Facing Fear When You're a Dog

Meet my fabulous dog, Dietrich, a middle-aged greyhound:

As for most greyhounds, sleeping is her favorite thing.  But the serene snoring that accompanies the majority of her day does not discount her serious struggles with fear and anxiety outdoors.  In our first year together, I made some serious mistakes based on the assumption that she could be "desensitized" to what frightened her, and the concurrent assumption that "getting over" her fear would be good for her.  I've since come to the opposite conclusion -- after much sturm and drang that I could have spared my sweet dog.  

Dietrich is most sensitive to traffic noise, especially big engines and air brakes, but steady traffic frightens her as well.  When I first got her, I thought she just needed to get used to it (with plenty of opportunity, as I live on a busy street with truck traffic).  So we went on walks off of our property.  These turned into drags, as she registered her fear by stopping dead or trying to drag us back towards our apartment complex.  I would try and comfort her by stroking her, embracing her, coaxing her, bringing hot dogs, using various "leash techniques," and other embarrassingly dumb attempts to make walks more pleasant.  But she was adamant that going home was the only thing she was interested in.  Eventually, she began to hide every time I picked up the leash, and she began to soil the house.  

AND STILL, I kept thinking that she would eventually become less fearful if I continued to have her face her fear.  I'll spare you the gory details, but I was so dense to her clear signals, so dedicated to reducing her fear, that it took a major veterinary crisis brought on by stress to change my thinking about her, and me, and fear.  Throughout that tough year, she was suffering tremendously despite my sincere desire to make her more comfortable and happy.  Shortly after her stint in the ICU, I thought she was so miserable living with me that it would be more cruel to keep her than to rehome her in a quieter area.  This was an extreme exercise in self-pity-disguised -as-care.  But I did have one thing right at that moment that I'd gotten wrong up to that time: the main thing stressing her out wasn't her environment or her fear of it, it was me.  I was one hundred percent responsible for her ulcers, her hiding from the leash, and her home soiling.  

It took me a while to drop the melodrama, but when I did, it became clear that Dietrich had been yelling at me at the top of her dog voice, with every piece of convincing evidence she could muster, that I was Doing It Wrong, and needed to radically alter my approach to her life and anxiety.  This was where my vet and I had a long talk about her brain, which had suffered a bit of damage from her racing career and near-starvation after.  Together we decided that a mood stabilizer would help Dietrich cope with the worst of her anxiety.  But more importantly, this was the moment that I began to question the whole premise of "desensitization," which is a mainstay of horse and dog training, and which, at its very deep heart, is about convincing animals to act more human towards something that frightens them.  I've been skeptical of desensitization training for horses for a long time, and have discouraged my students from forcing horses to do things that scare them for years.  Build the trust first, respect their fear, and the horse will learn to be confident and safe without losing her horsey sensitivity to her environment.  But why did this not occur to me with Dietrich?  Why did it take me so long to ask, what's in it for her?

The answer is: nothing. There was absolutely nothing to be gained, in her perspective.  And that's when I began to let her walk me.  

Thus began the long process of learning to enjoy our time outside by starting with a question, not a command: how do you feel about things? And then continuing on with the questions: would you like to walk? where would you like to go? oh, you'd like to go in now? cool. you'd like to stay out longer? great. I completely abandoned the idea of walking off the complex property and started letting her take me home immediately if she became afraid. Within a few months, she no longer hid from the leash or soiled the house.  And now, a bit over a year after The Crisis, I've come to very much enjoy our meandering, non-linear, dog-dictated walks, and Dietrich leaps to the door when I pick up the leash (unless she'd rather sleep!).  

This transformation required that I shift not only my behavior, but my paradigm of what it meant to care for and live with a dog.  I had to account for -- with absolute honesty -- how my desire to improve her life and my actions to improve her life were working at cross purposes, and actually harming her.  As it turns out, she absolutely did not need to get over her fear in order to enjoy her life.  What she needed most was to not be asked to get over it.  

From where we stand now, it seems painfully obvious that she is happier since I stopped doing things that terrified her.  I'm sorry it took so much suffering for me to finally ask her what to do.






A Horsewoman's Farewell

Beginnings of things are not often what you imagine they will be like, and I did not imagine that one of my first markers on the map would be a site of grief and loss.  A friend and long-time riding student passed recently.  She had been sick and the loss was not out of the realm of the expected.  Despite the signs and worry our circle of friends shared over the past weeks, the final news came as a great shock, and I've spent a fair amount of time since marveling at the velocity of my surprise.  

I've been working with her and her horses for seven years.  Last year, we started her colt, Jazz, together, who she bred and raised from birth.  I worked with him today, as I have hundreds of times now, but it was the first time I did so without envisioning my friend in my footsteps.  Or, more accurately, the first time I was conscious that would no longer come to pass.   

One of Jazz's first schools, my friend confidently at the helm, August 2014. 

One of Jazz's first schools, my friend confidently at the helm, August 2014. 

She met her challenges with kindness and tenacity.  At the barn she made us laugh and kept us on our toes and made sure we revised our equi-philosophical platitudes into sensible language -- a rare insistence on honesty in the face of enthusiasm.  She kicked cancer's ass so hard that she wrung every drop of fun out of a fabulous vacation a mere six weeks before she died.  She may have been my student, but I have her to thank for teaching me countless lessons.  Perhaps my sense of surprise is a function of the intrusion of the quantitative into the qualitative: our ongoing collaboration now has an end date, a last page, a final notation -- a concept incongruous with its character.

Ride on in the afterlife, my dazzling friend, ride on, and leave directions so we can find you.