"What we've learned is that our only priority is to comfort the dogs when they've been triggered." Photo: Stocksy
One of the strangest events in my life has been the regular occurrence of looking in my diary and seeing that we have an appointment with the dog psychologist coming up. There's something very ultra-modern and almost hokey about the term, that brings to mind caricatures of rich trophy wives who spend all day taking their handbag pooch to various expensive appointments.
It's also a brief and regular disappointment that we don't have an appointment with a psychologist who is an actual dog. But as much as people tend to giggle a little when we tell them about our puppy shrink, the impact that she's had on our dogs and to a larger extent, our entire lives has been astounding. And that's not even counting what I learned about my own weird brain from watching her diagnose my dogs.
A huge amount of family pets are currently medicated. Not everyone actually sees a dog psychologist, because ordinary vets are perfectly able to diagnose and dispense scripts of Prozac and doggy Valium and cat anti-depressants. However, the prescription boom has definitely expanded from the human world into that of our pets in a big way.
In her superb and often heartbreaking book Animal Madness, the author Laurel Braitman begins researching the psychological mishaps of animals, after her Bernese Mountain Dog died after suffering from severe anxiety and compulsive disorders, which included the habit of jumping out of third-floor windows. The conclusion is that animals have a rich and varied palate of mental imbalances, often caused by the things shitty humans have done to them.
Unsurprisingly, rescue dogs often come with a host of fun and surprising issues. Enter Ernest and Ginny.
Ernest was only a few months old when we adopted him from the good people at Sydney Dogs and Cats Home. My first sight of him was this tiny floppy-eared puppy alone in a comparatively huge cage, which helps explain why the only real issue this incredibly sunny and sociable and loving dog ended up with was separation anxiety. As soon as we tried to leave him in the backyard to go to work, he would begin howling and occasionally escaping out into the street, before being captured by our long-suffering landlord.
After seeking advice, we decided to get him a companion dog, which ended up being Virginia 'Ginny' Woof. Ginny was a strange decision on our part, because upon meeting her, we worked out that she didn't really like Ernest, or us, and was quite ill at ease for the whole play date. But we still adopted her, perhaps because we knew she'd probably be euthanaised if we didn't.
Ginny's behaviour started bad and became worse – she terrorised Ernest into a comatose shell of his former self. She attacked children and bit at men's shins, she compulsively tore holes in all our bed sheets and growled like a rabid beast from hell if my partner and I went near each other.
But, while she sounded awful, it was clear that she was actually trying with us – she seemed to crave our love, while not quite knowing what to do with it. And from the scars criss-crossing her abdomen, her fear of raised hands and her limping back legs, it was fairly obvious why. But no matter the hundreds of dollars of training and the endless regiment of discipline we worked on, both her and Ernest started getting worse. Ernest became grumpy and scared and strangely sexually deviant in the park.
Our dogs were diagnosed with anxiety after seeing the dog psychologist. During the meeting, Ginny paced around the outskirts of the room, agitated by a stranger in her space. As the psychologist described what anxiety entailed, it became incredibly clear how all their behaviour was motivated by this fear and uncertainty that dominated their life.
She explained that anxious dogs have triggers, which generally occur because of traumatic experiences, take them out of their green or neutral normal zone of emotional behaviour, and tip them into the orange zone and then into red, which is when different parts of the brain take over, the body is flooded with hormones and adrenalin, and fight or flight kicks in.
For Ginny, her triggers were exhaustive and long. For Ernest, his triggers were Ginny. We discovered that despite all the training we did, when the dogs were being triggered into their red and sometimes orange zones, they were no longer using the same parts of their brain where all the training existed. They were using something more primal and incoherent: literally the only options left were fighting or fleeing. It was a revelation – our dogs weren't naughty, they were anxious.
And this is where I had a moment of epiphany about myself too. I've never been diagnosed with anxiety, although I wouldn't at all be surprised if I had a fairly mild case of it. But what I've been suffering from for years is what I used to call 'stress'. I would get so wound up about things that were bothering me – classic examples are work insecurity or moving house or deadlines, and my anxiety would manifest as night after night of insomnia and grumpiness and erratic behaviour. It's a regular thing for me – I tend to find myself stressing out at least once every two weeks. And I always hated myself for it. I would berate myself for screwing up like this, and tell myself that I should just be more organised or less anal. And during the worst of my anxiety spells, when I lashed out at people close to me, usually about really useless things like 'who moved my bag without asking' I would be filled with remorse and the horrible knowledge that I was an asshole.
The trick for dealing with our dogs was to get them away from the orange and red triggers as much as possible. This meant sometimes literally hiding Ginny from cyclists or children, keeping them both on leashes around the dogs that scare them. It's meant that I've become more aware of saying no to things. If I feel like I'm too busy, or too tired, I've become adept at just not doing stuff, because I have the knowledge that it could negatively impact on my well-being. It helps. I'm starting to learn my own pretty banal triggers, even if I can't exactly work out what caused them.
And when the dogs have been triggered, there's no point in yelling or disciplining – they are beyond learning anything at this point. The classic dog training school would forbid you from rewarding or giving a treat to your dog who is doing something you don't like, like barking at a skateboard.
What we've learned is that our only priority is to comfort the dogs when they've been triggered, so I'm now in the position where my dogs will be growling at a child, and I'm petting them and telling them they're good and rewarding them with treats, much to the child's bemusement. It's all about bringing them back from their anxiety, from their panic and making them feel safe.
For the dogs, they're on a new regimen of Prozac and a tranquiliser for Ginny's bad times, such as thunderstorms and when people with beards come over. We have a new training system, which involves training them to have safe spaces they can go to when they're stressed, and to become more comfortable and safe by increments with their trigger points. They're becoming happier, and less nightmarish. They'll also probably never be completely better, and it will take constant work.
It's about comfort. And that's been a lesson hard to transfer to myself.
It seems counterintuitive to be kind to myself when my brain is being an asshole, and when I'm stressing out. But I've been doing it – recently instead of letting myself get worked into a frenzy about my money issues after being made redundant, I played some Skyrim with a whiskey. The other day when I felt my insomnia spiral coming on, I read some really trashy fantasy books for most of the night, and eventually fell asleep. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it certainly feels better to not punish myself for the ways my brain is misfiring.
Once again, this is all so mild and basic and privileged – there are people who can trace serious anxiety and depression and PTSD back to proper trauma, and who are dealing with stuff every day that I can't imagine. But I still think, from this tiny correlative link that I'm forging, that the basic lesson I've learnt still applies: be kind to your anxiety, like it's a little scared puppy.
Patrick Lenton is a writer and the author of A Man Made Entirely of Bats. Follow him on Twitter: @patricklenton
This article was first published by The Vocal.