Brian had a diagnosis: anxiety problem:  *my* anxiety problem. He looked me in the eye and explained to me that it was obvious from my demeanor, tone, and rate of speech that I am anxious. He noted that if he can sense it, the dogs can sense it, and they are feeding off it. They are actually anxious, not aggressive, and that’s important (and apparently good news bc truly aggressive dogs are more difficult to work with or something). I replied, “I don’t really think of myself as an anxious person”. I turned to hubby and gave him a look that asked, “Can you believe this guy?” and hubby gave me that funny little look he gives when I ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer.  Alarming turn of events, definitely, but I pushed aside my little defensive voice that wanted to argue the matter and decided to hear Brian out. He wanted to go with the assumption I was anxious, ok, let’s go with the assumption for now and see how things play out. 

We spent the next two hours working with our dogs under his direction. We learned how to “talk” to Jolene and Julia with our body language and some helpful training devices to make it clear we are the pack leaders. Brian told us that while some dogs are the dominant leader types and require more work to fall in line under a human leader, ours aren’t that type and would rather be led than be leaders. Both of our dogs want to behave, want to have a leader to rely on and are only defaulting to taking control because they don’t feel we are showing leadership. From the dogs perspective apparently *somebody* has to take charge and since we aren’t, they see no other choice but to try to run things themselves. Between the behavior directions we communicated to the dogs with Brian’s help and the behavior directions Brian communicated to me (relax, relax, RELAX), we started to see an immediate difference in how Jolene and Julia responded to us. Suddenly, WE had that magic that has eluded us for so long. We were even able to successful socialize our dogs with theirs without any behavior problems at all. Magic! 

We left our first Good Dog Workshop session with new information, a bit of new equipment, and a great new feeling of confidence. We will spend the next few weeks practicing what we have learned – in our neighborhood where other dogs are plentiful and in our home where guests are frequent – and see if we can completely turn around our relationship with our dogs and their behavior by the time our follow up session with Brian rolls around. That will be an in home visit where he comes to us and can give us more pointers in our own environment. 

Let’s come back to this issue of anxiety. As I mentioned, when Brian pointed this out to me I was not wanting to hear it. After subsequent conversations with hubby and a lot of worrying about the matter in my mind (AM I anxious? How did I not know I am anxious? Do my friends think I am anxious? Do my coworkers? Has this been impacting other areas of my life I’m not aware of? *worry worry worry*) it dawned out me: well, damn, if I am getting this anxious about possibly being anxious then perhaps I AM anxious. Of course, as an anxious person (look at me, claiming it now without defensiveness), realizing that I am indeed anxious has given me a whole new thing to be anxious about. Why am I am anxious? How can I stop being anxious? And so on…

I read this morning that one of the first steps in conquering anxiety is to write down a list of what makes one anxious. So here’s my list:

  • Loud noises incl thunder, fireworks, guns, engines backfiring
  • Unexpected physical things like the person standing next to me saying “boo” or hubby quietly walking into the room I am in without me knowing so that I turn around and suddenly see him
  • Balloons (because they might pop and make a loud noise)
  • Anyone but me driving – anxious someone will hit us from behind or the side, anxious we might do the same
  • Not getting over in the right lane far enough ahead of time to make the turn/exit
  • Procrastinating (because then I fall behind, which makes me more anxious, which makes me not want to think about the task, which means I can’t work on it, which makes me fall more behind)
  • Death
  • People possibly not liking me or thinking less of me
  • Our dogs misbehaving and getting into a fight with another dog or snapping at a person
  • What happens to our townhouse when it’s reached its end of life
  • Missing out on things
  • Developing health problems
  • Not being as fit as my husband (I don’t want him to run away with some beautiful fit girl from the gym)
  • God being disappointed in me or upset with me
  • People “discovering” I’m not as smart as they think I am
  • People thinking they are better than me or treating me like I am beneath them
  • Financial concerns (what if I lose my job?)
  • Yellowstone volcano erupting
That’s about all I can think of immediately. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Now I need to read up on what the next step is after completing the list…
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