My Bailey is a co-dependent dog. She's been highly fearful and reactive since the day she came to me. Maybe it's because of the way she was brought into this world, maybe it's because of bad genetics and prenatal care of the mother or maybe it's a combination of both - but she has never ever had a fundamental feeling of safety.
For Bailey, the whole world is a scary place.
Normal, every day things give her huge anxiety. Dogs, humans, skates, shopping bags, umbrellas, birds landing on the window sill, kids, a sound of a random item falling on the floor, a sound of someone walking in the house wearing shoes, fireworks etc. The list goes on and on as we keep finding new things and situations she's afraid of. Every single one of them is a project for us - we slowly start counter-conditioning and desensitizing her to these situations. Some of them we've been able to conquer, some just manage.
Through this process, we've been trying to find places where she completely relaxes and feels 100% safe. This is what we've come up with:
- In our bed, under the covers (!)
- Her doggy bed
- My lap
It's not much, but for us it's everything. She'll never be one of those dogs that just plop themselves on the floor or a blanket and fall asleep no matter where they are. (Chilly is like that and it has been the biggest blessing, haha!). She doesn't relax in any other bed, she doesn't like other mats to lie on, she doesn't relax with any other human, either. The fact that I represent a feeling of safety for her makes me very happy, because we've worked on that very hard. But I am just one person and also a human being who sometimes needs her physical space.
Sometimes it's a challenge, always having to think about how Bailey will deal with new environments, new people, bigger life changes.
I work from home and sometimes I don't stay in one room all day. That minimal change alone throws Bailey of course. If it was up to her, she would stay in one room all day long. In her four years with me, she has slowly learned how to relax eventually - it takes a lot of time and she needs very clear communication on my part, but we manage. She has also learned how to love adventures. I call her
Bailey the explorer.
If we're on a hike and we don't meet too many people and dogs, she'll be pretty curious about her surroundings. And yet, if we stop for a little break, she'll immediately fall back into her restlessness - unless she has my full and undivided attention. Eye-contact and all.
It's a double edged sword; while I'm happy that she feels safe with me, I can't really be hands-on in every single situation.
What does me being hands-off mean? Say we're out on a walk and I start talking to a neighbor or a stranger. She'll sit and look at me and silently whimper. Then she'll start frantically looking around and god forbid anything or anyone passes by, because she'll fall into her barking routine. When I am hands-on, things are a little different. I'm reinforcing her sit and if I sense that someone is making her nervous, I'll make eye contact and reinforce. She's still nervous, pretty much, but she demonstrates a lot of impulse control because I'm telling her exactly what to do.
When we're alone, it works. When we're not, it's a lottery.
The reason why I'm writing this blog post is transparency. I'm a huge advocate for keeping it real and telling the truth. This is my truth: every dog is unique and sometimes you adopt a soul who you love more than the universe itself but life with them can be a challenge.
Sometimes Bailey's anxieties really affect and exhaust me. Sometimes I want some physical space, but I give into Bailey sitting on my lap or lying tight next to me, breathing into me, because she's finally resting after a whole day of being nervous over trivial things. Sometimes I wish for her to be normal. Sometimes I spend hours deciding whether I'll take her someplace new with me or is it too triggering for her. Sometimes I feel misunderstood by my friends and family who think I should be tougher on her. Sometimes I worry about what would happen to Bailey if something happens to me. I'm sure my family would step up, but Bailey attaches to one human and places into them the only feeling of safety she's capable of having.
For her, the whole world is a dangerous place. But within that world, she has found an anchor.
An anchor that she can rely on, that encourages her in new situations and around new people, that handles every situation and always ensures her safety. I am that anchor. No matter the situation, my priority is to always make sure she feels as safe as possible. I think she appreciates that. I've trained her that every time something triggers her, instead of hysterically reacting to it (either by barking or running away), she looks to me instead and I'll tell her what to do. (Mostly it's either sit or heel but it always involves eye-contact).
It works for us. I'm proud of her. I'm proud of myself!
But sometimes this strategy leads to some very co-dependent moments on her part and those are pretty tiring for me.
It's a work in progress.
I try my best to help her be more self-sufficient. I don't let her follow me around the house. If I work long hours, I put her to sleep in our room. I encourage her to sleep on her mat when she is with me in my home office.
She gets a lot of mental and physical exercise.
I let her seek safe space with Chilly when she needs to. I ease her into new situations and we always take things step-by-step. It's a lot of work and a lot of management. But she teaches me how to be patient and how to communicate better.
She teaches me how to tune into her without completely losing myself. She teaches me the art of letting go, the art of waiting and above all, the art of loving unconditionally, even on our worst days.
I know this isn't a blog post full of useful tips. Instead, it's a blog post that doesn't glorify having a rescue and doesn't lie to you that positive reinforcement isn't a lot work. Of course it is.
In my opinion, it's the most gratifying work I have ever done and will continue to do for the rest of my life.
All thanks to my co-dependent bug Bailey! Funny how life always gives you exactly what you need, huh?
Tell me, in what ways do you ensure your dog's self sufficiency? Do you have a co-dependent dog as well? How are you handling it? Let's learn from each other and expand our horizons!
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