My Dog’s Anxiety Makes Mine Feel a Little Less ScaryWe can do hard things—like be in the presence of Velcro.
I fucking love my dog. Casey—otherwise known as Casey The Dog, CTD, Little Dog, Chicken, Cheeto, and Little Miss Dog Ma’am Dimple Butt—is a Lab mix and the most beautiful baby dog in all the baby dog land (which she hears 100 times a day). She and I are kindred spirits. We’re excited by the world and by the people and things we adore. But, at the same time, the big, bold universe makes us anxious. Nervous as hell. Utterly terrified. You get the gist.
Yes, anxiety in dogs exists (the most common anxious trait among 13,715 dogs from one Finnish study was noise sensitivity, FYI). So you'd think CTD would just be anxious about the usual suspects: fireworks (yep), thunderstorms (yep, yep), being left alone (she HOWLS, let me tell you). Casey, my distraught daughter, my pride and joy with her soft, quivering nose always nuzzled into the safety of my armpit, actually has a list of triggers that is much more comprehensive than that.
Ready? Here we go: Motorcycles, thunder, lighting, fireworks, firecrackers, eggs frying in a pan, trash bags, paper bags, printers, vacuums, car motors, boat motors, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, bees, my fiancé yelling at the TV during football games, Velcro, the word “fuck,” power tools of any kind, blenders, aggressive wind, fizzy drinks, bubble wrap, a sound machine now collecting dust in my closet.
The first time I remember her getting the Casey Shakes, as we call them, was when I put an inflatable donut-looking collar on her after she was spayed because I couldn’t bear to look at my poor puppy in one of those plastic cones from the vet. A loopy, squishy CTD plopped on the couch to sleep off all the stress, only to be overcome with fear moments later when she heard the scratchy sound of Velcro tearing. Her eyes bulged. She was a ball of shudders. If she had eyebrows, they would have definitely furrowed hard.
Fast-forward over a year, I wanted to be proactive and buy her a ThunderShirt so that maybe, just maybe, she would be more comfortable in the car and not a nervous wreck in the back seat. Plot twist! The ThunderShirt came with Velcro. She was, in fact, nowhere near calm wearing the thing that was supposed to calm her. She was petrified.
Like I said, I love my dog. Her anxiety hits me right in the heart because I want her to be OK. And through my mothering, I’ve also realized that her anxiety teaches me a little bit about my own worries—the generalized anxiety disorder kind. There’s so much I’ve discovered from observing and comforting Casey, and, if you experience a rush of anxious thoughts too (or your version of Casey Shakes), I hope you’ll share in my lessons learned.
Anxiety hates change, but change isn’t always so bad.
After we moved, I brought Casey to her first vet checkup in our new town. As soon as she caught a glimpse of the entrance, she became a shaking, hyperventilating fur-thing on the concrete. We couldn’t even get up the ramp to the front door. Her nails were gripping the ground, and the whimpering! Oh, the whimpering.
Long story short, it took me, two leashes, two vet techs, and a couple treats to lure CTD inside. She was bug-eyed and whiny, and the doctor still called her perfect (as they should!). When it was all over, they prescribed her anxiety meds and told me to give her a dose two hours before our next visit and before things like fireworks.
Casey still shook at that next appointment and gave me a bit of pushback when we went inside—even on those meds—but she wasn’t as vocal about her anxiety. That said, I haven’t had to give her anxiety pills prior to an appointment since. In fact, she literally sprints to the vet’s front door now.
Watching my fur baby conquer her fear is a reminder that new environments can be terrifying, but they won’t be new forever. I try to remember this during small changes (like taking a different route the GPS suggests to avoid traffic) and big ones too (like starting therapy again).
Reassurance might not help anxiety as much as you think it does.
Whenever CTD is scared and I wrap myself around her to protect her from the real (and make-believe) threats, she shakes even more. It’s almost as though, by telling her everything’s going to be OK, I end up feeding into her anxiety and convincing her that things are actually very much not OK.
This is something that my therapist drilled into my brain when we first met last year: Anxiety makes you want to seek reassurance—that’s why I used to Google any major or minor health symptom to confirm I wasn’t dying or ask my mom if she thought my headache was a tumor. But, what really happens is you feel good for approximately two seconds, and then anxiety comes knocking again, which, for me, resulted in more Googling or calls to my sister to see if her opinion about my head pain corroborated my mom’s.
Since my anxiety won’t stop craving control that it can’t realistically get given the fact that nothing is 100% certain, my therapist has encouraged me to sit in this discomfort. Yes, it sucks, but it also takes away my anxiety’s power and means less Googling and checking in with loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong, I still give CTD all the cuddles and kisses when she’s scared, but it’s interesting to see that, in reality, it doesn’t really help as much as I think it will. Neither does seeking my own reassurance. I’m hoping that one day Casey will realize she doesn’t need reassurance from me—and I won’t need it from other people either.
Anxiety tells you that you can’t handle shit, but you can.
What I’ve learned by watching CTD shimmy herself behind the couch cushions, make a shelter out of pillows, or flatten herself into a doggie tortilla when she’s worried, is that fear convinces her that she can’t face what’s scaring her. From anxiety’s point of view, she has no chance.
Sure, maybe she needs formal exposure therapy, but she confronts what she’s scared of all the time and makes it out on the other side. For example, she refuses to jump into the car and trembles uncontrollably when I encourage her with my squeaky voice to “Come on! Let’s go! You can do it! Get in!” but, eventually, we get to where we’re going. Eventually, I’ll open the door and let her out. Eventually, she’ll be all smiles again.
Even if a car ride is scary for her, Casey gets through it. Every time. Even if she yelps when she’s left alone, I come back ready to cuddle. So, if she can do hard stuff, so can I, no matter what anxiety says. It’s inevitable that life won’t always go smoothly, but I am capable of figuring it out—more capable than I give myself credit for.
There isn’t an anxiety cure-all.
Remember CTD’s ThunderShirt? The one with the Velcro? The one that droves of people online swear works wonders for their dogs? Yeah, she’s enthusiastically not a fan. But, this also confirmed something that my therapist has been telling me all along: The goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety. That’s an impossible task because it’s a normal emotion that thrives on uncertainty. You can’t stop anxiety from talking to you. What you do have control over is how you handle anxiety when it comes up and how much attention you give it.
Casey’s ThunderShirt is definitely not going to cure her anxiety, and her anxious personality may never change (she’s literally hiding in the bathroom from a fly as we speak). She and I can wear all the ThunderShirts we want, but we'll never be able to shift our relationship with anxiety if our only goal is to eliminate it for good. I, for one, am learning how to sit with my anxiety, particularly health anxiety, without trying to run away from it. And, since I’m a human who has access to therapy, I’ll keep working with my therapist on coping tools. Casey's working on sitting with her hard feelings too. In the bathroom.
It’s important to be kind to your anxious mind.
Calming CTD down (even if it doesn’t always work) reminds me to give myself grace during my own freakouts. I often get angry when “what if” spirals overrun my mind. But I should offer myself the same patience I grant my pup.
Something my therapist says is that anxiety is trying to look out for you. It’s bombarding you because it wants you to be safe and certain in a world where we can’t always be safe and certain. So, don’t blame it or yourself. It’s not your fault that the world is scary sometimes.
Anxiety isn’t ALL of you.
Yes, CTD is an extremely worry-ridden dog. However, she’s also other things: She’s an excellent cuddle buddy, the absolute sweetest mush, a goddamn athlete (you should see her dodge trees and balance on one leg when she squats to pee!), a pro ice-eater, a smarty-pants, and a beauty queen.
Similarly, I've learned that anxiety is a part of me, but it’s not me in my entirety, and I’ve found a lot of power in being able to separate myself from a stream of anxiety-filled thoughts. Seeing the wonderful traits that Casey has, despite her fear, proves to me that we can be anxious individuals and there’s more to us than our worries.
She’s still the most beautiful baby dog in all the baby dog land—anxiety included.
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