With the changes to our daily lives and the occasional Parallel Walking session, Dana had started to calm down a little and was slowly learning to cope with some things. But of course that didn’t stop me from wanting more, so additional help was always welcome. We found that in the form of Applied Zoopharmacognosy. This is a way of helping dogs (or non-human animals in general) by offering them a large choice of medical plants in the form of (essential) oils and dried plants or powders. They can self-medicate, taking only what they need. This process of natural remedies, entirely based on choice (!), appealed to me right away and turned out to be a major part of our journey.
In May of 2015, we heard that Karen Webb was coming to Belgium to teach a workshop in Applied Zoopharmacognosy at Freedogz. While the workshop was not suitable for us because the dogs needed to wait their turn in the car, and that was not an option for either of my dogs, we managed to secure a private appointment with Karen.
She came to our house with her colleague and a huge number of bags, baskets and suitcases containing all the natural remedies. The appointment was for both dogs and we started the session with Corey. It was truly fascinating to watch him interact with the remedies, smell the essential oils, have them rubbed on him if that was what the interaction called for, and ingest all kinds of things, many of which I had never even heard of – granted, my knowledge in botany is negligible! Since he was still on steroids at the time and not feeling well at all, we expected that he might choose remedies that are known to help against depression, but that’s not at all what he went for. He chose the calming ones, showing us under how much stress he actually was.
Dana was in the same room during the session, so she sort of surfed along on his wave. By the time her own session came around, she was mostly satiated and her own session did not last very long. She did, however, choose similar remedies: for calm, and against trauma. Not entirely unexpected! The whole process took several hours, and we were all exhausted afterwards – in a good way. Karen left us a couple of remedies to continue to work with, and we did.
May to August 2015
By the end of May, Corey came off the steroids, which caused a bit of a rough patch between the dogs. Suddenly he was well and wanted to play again. Dana was happy to oblige, but because she was still quite stressed, she played much too roughly with him, and it was hard to get them to stop playing like that in a nice way. But by August, she had mostly stopped the pouncing in stressful situations. Their play had become more gentle, and they were lovely around each other.
The mouthing and nipping at my husband when he came home from work had mostly stopped by the end of May, and entirely stopped by August. It also became somewhat easier to let visitors into the house, which previously had been a huge cause of upset to her. We’re talking several minutes of barking, and an hour of pacing at least. By August, she could settle within 10 minutes of a visitor arriving, though she would start pacing again as soon as any human in the room moved (got up, laughed loudly, etc.) or if they stayed for too long. The reaction to the doorbell was still extreme. We were stupid enough to try to avoid the problem by having people call us instead of ringing the doorbell. Even now, both dogs bark a little when I answer my phone. I’ve got only myself to blame …
At the beginning of May, we replaced the fence around our garden. The previous one was not really an obstacle for Dana and allowed a direct line of sight onto the skate park behind our garden, as well as the dozens of dogs and people who pass by there every day. The new one is 1,8 m (6ft) high and we put up sight barriers in all the relevant places. That made a big difference to Dana, not having to worry about every little movement outside of the garden. She became calmer when outside, but still not calm enough that she could settle down in any way. A dog passing by the fence, even though she couldn’t see it, would cause her to bark, jump, pretty much losing it, by the end of May. The only way of calming her was to take her inside (on a lead – she was almost never without a lead back then, even in the house and garden). By August, it wasn’t quite as bad any more, and she relaxed to the point where she could explore the garden in a calm enough fashion for half an hour – what a victory! After a dog freak-out, she would actually be able to calm down again a little bit, without having to go inside.
Going on walks was still hard, but slowly – very slowly – getting better. She was back then terrified of riding in the car. We did some work on choosing to get in the car, and it was simply not something she chose to do.
The problem was that I sometimes simply HAD to drive her places, such as the vet’s or parallel walking sessions. So on those occasions I made her get in and destroyed any previous work we had done on this. It was one of the few things we made a conscious effort of (as opposed to just slowing down and waiting to see what happens), and it was a complete failure. The added difficulty was that we don’t have a garage or anything, our car is parked on the street, and dogs, people, cyclists … would pass by all the time and stress her out while I was waiting for her to choose to get in. So we went by car as little as possible. Unfortunately, that meant that any walks were done on those same streets, where we would occasionally meet dogs, people, cyclists … By the end of May, she pulled and paced just a little bit less, and by August even a little less than that. But that was only until a person or dog popped up. Not to mention cats! It was around that time that I bought a safety harness, because she managed to get out of the regular one in the attempt of chasing a cat. Siiiigh … If ever we met a dog, she became hysterical. Though by August, she recovered much much better from that! Walking her and Corey together was still impossible. Her stress level would shoot right up when he was present as well. Another “conscious effort” that lead nowhere was to walk him and her slowly in and out of the garden gate together. Just too stressful … Reading this again now, it all sounds terrible, but actually it was even worse before that … Baby steps, right?
Other kinds of activity went much better for her. Trick training, treat searches, coordination … Steady improvements! And around August, the unthinkable happened. She started seeking me out for physical contact! It never lasted long, but you would not believe how happy it made me to have her head resting in my lap for 10 seconds, or to scratch her ears for a little bit.
Two steps forward … one step back
With the help of zoopharmy, occasional parallel walks, and doing not too much, things kept improving … until suddenly they didn’t. What “brought us down” was the simple fact of days getting shorter as autumn came. I used to take her for short walks in the evenings, but now it was dark at those hours. I couldn’t go during the day, as I couldn’t leave Corey home alone (he suffers from separation distress) and there were far too many dogs around anyway. So I had to wait until my husband came home in the evening. The thing is, I am uncomfortable in the dark. It stresses me out. Guess what … That stressed her out in turn … And I was so focused on keeping her calm that her stress stressed me out even more. It was horrible. By December, Dana was so stressed that she couldn’t settle down in the evenings. She would pace and pace and pace … And come over to hump me, for a change, or pounce on poor Corey again. It was all too much, and something had to happen.
Another “round” of zoopharmy
By that time, she had pretty much stopped interacting with the zoopharmy remedies we still had, so it was time for an update. Since Karen was not scheduled to be back in Belgium, and Marina had by now completed her education in zoopharmy, she took over and did a session with Dana and me. It was as fascinating as the first time, and she chose a few different things, a few the same as before. We started very intense work with the essential oils on our own after that. I would put down the bottles in a certain order, and Dana would smell them. No two sessions were ever the same, sometimes she would spend more time with this oil, sometimes that, sometimes a meter away from the bottle, sometimes with her nose right in it. Some days, the session would take hours, other days she would show little interest at all.
And within days, I saw that things were happening in her mind. It was as if we had finally gotten a foot in the proverbial door! Here’s some things that happened in the next couple of days.
Day 6 – We went for a 20 min walk in the dark (!) and she hardly pulled, had her nose on the ground, exploring the entire time
Day 8 – We met the neighbour’s Beagle outside, and while she pulled, wiggled, jumped initially, she did not bark, and she had a very nice interaction with the dog, the two of them sniffing together on the ground. The same day, some fireworks went off behind our house, and neither dog so much as looked up from their spots on the sofa.
Day 10 – Dana started seeking physical contact more and more, just wanting to lie against me or (!!) my husband. Completely unprecedented! She did not pace in the evenings, she was not afraid of the laundry we folded, did not mind that the TV was on. We were just completely flabbergasted!
Day 15 – A Great Dane walked past, across the street from where we were. Dana froze completely, did not move a muscle nor make a sound. So proud of her!!!
About 3 weeks in – I loaded her into the car (which went okay!) and took her to a huge open space a 10-minute drive away, next to a lovely patch of forest, where we never meet anyone. She had a great time exploring without stressing.
That year, we stayed home for Christmas. I really wanted to see my family, who live a 2-hour drive away from us, but I just didn’t want to do it to Dana. The drive, sleeping over in an unfamiliar place, a whole evening with 10 people … I was so sad that we couldn’t go, but at the same time happy to be spending down-time with my dogs. The first day of Christmas, we had my husband’s parents and grand-parents over, and Dana … coped! A little stressy at first, she settled beautifully after a while. Good times!