The adventures of raising a socially anxious dog while suffering from anxiety

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PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY; FLOWER CROWN BY ME.

For years, I dreamed about the day I would finally be able to adopt a dog. Renting an apartment in the expensive parts of California was hard enough on a writer’s salary and all but impossible with two cats, so I knew I’d have to wait. Wait for half a million dollars to fall out of the sky or the newspaper where I was employed to suddenly decide I warranted a livable wage. And when I got tired of waiting, I moved and suddenly my dream was a reality.

I’ve spent a lot of time over those years thinking about everything I would do with this dog—trips to dog parks and play dates and jaunts to the local cafe where the baristas would recognize him and feed him treats. We would go to the pet store and he would pick out his own toys and treats.This dog would go everywhere with me. He’d be the star pupil at obedience classes—dazzling the teacher with his intelligence.

Only, my dog didn’t make it through his six-week obedience course. He made it through one and a half classes, shivering and tucked beneath my legs, before lunging aggressively at a dog named Millie that showed a little too much interest in him. We were told that he might be better suited to private lessons focused on anxiety and social conditioning rather than obedience.

At home, he sits and touches our hands with his nose whenever we say “touch.” He stays, prances eagerly when we get out his collar to go on a walk, and exhibits all of the intelligence and warmth I could have hoped for. But when other people, or dogs, happen to be around, he becomes the nervous, shaking, fearful dog that we’ve also come to know in the last two months. It breaks my heart to know that he’s afraid and especially knowing that this fear and anxiety likely stem from his background as a stray in Mexico where he lost a leg. He has every right to be nervous and fearful, but he also has every right to be happy and comfortable and loved.

Enter social conditioning training.

On Sunday we spent an hour or so at the park near our house, sitting on the grass far enough from the walkway that he would notice passersby but not feel overly threatened by them. Every time someone walked by, we fed him a piece of hot dog, which we’ve recently learned is his favorite treat. It’s a little strange having actual meat in the fridge after six years of vegetarianism but it’s hard to begrudge him anything that makes him happy.

He wore his thundershirt, which we recently purchased at Petco. When the trainer initially mentioned thundershirts as a method of soothing anxiety, it seemed like a viable option. Leander loves to sleep under the covers and cuddle on the couch, and the thundershirt replicates that swaddling effect. Plus, he looks absolutely adorable while wearing it and we figure it’s hard for strangers to be mad at a three-legged dog wearing a thundershirt if he happens to growl or shy away from them.

I’m beginning to understand that, thundershirt and hot dogs notwithstanding, Leander might never be the dog that hangs out at the local cafe. It’s a possibility, but not absolutely necessary. If we can help him get to a place where he’s comfortable walking in the park and maybe enjoying the occasional play date with dogs not named Millie, that will be enough.

I know this because I will never be the life of the party, or the girl who can simply go out without first working up the courage, mentally walking myself through the process before I leave the house. I suspect I am so bothered by his anxiety because I experience it and I know how debilitating and embarrassing it can be. I know that what might be characterized as cowardice, stubbornness, or dramatic behavior is very often pure fear without the benefit of logic to explain it. And, while Leander might not have matched my expectations—anymore than children can ever be expected to meet their parents’ unreasonable and unfounded hopes—I’m happy that he’s mine and that we’re going to work through our anxiety together, one cold, slimy piece of hot dog at a time.

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