I love dogs. Yes, I'm one of those crazy dog people. I know it and I own it. Right now I live with two. Milo comes very close to being the perfect dog.
And then there's Oliver… We call him “Swiffer.” He's sweet as can be but came with a severe anxiety disorder. We've tried Prozac, Trazodone, Xanax, and pheromone collars but nothing has had much effect.
His triggers are many. He'll begin spinning like a whirling dervish, licking the floor from one end of the house to the other… hence the nickname. Several vets have come to the conclusion that he's brain-damaged, but I think it's emotional damage from the trauma he suffered on the streets as a puppy.
I had gone to the pound to adopt his brother, a dog who turned out to be completely disassociated. He wouldn't even lift his head. Oliver was different. He was sweet, curious, and unafraid of people. It wasn't until I got Oliver home that I realized there were many issues we'd need to work through. He was food aggressive, afraid of everything, especially the big, scary world outside. He would collapse on the ground, tail between his legs, cowering in fear.
Luckily, he took to Milo immediately, clinging to him like a life vest. He would even sleep sprawled on top of him. Milo made him feel safe. I worked with Oliver, patiently and consistently, desensitizing him to each individual stimuli. After a month, we were finally able to walk down the street.
It's been three years and I've finally gotten Oliver to a functional state. Unfortunately, the anxiety, spinning, and licking persists. He's still afraid of many things: sewer grates, wind, stairs.
He's so afraid of stairs that after moving into a new house, he would rather sleep alone than climb the steps to be with us. I watch him when he starts to spiral out, the crazy look in his eyes, tongue hanging limply, distress clearly etched on his face. There's little I can do to pull him out of it so I let him spin, expending the stressful energy until he eventually wears himself out.
The Human Response to Anxiety
We all respond to fear and tension in different ways. Some of us drink, pop a pill, surf the internet, shop, pick our faces, eat supersized bags of potato chips (guilty!) The difference between a human and a dog suffering anxiety is that we have the capacity for awareness.
For Oliver, there's a trigger and an instantaneous reaction. No thought process is involved. For people, there are multiple signs we can tune into.
A tightening in the chest or stomach, tension in the throat, heat rising through our bodies. We can become aware of our patterns and make a conscious choice to respond differently.
It's okay to eat that bag of potato chips if you're aware of why you're eating it and then decide to do so. It's not okay when we allow our fears and anxieties to shut us down, mindlessly retreating into harmful patterns that prevent us from living the life we deserve.
So the next time you feel anxiety taking hold of you, pause for a breath and tune into the sensations… and then maybe lift some weights, clean your bathroom, or, if you have a dog… grab a leash and go for a run.