Let’s face it: part 6 of Dana’s story is not so much about Dana. It’s mostly about me. But my own journey is so inextricably linked with hers that I can’t keept it to myself if I’m going to tell her story. I also wonder how many dog owners might recognise themselves somewhere in my predicament. This part will be the one that is the hardest to write, because it’s the hardest to realise and also to admit. And certainly among the hardest to put into practice: being a reliable and consistent partner for your dog to rely on. At first I thought: Sure, I can do this! I want to be there for her. I want to be her rock. I will act consistently and calmly when she cannot. It turned out that wanting to is a far cry from being able to.
Expectation vs. reality
When I decided to take in a second dog, I wanted a sporty dog, a dog I could “do things with”. I got (and in part also created) a dog who was unable to participate even in what people consider the most basic daily activities, such as taking a walk together with me and my other dog. I’m not going to lie, that was a huge blow. Not that I would have admitted or even realised it at the time. My heart was aching, not just seeing what a hard time she had, but also for all the unfulfilled hopes and dreams. I wanted … and wanted … and wanted …
Emotional baggage and high sensitivity
When Dana came to us 2 years ago, I was not exactly what you would call an emotionally balanced person. I was completely over-stressed, both by work and by life in general. I couldn’t watch the news, they would give me nightmares. I had an extremely demanding job in which I had to constantly multi-task, perform all tasks as quickly as possible against deadlines that were impossible to make, never drop the ball, never make a mistake. The pressure was too much, and it carried over into everything I was doing besides work. I was unhappy with how things were, had next to no self-esteem, constantly worried about what others thought and always focused on what I wanted, not on what I had. I was trying to use the dogs to plug the holes in my heart, and it wasn’t working – how could it! Another person or an animal can never carry you. You have to carry yourself. Needless to say, I didn’t realise any of the above at the time.
This started to slowly change when my best friend turned me onto a book about introversion (“Quiet” by Susan Cain). I’d known what an introvert was, and that I was one, but I hadn’t known that there are simple ways to fit one’s own introversion into this very extrovert-oriented world. Through this book, I also learned about the concept of high sensitivity, which also applies to me. It just explained so much! I even came to suspect that Dana herself may be an introvert as well as highly sensitive. I might elaborate on that in a separate article one day.
One of the first measures I took based on what I had learned was to change my work. Being self-employed, I was in a lucky position to do that easily. A couple of months after Dana joined our family, I swapped the high-pressure tasks for more relaxed and self-determined ones (ha! the power of choice! it’s good for both dogs AND people) and started finding my own way in the professional world a little better. Okay, maybe a LOT better!
Besides stress, there was another element I was coping with badly. The more I learned, the more guilty I felt about how Dana had developed since becoming part of our family. I anticipated a challenge, but thought we would get past that soon, and as I have mentioned before, it got worse rather than better. That was at least in part due to the fact that I had pushed Dana too much without realising it. Having come to that realisation finally, I felt terrible.
Being dog-reactive is not just for dogs
Spending some time out in the world with a dog-reactive dog sure did do one thing to me: it made ME dog-reactive! Dana’s reaction to other dogs upset me, no question about it. I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do. And conditioning works oh so well in all animals, whether human or otherwise … It wasn’t too long before I noticed that whenever I saw a dog, even when I didn’t have one of my own dogs with me, my heart rate would shoot right up, and I would start to sweat. Even just hearing a dog bark in the distance would do that to me, to a degree. Dogs being what they are, Dana would of course pick up on that right away when she was with me, and it would make her own state of nervousness worse.
The funny thing is, it never occurred to me to perform any kind of formal training to rid myself of this problem. Yet that is often exactly what we want to do with our dogs. So what did I do, and how did I get over it? The answer is: I did nothing in particular, and, given time, somehow I got over it anyway.
Stress and Mindfulness
My colleague Paulien wrote an article about mindfulness that was not too favourable. The ensuing discussion intrigued me so much that I wanted to know more about it, to make up my own mind. I enrolled in a mindfulness class in October 2015, and for 10 weeks, I did the reading, did the exercises (daily meditation, oh yes!) and found it immensely beneficial. I was taught to look at/hear/feel/perceive there here and now, and not to judge what is happening. While I stopped doing the exercises pretty much immediately after the end of the course, my mindset had started to undergo a lasting change. I increasingly stopped caring what anybody else thought (“My dog is barking? So what?”) and started looking at: what is it like right now? And do we really need to do all the things I thought we needed to do? It strengthened my resolve even more to be patient while Dana takes whatever time she needs, to always watch out for how she is coping and act accordingly. And the more I stopped wanting to change her, the more she changed. And so did I. I got more relaxed, and not just where Dana was concerned.
I also learned that emptying my head, staying in the here and now and not caring about things that aren’t worth caring about is something that a person just does or doesn’t have, it’s a skill that’s acquired through practice. And practice I did. Countless times I told myself: stay in the here and now, don’t judge, whatever happens happens and is fine, wait and see, no use complaining about something that’s in the past. It’s not that I was immediately able to change the way I saw thing, but “fake it till you make it” got me a long way. It will hopefully get me even further, but there we are in the wishing and wanting department again … And that’s okay, too 🙂 Wanting more has always been part of my personality, and probably always will be. Knowing more, learning more, achieving more. I’ve just gotten a lot better at not to wanting too much from Dana. I don’t have to fix her, she’s not broken. It’s enough to help make her life a good one, and be happy with the outcome.
Knowing your own limits
Through mindfulness, I realised that not only do I not have to fix her, we really don’t have to do anything. “Your dog needs exercise” gets hammered into a dog owner’s head so much that this “mantra” is often followed blindly. I’ve already talked about how it doesn’t make sense to do that when it’s too much for your dog, but it also doesn’t make sense to do that when you yourself aren’t in the right state of mind. I know that if I’m upset, stressed out, angry, sad, whatever negative emotion, it’s no use whatsoever to go for a walk with Dana. “But the dog needs to get outside” is just not an argument. Not a single one of those outings has ever gone well for us. She finds the world so much more challenging when I’m too preoccupied to be there for her.
As I told you in the previous entries, after a summer of improvement we were having a really difficult time towards the end of November, until the second round of Zoopharmy came into play. Parallel to that, I was taking the Mindfulness class, and a little while after, we also started social walks. So from this point on, it’s no longer one specific change we’ve made the had an impact, it’s just a mix of everything.
I want to share with you my diary entry from December 29/12/2015:
Dana has me BAFFLED every day. She is so calm around the house! When I’m doing something (cleaning, cooking), she is just lying somewhere, watching with this serene look in her eyes. She is SO nice with Corey, she hardly ever barks in the garden. Yesterday there were dogs barking on TV and all she did was look up in alarm!! And went right back to chewing when the barking was over. I used to be afraid that her reaction would knock over the TV! She hasn’t paced in a while, she hasn’t woken me up in the middle of the night for a couple of nights, and she is actively seeking physical contact now. I’ve been able to give her massages, which was previously completely unthinkable. Last night she slept curled up against me for several hours. I could hardly believe it!I have walked her a couple of times recently in various interesting places, each time meeting dogs, each time joining a group of dogs that we happened to meet. The approach was always calm, she was endlessly polite, every dog she met was polite to her as well. I’m not even seeing any fiddling once she is interacting with the dogs! She will still bark when she sees a dog she can’t approach (e.g. too far away to reach, on a lead, etc.), though the reaction isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. I let her off now and then, and she’s had some stellar recalls – one of which after she had taken off when she heard a dog fight a few hundred meters away. I whistled and she turned around in mid-air and flew back to me!!! On the other hand, she has also completely left me behind once, following another dog and his owner. I didn’t have the guts to let her go out of sight and wait until she comes back out of herself, I went after them. I learned from this: I can tell now when she is going to “lose” the state of mind in which she is able to hear me calling and come back to me. I can then take her on lead before that happens, and bring her down using nosework, which works very well.We’ve even made friends: An open-minded Brazilian girl with an extremely lovely female Samoyed. I think we might be seeing them again and the Samoyed would be a good match for Corey as well.The most difficult thing for her right now are people. My in-laws were here on Christmas and that was rather difficult for her. She was fiddling around my father-in-law a lot, even though he was mostly polite and listening to my instructions. I put up the barrier and she was able to relax behind it. Eventually she was able to be in the room with us without fiddling, too. Seeing people on the street, even at quite a distance, is still difficult, not to mention children … We’ll address that in due time. Oddly enough, the dog owners we meet are not a problem. She is too happy to meet the dogs to notice the people, I think. And I always call out to people not to touch her, which every single one of them wanted to do, and I was mostly able to prevent.