Article I read this morning inspired me to write a bit different post today. It will be about my personal experience living with an anxious dog (You can find the article here: http://reactivechampion.blogspot.nl/2014/08/its-not-your-fault-why-problem-might-be.html).
If you make a silly decision to ever read any comments under a post about dog attack on fb you will quickly come across people expressing opinion that it’s never dog’s fault it’s always the way they were brought up. And as I do not think we should think in terms of dog’s fault I do not agree that the blame should be put on the owners/trainers. Of course environment and experiences make enormous difference, and certainly there are situations when it is human fault. But saying that it is always the owner not the dog it’s just bullshit. Even young puppies come to us with inborn traits and additionally the conditions they will experience in the first weeks/months of life will influence how their brain will develop. And certain things cannot be changed; they can be improved but not everything can be turned around. And accepting this is a very important step if we want to work with an anxious/fearful/aggressive/reactive…dog.
Meet Chili; my 4 years old shepherd mix.
If you would join us for a walk this morning you would see a happy energetic dog. Dog that as soon as the leash is off starts crazy play with Fenix. She has big smile on her face, a bit mischievous. Play often starts with her initiative. And when we see other dogs, she happily walks into different direction with Fenix and me.
Now at 4 years old Chili is happy most of the time, and she is not difficult to live with but she is still a highly functioning anxious dog (yes my own term 😉 ). And she will never be the same as a stable dog.
Four months ago when we moved to a new house she did not want to walk into the forest. She was scarred. First two years of her life when we would go for holidays she would only walk few meters away from a house where we would stay. She has run away at a sight of a Chihuahua and she did break my finger while lunging at a dog.
I adopted Chili when she was 4,5 months old. I did not actually meet her before I made the decision. Officially I will tell you never to do this. But unofficially I need to be honest; sometimes we make decisions that rationally don’t make sense but still end up the best decisions we could have made. And sometimes things are just right even though initially they seem so ridiculously wrong.
Chili was found with her mother and siblings on a street somewhere in Poland, it was winter and they were all struggling to survive (stress, loads of it), for some reason the shelter people decided to separate puppies from the mother before 8 weeks old (more stress). When I was considering adopting Chili I asked my friend who I used to work with at a rescue to meet her and let me know if Chili is a good dog for me. She went but she had no chance to make any assessment because that very day Chili broke her hind leg. She had severe separation anxiety, which made her panic so badly she ended up getting leg broken. And just to add to that she spent whole day alone with that broken leg, so when my friend arrived she was laying down with foam on her mouth (stress, pain…just do the math).
So I made a decision to adopt a dog I never met, dog that went through a lot of stress while it’s brain was developing. It wasn’t the most rational decision, but no one else wanted her even before her leg was broken. And she was a dog with ‘ADHD” label, plus separation anxiety, that did not make her adoption prospects very good. Please don’t read those last few lines as me trying to make myself look like a hero helping dog in need. No, I made a stupid emotional decision and I would advise people against taking anxious dogs (unless they are really aware of what this will mean for their life).
First 8 moths with Chili were hell. I remember telling my friend (the same one that was supposed to evaluate her) that I NEVER want to have dogs again. That’s how stressed, tired and frustrated I was. I spent first 6 weeks sleeping with Chili on the couch; initially she could not be left alone even for a second. It took 8 moths to fully treat her separation anxiety.
She was scared of everything outside, reactive towards other dogs, attacking Salma in the house. It took two years before I could walk them together (it took more time till it was possible to walk them together off leash).
Slowly (after initial 6 weeks with minimal stimulation so her brain can finally relax) I started noticing progress and once she finally calmed down and learnt she can trust me it was as if a light went on in her head. She is a very driven dog, dog that loves to learn and do things together, that made a huge difference.
But even though it eventually went so good; she is almost a normal dog, it took years, and still the moment things go wrong (a lot of stress, unexpected situations, heath problems) she goes back to her normal, which is anxious. It is easier to manage that now but it still happens.
Living with an anxious dog for me meant continuously monitoring our surroundings, no taking sharp corners (because there might be someone with a dog behind it), not inviting guests over for 2 years (now she will end up sitting on your lap after 5 minutes), often being rude to strangers in order to stop them before they pet her, at all costs avoiding aggressive dogs (for example carrying her over a fence (30 kg !) so we can avoid aggressive German shepherd), not going for holidays without her (now I can 🙂 ), turning vet visits into a complicated operation and so on. It is very different than living with a stable dog.
I think this also very important to remember when we advise others. Working with Chili I used the same technics I advised my clients before I got her. And they work, they really do BUT it’s very important to realise how much commitment it costs to live with an anxious dog. It doesn’t end after training session it turns into a life style. I love her to bits, I think she is an amazing dog, one in a million. And still I will not make a conscious decision to take in another anxious dog again (I wrote this and though to myself, damn it Kat, every time you make statements like that the opposite happens).