Maaaannny many years ago (well, okay, three), when I first started thinking about fostering dogs, I would have loved a little guidance about exactly how to find a good rescue, select an appropriate “starter” dog, handle introductions with my resident dog (particularly since my only resident dog at that time was Pongu the Insane, the poster child for jealous insecurity), and so forth.
In other words, I would have loved this book.
How to Foster Dogs is a book aimed squarely at that beginning-to-intermediate foster home. It starts with an overview of fostering, moves into a discussion of the different types of organizations that need fosters and the purposes for which they might place dogs in foster care, and then goes over how to choose, socialize, and train a foster dog. It talks about how to pick quality foods, how to avoid or discourage nuisance behaviors, and how to get started on basic training. There are concise chapters on the three most common behavioral issues presented by foster dogs (fear, aggression, and separation anxiety) and an extremely short discussion on placing fosters in their adoptive homes.
Three years ago, I would have latched onto this book like a life preserver. Because that’s what it would have been to me then.
[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xqkrpi_XyI An early foster. I was a LITTLE over my head with this one at first!]
Today, I look at it and think: “hmm, there’s lots of good stuff here, but…”
First, the good. There’s a ton of solid, well-researched information in this book, and it’s packaged neatly and efficiently in a non-intimidating manner. Miller clearly knows her audience, too: right from the get-go, she emphasizes the importance of knowing your limits, respecting the needs of your own household and resident pets, and recognizing when a foster dog’s behavioral or medical issues are beyond your ability to handle. Having dealt with many, MANY rescue volunteers whose big hearts led them into big trouble, I applaud her for trumpeting the message that it’s okay to say no. That is something a lot of rescue people find very difficult, and the inability to say no is a huge contributor to burnout rates.
The training and behavioral advice is, as you’d expect, solidly grounded on scientific principles and dog-friendly ethics. Miller covers a broad variety of topics, ranging from getting a dog comfortable with body handling to humanely discouraging nuisance barking, and always provides enough information for a reader to at least get started on tackling the problems without suffocating under an avalanche of jargon.
And now, the “buts.”
The biggest criticism I have of this book is probably its price point. This is a slim volume, clocking in at just under 150 pages of informative content, but as of this writing, it’s priced at $14.95. That’s not out of line for Dogwise Publishing… but most of Dogwise’s other titles are aimed at a professional or specialist audience, i.e., the kinds of people (me! me!) who are totally used to forking over $100 for a 6-DVD set on training your dog to stand on things.
Most rescue people are not hardcore training enthusiasts. Most of them are pet owners who have a soft spot for needy dogs, and my suspicion is that a lot of them might balk at dropping $15 on such a compact volume. At that price point, it’s cost-prohibitive for most rescues to buy in bulk and provide to their volunteers for free, too. (By contrast, Patricia McConnell’s Love Has No Age Limit, which contains a lot of similar information and is comparable in length, was deliberately priced so that it would be affordable to rescues — as little as $3 per copy with bulk purchases.) That’s a shame, because this really would be a wonderful manual for shelters and rescues to hand out to new volunteers.
The second criticism I’d offer is that there’s basically no information on marketing your foster dog or screening prospective homes, and this is something that I have come to regard as critically important over time. Good marketing is crucial to finding the best possible home for your foster dog and avoiding a regrettable placement because, well, those people want the dog and you don’t have any better options. Been there, done that, regret it to this day.
Not only does marketing your foster dog open up a world of wonderful possibilities for that dog, but in my experience, it’s a powerful shield against burnout and foster failure. Every time I write a blog post, take a cute photograph, or strap on the Homeless Dog Vest of Shame to advertise my foster dog’s availability, I am not only marketing the dog to the outside world, but reminding myself that this is not my dog. That keeps me emotionally insulated against getting too attached. It also helps keep me looking forward to the eventual Happily Ever After that I’m sure the dog will have — and that insulates me against burnout.
Nothing’s ever perfect, of course, and despite my minor complaints, I do think this book is a strong and worthy addition to the literature. There’s really not a lot out there that talks specifically about fostering dogs, and I’m glad Pat Miller stepped in to cover that gap. If you’re debating whether to get into fostering and/or looking for tips on how to start on the right foot, How to Foster Dogs is a great resource and well worth the $15.
I have been quiet around here lately. That’s because Mike and I have been busy moving our entire lives onto a mountain in the middle of nowhere. After a year of painstaking apartment hunting, we finally found the perfect place to call our very own.
It hasn’t been an easy road to get here, and the number one factor was that we have two dogs. Two large dogs. Two large dogs who are inarguably at least part pit.
Trying to find a place that allowed one large dog was hard enough. Finding one that would allow two seemed downright impossible. Apartment complexes were pretty much out of the question. The ones that allowed pets at all either had a weight restriction on dogs or limited households to one large dog. Herbie could pass as less than 50lb, but there was no way that 75lb Julio was going to slide in unnoticed. We did find one complex that would allow two dogs with no weight restriction, but they had a strict no-pit-bull policy.
So what do you do if you have dogs and need to find a place to live? Here’s are some things I found helpful in our quest for a Herbie and Julio-friendly abode.
Finding Pet Friendly Places
Trying to find a place for rent with dogs is initially not very different from trying to find a place without them. In this day and age, there are plenty of websites that make finding listing pretty easy. Many of these websites have a check box about pets, so you can narrow down your results based on what animals you have. The three main website that Mike and I browsed were Trulia, Craigslist, and Zillow. Of the three, Craigslist had the widest selection of dog-friendly listings.
We also did some old fashioned searching in local papers, classified booklets, and flyers at the grocery store, etc. Unfortunately, many of these listings didn’t specify whether they allowed dogs or not. It was quite overwhelming.
Perhaps the best method of finding places that will allow dogs, and specifically your dogs, is word of mouth. That’s how we found three of the places we went to look at, including the one we ultimately moved into. Word of mouth gives you a chance to find places that aren’t listed, and it gives you a leg up on other people who are looking to rent. Plus, having someone put in a good word for your pets never hurts!
The other thing that helps when looking for places that will allow you to rent with dogs is looking at non-standard rentals. By that, I mean look deeper than apartment complexes or room rentals. For example, Mike and I spent a lot of time looking at carriage houses, apartments on farms, and duplexes with fenced in yards. These options meant finding people who were likely pet friendly, as well as properties that would give us exercise options for our two very active pups. Entering ‘carriage house’ into the search bar on Craigslist really gave us some great results!
Approaching Places That are on the Fence
In the hunt for a place to live, we found a few places that allowed dogs and many places that had a flat out ‘no pets’ policy. We also found a slew of places that would do pets on a case by case basis, or that didn’t specify what pets they would allow.
There was a lot of calling, asking, and rejection, but there was also a startling amount of people who were willing to be flexible or make exceptions. For example, we had one man who would allow one small dog, but after talking to me for twenty minutes, was swayed to allow our two not-so-small ones. We were on the receiving end of a lot of, “Well, it might be a little cramped for two dogs, but you can come look and decide for yourselves,” which was really quite generous of many of the landlords.
There were a few things I found that really helped convince those undecided individuals that they really would be ok with having both my big dogs come live on their properties. The key to swaying a potential landlord’s opinion is to be proactive.
The biggest thing that really seemed to sit well with people was my offering to provide references for both dogs. These ranged from my veterinarian to co-workers who know my dogs. The most influential of these references was our previous landlord, who spoke highly both of our dogs’ personalities as well as our responsible attitude when it came to pet care and property upkeep.
Along those same lines, TU’s own Lindsey swayed a landlord’s opinion about her dogs by presenting him with “a ‘dog resume’ with [her] dogs’ training, titles, and awards lined out in resume form with a picture at the top.” Canine good citizen certificates would go far in this department as well.
If you have a well-behaved dog who makes a good first impression, it is also a good idea to invite a potential landlord to meet your pooch. Seeing firsthand how quiet, friendly, and obedient your canine companion is could sway someone who isn’t convinced they want to rent to dog owners.
Of course, not all dogs are perfectly behaved (looking at you, Julio). It’s important to address common concerns with a potential landlord. Bringing up possible problems and how you plan to address them shows initiative, and can assure a fence-sitting property owner that you are a responsible renter. For example, we explained to our land lord that Herbie is trustworthy and is left loose in the house when we’re not home. Julio, on the other hand, has a lot to learn still. He is crated whenever we aren’t home. Hearing that our new dog will not be unsupervised in a newly renovated apartment put our landlord’s mind at ease.
Along the same lines, it’s a good idea to explain your daily routine to your landlord. Common concerns to address are barking, waste management, and exercise routines. If the property doesn’t have a fence, will your dogs be leashed? Do you plan to pick up doggie doo that is left around the property? Is your dog exceptionally quiet or will barking be a concern? For example, our landlord doesn’t care if the dogs run around the farm during the day, but his pet peeve is stepping in dog feces. “I don’t care how many pets you have as long as I dont’ step in it!”
Outlining your daily dog-keeping plan serves a dual purpose. It helps your landlord understand that you take responsible ownership seriously and it weeds out properties that will not be a good match.
Of course, the most powerful motivator in any negotiation is money. The thing that seemed to sway a lot of landlords who weren’t sure about having dogs in their rentals was offering an additional pet security deposit. One thing that turns property owners off to dogs is the potential for damage to their premises. Knowing that there’s a chunk of money put away specifically for scratched floors, chewed doors, and odor removal can put a wary mind at ease. In a best case scenario, your dogs do none of those things and you simply get your money back at the end of your lease.
In our own personal experience, the willingness to pay an additional deposit was often enough to get us an invite to view a property. Many of those landlords turned down the offer for extra security money, but showed a visible attitude change toward our dogs when we put the offer on the table.
This should go without saying, but honesty really is the best policy when it comes to finding a potential rental.
It’s tempting to tell little white lies or exaggerate your dogs’ good points, especially when you’ve been looking for months and nothing has come along. However, you have to keep in mind that renting means being tied into a lease, a long term commitment to a place and the person renting it. Sooner or later, your landlord is likely to meet, or at the very least see, your dogs.
If you said your dog was 45lb, and he’s actually 80lb, somebody is bound to notice. There’s no faster way to sour a relationship than by being dishonest. You might get away with listing a pit bull type dog as a lab or pointer mix, but you might run into someone who sees right through your bluff. Then, even if the person is fine with pit bulls, you’ve made a very bad impression by trying to cover it up.The same can be said for your dogs’ bad habits. You may be able to cover them up, but in the event that the truth is revealed, you come out looking pretty foolish!
My personal opinion is that it’s better to miss out on a place by being honest, than get one based on a lie only to find out it’s not going to work out. Remember, if you get evicted, it’s not just you who ends up homeless! The only thing harder than finding a rental with dogs is finding a rental with dogs and a short deadline.
Renting is a tricky business, made more difficult by owning dogs. However, there are a lot of opportunities out there if you know where to look and how to bargain. The good news is that landlords are human. No two are the same, and few things are truly set in stone. Showing initiative, being responsible and honest, and being proactive can open a lot of doors… figuratively and literally.
I have a problem. A big problem.
I am addicted to collars.
I was recently able to purge my collar collection, and I donated some to a local rescue, and I donated some to my dog club’s raffle in December. Of course, this means that I had to replenish my collection.
I have leather collars from Ella’s Lead (which has been mentioned on our blog several times, but our review of the collars is here), I have PetCo collars and collars from Target. If I like, I buy it and add it to my dogs’ collection. One of my favorites, though, and where I tend to dump a lot of my hard-earned money, are small businesses like Four Black Paws.
Four Black Paws is a Michigan-based small business run by Sarah, whose day job is as an elementary school teacher. She is a dog-mom to German Shorthaired Pointers, and just about one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. She truly is one of the small business types you want to support.
The first collar I got from her was your basic quick-release tag collar. I won it in a raffle and got it in anticipation of my new girly puppy, since all my dog collars were boy stuff. It was of good quality, and adorable, and the fabric was thick and durable – which is needed when you have pit bulls!
For the sake of this review, I ordered two martingale collars and 4BP’s signature items: a collar bow for girly dogs and a bow tie for boy dogs. Jax is a 4BP size large, and I got a large bowtie to go with his collar; Poppy is a 4PB size medium, and I got a medium flower to go with her collar. I placed the order the evening of Jan 23rd, and was thrilled to receive a shipped notice on Jan 29th. I received my package a few days later. It was that quick!
As with the first collar I purchased, these martingales are of great quality. The collars are thick and sturdy – and machine washable! – and the stitching is strong. 4BP uses quality hardware, and the whole collar is made to last. Which is a must for me and my rowdy pit bulls.
And the fabrics are just darn cute!
Jax’s collar is from the 4BP Celebrity Collection, in the color of “Grassy Meadow.” I upgraded to a martingale, because I prefer that style for my dogs, and added a large bow tie to make it fashionable. The bow itself is a easy take-off with velcro, and the collar is equally as handsome without the bow tie.
Poppy’s was also a martingale, and in 4BP’s Sweet Summertime pattern – which is both girly and my longing t be done with this horrible Michigan winter we are having this year. I ordered a matching bow, which is super cute. Like the bow tie, it is also easily attached to the collar with velcro for simple dress-up-to-casual collar modes.
If you’re in the market for well-made, super cute collars, please go check out Four Black Paws. Owner Sarah has been kind enough to offer our readers a special 10% discount if you order by February 28th! Just use discount code TEAMUNRULY at check out!
When I first discovered that Frankie’s behavioral issues were as bad as… well, you could possibly IMAGINE, I jumped full on into training. We did tons of counter conditioning, Control Unleashed exercises, nose work (which was truly the biggest help), and BAT. Those are all fantastic protocols and they work wonders for many, many dogs – I use all of them with clients and see excellent results. Slowly but surely, Frankie progressed! His reactions became slightly less intense while fewer and further in between. However, the poor guy just needed some extra help. He was anxious nearly all the time, looking for a possible trigger out on walks or even in our home and yard. Being in public with him was awful; a dog who is terrified of humans living in suburbia is a dog who is going to be afraid A LOT. I was doing the best I possibly could and yet that was not enough. I knew I needed more help, and it certainly wasn’t in the form of different training methods. Enter: supplements for anxiety.
I admit, I was skeptical at first. How are a bunch of flower essences and hippie plants going to help my dog keep his cool around people who he is convinced might murder him? But I am thrilled to say, they do! Using supplements specifically for Frankie’s fear has been a huge help over the past few years to facilitate his coping skills in a world he isn’t entirely comfortable with. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a cure. While a single supplement or two isn’t going to magically obliterate generalized anxiety or specific reactivity, it sure does help take the edge off. I am going to list my top three favorite brands of supplements here that are safe to use for dogs as well as the benefits that I have found with Frankie and other dogs I have worked with. Keep in mind that natural aids vary for each dog who takes them as they are an individual; while one works perfectly for Frankie, the other might not help River or Owen at all. I found that experimenting with different supplements one at a time gave me a clear picture of which were best to use for each dog.
This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: please check with your vet before adding anything new to your dog’s daily supplement routine. If your vet happens to be unfamiliar with the supplement you want to try out, suggest they look into it or feel free to seek other opinions! The first vet I mentioned this stuff to looked at me like I had three heads. I believe they said something along the lines of, “why would your dog need that!?” My response was not entirely professional, I have to say, as Frankie was huddled in the furthest corner away from the scary man trying to touch him. I soon found a new vet who is more appropriately versed in behavioral concerns and fully supports (and understands, most importantly) the use of aids for fear and reactivity.
Rescue Remedy by Bach Flower Remedies
Rescue Remedy was my first foray into the world of supplements for fear and anxiety. This all natural liquid is a blend made from the essences of flowers distilled in a carrier substance.
Bach Flower Remedies state that their products “… gently restore the balance between mind and body by casting out negative emotions, such as, fear, worry, hatred and indecision which interfere with the equilibrium of the being as a whole. The Bach Flower Remedies allow peace and happiness to return to the sufferer so that the body is free to heal itself.”
I know, I know: you are thinking what I thought four years ago! Hippie stuff… how will this help my fearful dog? But stay with me here!
I have had success using Rescue Remedy in a variety of dogs, the first of course being Frankie. While there is little change at home when he is dosed with RR; I have found that there is a positive difference in his situational anxieties when on Rescue Remedy in public. He is less likely to lash out while passing other dogs, and his tolerance goes up several degrees. Vet visits are much easier; he generally can recover quickly and take treats during an exam if given Rescue Remedy at least 30 minutes before our appointment. Typically if he goes to the vet without that “extra help,” physical exams of any kind are nearly impossible to do.
Taken in combination with other medication, Rescue Remedy improves Owen’s noise sensitivity to fireworks and thunder. I have also used it with dogs in group classes who are overwhelmed in new environments and have trouble relaxing. When I worked at a dog daycare and boarding facility, I would sometimes dose the dogs who whined continously in their kennels late at night. Overall the effect I have seen on most dogs that I use Rescue Remedy with is that they are able to relax easier in unfamiliar situations and have a better recovery time from stressful events than usual. Typically this event lasts a few hours.
Rescue Remedy can be given in a variety of different ways: a few drops in the dog’s water bottle, rubbed onto the inside of their ears (not into the ear canal!) and/or nose, or folded into a piece of food and given orally. I find that it works best when given orally. Make sure you buy the pet version as the carrier liquid is vegetable glycerin, not alcohol.
Pet Naturals of Vermont – Calming Support
Hands down, this is my favorite easy to find product for those times when you just need your fearful and reactive dog to calm down for a few hours. More often than not, I have at least a bag or two of these in my car to give to Frankie or River before walks or outings where I know we will run into their triggers.
The Pet Naturals of Vermont Calming Support comes in the form of a chicken flavored treat. My dogs all agree that they are tasty, so no worries about them being spit out due to an icky flavor. I do want to point out that if your dog has very severe food allergies, be sure to read the label carefully for the inactive ingredients list. I haven’t had a problem with the small amount of chicken liver flavoring, but your mileage may vary.
Active ingredients in this calming treat are: Thiamine (otherwise known as Vitamin B1), L-Theanine, and Colostrum Calming Complex. Together these support anxiety reduction without addiction or drowiness. Vitamin B1 helps to control the adrenal gland, which is responsible for releasing stress hormones into the body. Colostrum Calming Complex is sourced from the pre-milk fluids of bovines and among various uses, has been linked to supporting the body’s nervous system while helping to elevate mood and responsiveness to learning. (Here’s a link to an interesting research abstract on colostrum in newborn lambs.) We will get to L-Theanine in a minute.
I use this calming treat for basically any event that may be stressful: trial environments, vet visits, visitors to the house, and group walks or classes with my reactive dogs. Most often I will give these chews as soon as we get into the car to drive to a hiking trail. This is a common situation where their triggers (dogs, people, horses) may appear suddenly (thanks to busy Bay Area trails!) and any extra help to support their emotional responses is appreciated. Every time River meets a new dog she is given one or two of these treats and her tolerance goes way up. Just this week she went on a group hike with three new dogs. I had given her two of these treats an hour before we arrived at the meeting spot. After ten minutes of walking, she was relaxed and happy enough to go greet her new buddies, and during the entire hike she was much calmer when passing other dogs on the other side of the trail (naturally, we still kept our distance from strange dogs and played LAT games). Typically that kind of friendly behavior can take up to 2 hours of parallel walking and training exercises if no supplements were given to her. Fantastic.
This fantastic supplement is an animo acid derived from green tea. Generally L-Theanine is used on humans to increase cognitive abilities, improve mood, and reduce stress, but our canine buddies can also use it! L-Theanine increases dopamine levels in the brain and can greatly boost relaxation levels without causing drowsiness. I won’t bore you with all the research details, but there have been a fair number of experiments done on the effects of this supplement both in humans and animals. The findings reported that L-Theanine increased alpha waves in the brain, which promotes a feeling of calm.
Common dosage for humans is 200mg, while I stick with 50mg for dog’s under 20 pounds and 100mg for dogs over 30 pounds. Dosages can safely be increased without harmful side effects, just make sure to check with your trusty vet first. I have found the easiest way to administer is to purchase pure powder, available online and in some speciality stores, and just add it to my dog’s meals. If you have a very large dog, pills are fine too, just make sure they do not contain any harmful additives like Xylitol. And of course, dog specific brands are available but too tend to cost more than products intended for humans.
I’ve used L-Theanine on quite a few dogs in the past two years, all of which showed positive change after taking the supplement. Before ultimately putting Frankie on Fluoxetine, he took daily L-Theanine for a number of months. His ability to relax in our home environment greatly improved and he was much less hyper vigilant out on walks.
River takes L-Theanine nearly every day and I have noticed an improvement in her reactivity when she is dosed in the morning versus nothing at all. Her big blow ups towards other dogs are less intense and she is much easier to distract away from reacting at all. I would say that this supplement in particular gives her a better shot at thinking through a possible trigger rather than just going straight over her threshold. It does not decrease her drive for training and interaction in the slightest, so don’t worry about your dog turning into a drooling zombie with this stuff.
These three supplements are just possible starting points and certainly not the only natural help you can give your dog, but they are a good place to start. If you are like I was back in the early days with Frankie, wondering what more could I do, please don’t hesitate to start exploring other options. As a professional dog trainer, I suggest behavior modification and training 100% of the time for dogs who are anxious and reactive, but that is not the only step needed for many dogs. Anxiety does not have to be a way of life for your best friend!
It never fails. Sometimes it’s months between, sometimes days, sometimes only hours, but the feeling comes. The plummeting drop in my stomach, the icy blood, the quickened breath and churning thoughts. I’m going to die. I’m going to fail. Someone is disappointed in me. I have let everyone down.
If you struggle with anxiety, I’m sure you know these feelings. They make it difficult to concentrate on work and school, difficult to get up in the morning, difficult just to accomplish any number of small but important tasks we adults need to do. If you don’t get these things done – if you can’t get up, can’t perform at work and school, can’t do all those little tasks – then the anxiety just mounts higher and higher until you feel immobilized by fear and doubt, completely overwhelmed and wondering how others can be so capable, so confident.
There’s help out there. Therapists, counselors, good friends. They can talk to you, try to build up your self-esteem, to give you other ways to cope with the anxiety so you’re not quite so self-defeating and self-destructive. There are medications, numerous medications that promise a better quality of life in exchange for some insurance co-pays and maybe a few side-effects. You can exercise the fear and worry away, too, and try to run until you can’t feel anymore, can’t be scared, can’t be anything but tired and sore. Some or all of these things may work for different people, and I encourage you to explore different options and figure out what works for you.
For me, though, and for many, many people all around the world, it helps to have a dog.
Numerous studies have shown that pet ownership can help to reduce stress and improve our moods. The companionship we receive from our dogs may mirror some of the elements of human relationships that contribute to better health [Collis & McNicholas, 1998], with the added benefit that pets are less likely to experience “burnout” the way our human supporters might. Pets have been found to contribute to recovery from serious mental illness by providing empathy, providing connections that assist in redeveloping social avenues, serving as family in addition to or in place of absent human family members, and support self-efficacy and providing a sense of empowerment [Wisdom, Saedi & Green, 2009]. Pet ownership can also offset the deleterious health effects of chronic stress [Allen, Blascovich & Mendes, 2002] and increase neurochemicals associated with relaxation and improved immune system functioning [Charnetsky, Riggers & Brennan, 2004]. Overall, pet ownership has been found to reduce anxiety, depression and loneliness [Friedmann & Tsai, 2006; Walsh, 2009].
Dog ownership may also contribute indirectly to reducing anxiety by helping us get out of the house and get some exercise. Exercise has repeatedly been linked to reduce depression and anxiety, and dog owners may be more likely to engage in more physical exercise while walking their dogs than non-owners [Serpell, 1991]. Dogs can also facilitate social interaction, especially with other dog lovers and/or owners met through training classes, dog parks, or just on daily walks in the neighborhood. Ian Cook, MD, directior of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA, also identifies the responsibility of pet ownership as a positive focus for people struggling with anxiety and depression [Doheny, nd]. “Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance,” says Cook – it can be a reason to get out of bed in the morning (I know my own beasties won’t let me sleep in too long – not until they’ve eaten, at least!) and gives us a sense of being wanted and needed.
If you’re a dog owner who struggles with anxiety, you probably don’t need me to rattle of a bunch of research articles to prove what you already know: dogs can be lifesavers. But what happens when you’re paired up with a dog with a dog who is struggling with anxiety just like you?
Through luck or happenstance or perhaps just The Universe knowing what I needed at the time, I find myself in possession (and possessed by) two dogs just as anxious as I am. I’ve already written extensively about Cerb’s reactivity and anxiety about other dogs and scary environments, and now we also have Fly, who is anxious in a much more, um, hyperactive way. I don’t know if like just attracts like, if I saw something in Fly that I knew I could help with, or if this is some sort of karmic punishment for my transgressions in a past life, but here we are: the anxious dog owner with two anxious dogs.
Some articles and online resources are quick to point out how dog ownership might make depression and anxiety much worse. It’s true, our four-legged companions can be demanding. They have needs that must be met, and these needs require time, energy and money we might be lacking. They make us worry – anyone who has worked with a reactive or worried dog knows the toll it can take on your own mental well-being. They complicate our lives in the most delightful and yet frustrating ways, leaving us scrambling to find care for them if we have an unexpected need to go away for a little while. They can embarrass us, ask too much from us, destroy a favorite possession or bark suddenly at a noise outside when you were just, JUST starting to relax. Sometimes it seems like my dogs’ anxiety problems simply compound my own, giving me one more– wait, two more — things to worry about when I already feel so overwhelmed.
Despite all this — actually, because of it — I can still sit here and say that dog ownership is helping me with my anxiety. For the last two years, I have been working on Cerb’s reactivity using positive reinforcement training, Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program, and Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. Through working with our trainer, I’ve had the opportunity to become her assistant and transfer the skills I’ve learned from working with Cerb into a classroom setting, where I can now help other dog owners tackle their dogs’ challenges in a positive, understanding and force-free environment.
This opportunity has allowed me to see myself reflected in other owners: nervous, anxious, embarrassed by their dogs’ outbursts, worried about “keeping up” with other students in the class. They are anxious, their dogs are anxious, and all they need to do is make a connection and understand that helping one of them helps both of them. When I work with Cerb, I know that if I can be calm and collected, he can be calm and collected; when he is calm and collected, I can be calm and collected. I’m the one who can recognize this, I’m the one who is responsible for keeping him safe and sound, and so it’s up to me to do what I can to reign in that rampaging anxiety so we can kick-start that positive feedback loop.
Working with my anxious dogs has also taught me coping mechanisms I can use for my own panic attacks. McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program includes instructions for teaching dogs to pause and take a breath. When I’m freaking out, I make sure to force myself to take long, slow breaths to calm down. I play the “Look At That” game with my dogs to teach them that it’s okay to look at the things that are scaring them, and I play the “Look At That” game with things in my own life – deadlines, troubling emotions, other sources of stress – so that I can analyze them and make a calm and rational plan for moving forward, rather than burying my head under my pillow and allowing the sources of anxiety to keep piling up. I do the Relaxation Protocol with my dogs to teach them that their mats are a safe place even when crazy things are happening around them, and I try to set up similar safe places for myself where the scary things can’t bother me – I go to dog training every Tuesday and Thursday no matter what else is going on, I try to make time to exercise and not think about school or work for an hour, and I set aside time every evening for “vegetating” on the couch.
Sometimes pet ownership is stressful, it’s true. When I’m relaxing at home with each hand resting on a sleeping dog, though, it’s easy to forget those times. Learning how to handle my dogs’ anxiety has taught me important lessons about managing my own stress, and I’m very glad they’re here to help me as much as I help them.