Saturday, August 28, 2010

High Anxiety

Where Loki is my happy-go-lucky dog who rolls with the punches and holds no grudges, and Angel is my mellow girl taking life as it comes, Ginger is the poster child for the psychological scars even a short time of abuse and neglect can imprint throughout a lifetime.

I was living in a suburban area outside of Dallas 7 years ago when a very dear but very old Doberman of mine died leaving my American Pointer, Bailey, without canine companionship. An alpha dog, Bailey really needed another dog around to worship her, so we went to the local shelter and chose a timid, 6-month-old shepherd mix to join our little pack.

It was clear from the outset that Ginger had self-esteem issues. She had no confidence and was frightened of everything. The first thing she did when we got home was gather up all the toys and hoard them. She had no interest in playing with them -- in fact, I don't believe she even understood the concept of play -- she simply needed them as reinforcement she had some control over her environment. She continues this behavior even today. Where the other dogs gobble down treats immediately, Ginger will carry a treat around with her for hours, owning it and protecting it.

On our first walks through the neighborhood Ginger stayed in a state of near-panic. She would cringe at the sound of an air conditioner starting up 100 feet away. Cars, people and dogs all frightened her. She hated taking walks, but if I tried leaving her at home when Bailey and I went out, she'd howl and cry the entire time we were gone. Separation anxiety was strong in her. I knew there were drugs that could take some of the edge off, but I wanted to see how much we could accomplish naturally. So I set out to build her confidence as much as possible by encouraging her to try new things and praising her for even the smallest attempts on her part.

From the first, Ginger accepted me and Bailey. But any other person, any other dog she was suspicious of. Winning her trust, even today, is almost impossible. My dad interacted with her nearly every day for 4 years and she would still bark at him each time she saw him. He was quite patient with her but she refused to be won over. The best she managed was to cautiously accept a treat or a small pat from him before quickly retreating.

Part of her issues, I think, have to do with gender. She's more distrustful of men, although she's only slightly more accepting of women. She barks at everyone, the one behavior I haven't been able to influence in the slightest. While she's never tried to bite, I'm careful to never put her in a situation where she feels cornered or threatened by a stranger.

She still suffers separation anxiety, although it's more under control now. However, I can't leave her outside when I go off to see a neighbor or drive to town because she'll try to follow me. Thunderstorms terrify her. She also has the occasional epileptic seizure brought on by anxiety. Thankfully, the seizures happen only once every couple of months or so.

What most breaks my heart is that other than her barking -- which comes from a place of fear and insecurity, not aggression -- she's a really good dog who tries her best to do what's asked of her; yet after 7 years, she still behaves like she's afraid she's about to do something wrong and get beaten for it. If I ask her to stay still for a nail trim or a brushing or I try to roll her over or make her lie down, I see the panic in her eyes. Her entire body stiffens. The innate fear that something truly bad is about to happen is so palpable in her no amount of petting or soothing words can make her comfortable, even though I've barely ever raised my voice to her, let alone my hand.

Part of it is that in a wild pack she would naturally be the delta (most submissive) dog, the "whipping boy" that gets kicked around and takes all the abuse, so in a way she's wired to expect that. I've tried to elevate her role by encouraging her to do small things such as walk beside me instead of behind me, by putting her food down first, and by giving her special privileges the other dogs don't get -- to no avail. With her, nature seems to be winning over nurture.

I often wonder how it must be to live in such a state of anxiety and fear. I prize few moments more than those when Ginger simply relaxes with me. Mostly that happens in the early morning when I reach over on the bed and wake her up by rubbing her belly. She'll roll onto her back and let her body go limp, enjoying the feeling of security and contentment. I touch her and kiss her often throughout the day, and she always responds with a return kiss and a tail wag -- but she's always just a thought away from cowering in fear at anything out of the routine.

Loki and Ginger (Angel in background)
I credit Loki for helping her learn how to enjoy life beyond me. Ginger idolized Bailey, but they didn't really play much together. Where Bailey loved to chase balls and Frisbees and lived to please me, Ginger stood on the sidelines and watched. When Loki came along, he and Bailey became good buds and exhausted themselves playing together. When we lost Bailey, Loki refocused all his energy onto Ginger and forced her to learn how to race and chase and play-fight through persistence, his own brand of exuberance and his patented optimism.

Whether they happen to our real kids or our fur-babies, neuroses and other conditions such as autism or ADHD are often as exasperating and frustrating for the caregiver as for the caree. Seven years ago I was sure it would take only weeks -- maybe a few months at most -- for love and patience and constant encouragement to completely cure Ginger of her anxieties. The hard reality is, no matter how good my intentions, I'm not a miracle worker. I can only provide her the safest environment possible to deal with her persistent condition, encourage her to push her boundaries, and rejoice with her in small progresses as she makes them. The rest is out of my hands.

That I can't save the world or every animal in need, that I can't even save every one of the few I cross paths with, is the most hurtful, damning lesson I've ever had to learn.

Still, in its way, it's also the most freeing counsel I've ever received.

For me, someone for whom failure has never been an option, it's the great truth that drives me to try the impossible, that gives me permission to fail, and that still allows me to respect myself in the morning.


Sarah Laurenson said...

I rescued several cats from the campus where I worked. Two of them were about 6 months old when I brought them home and they lived to be about 20 years old.

The one never got over being a fear biter. She didn't break the skin - did more of cradling your finger in her teeth, but it was her way of controlling what you did.

The other would sleep up against my side, even under my arm. She would also cower whenever I walked by her.

No matter how much love and patience, they never quite lost that edge.

We have a new little one who came to us at about 2 months old. She's just a year now and still cowers. It's that knee jerk reaction that subsides when I talk to her, but always seems to be there.

In some ways, she reminds me of the fear biter. She plays with teeth and claws, but the only reason she actually scratches me is the length of her nails. And her teeth never try to break the skin.

AA said...

I don't like to think what can happen to a dog to make her this way. :(

McKoala said...

She came to the right person, though, didn't she?

Phoenix said...

Sarah, you and your wife have huge, great hearts taking in all the homeless guys you have. Maybe the better question is how do any of these abandoned babies ever adjust?!

AA: I can only hope karma and retribution catch up with these folk sooner or later.

McK: Thankfully there are a lot of "right" people out there! Unfortunately, there still aren't more of our kind than the other kind ;o(

There's just so much human and non-human suffering in the world. It's hard to know which battles are the ones most worth fighting...

writtenwyrdd said...

It's sad that, no matter how much love and support an injured psyche receives, some just cannot recover much or even at all.

I have a ten year old cat that is scared of his own shadow and he got that way because my old female cat was crazy AND dominant. He started lurking and avoiding me because I was hers, and no matter what I did, until she died he didn't come to me for lap time.

Now we have another cat who is spunky but friendly and a Pug who insists that cats need to play chase. Mikey is finally standing up for himself and smacking the otehr 2 when they get obnoxious.

He's still timid and not quite right mentally, but he's improving.

Karen said...

I see so much of my little rescued dog in Ginger's story. Like you, I am thrilled with the few moments when my rescue relaxes and lets go of the fear. You are an inspiration for patience and persistence!

Phoenix said...

WW: It's doubly hard, isn't it, when it's others in the family who are working against all the good things you're trying to do. How do you find the balance between supporting all members equally? I'm facing that dilemma with one of my cats, too, and I sure as heck don't know the answer...

Karen: You've really brought your sweet rescue a long way in a year! She's Sooo lucky to have found you as a mama.

Anonymous said...

These critters are so fortunate to have found their way to your homes. Thse posts touched me deeply. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I like to think I'm giving them a much better life than they would've had otherwise.

Did I mention we finally caught our feral mother cat? Only about 1 1/2 years of trying and it was KFC that did the trick. She's spayed and back out where she loves to be though not quite so trusting of us these days.

Phoenix said...

Oh, yay, Sarah! I don't think you mentioned the update on the mama on your blog, so very happy to hear she's spayed now. I know some larger cities have feral cat programs where they do catch/neuter/releases. Wonder if THEY use KFC? ;o)

writtenwyrdd said...

Heh, back in San Francisco I caught and had spayed a feral cat with kittens. She actually forgave me (probably the food did it) and tried to become my cat. Unfortunately, I lived in a studio with Crazy Female Cat and another cat, and this kitty was FIV positive so I didn't bring her inside. A vet moved in next door, though, and took over responsibility when I moved. So there was a happy ending. (And we got homes for all ehr kittens.)

Sarah Laurenson said...

I think I read about the KFC trick at our local feral TNR program website. We have neighbors who are closer to this baby then we are (except she's madder at them these days - she spent a week in a cage in their garage while recovering from the surgery).

She's looking good these days. Calmer. And she's getting a little more comfortable - less scared. I think we forgot to get her flea treated though. Ah well.

vkw said...

I loved this essay. I am a foster mom for a rescue non-profit in my state.

I have had the priviledge of helping to place over 20 dogs in the past two years.

Currently I have two foster dogs from a hoarding situation where over 90 dogs were taken from a small farm. My dear sweet Nick was probably born and crated for two years and may never be "normal". I work with him everyday and in five months I can pet him, walk him on leash in the backyard and he'll take food from my hand. This weekend he almost bit me when I attempted to take to the front yard.

Everyday I thank God that he is safe and healthy and in good care. I know one day Nick's forever home will find him. I know in my heart that Nick may never get any better than he is day but I remain hopeful that he'll continue to improve.

Why do I do I foster and rehab dogs? Because they have taught me unconditional love and forgiveness. They have taught me that God is with us always.


Phoenix said...

What a beautiful sentiment, vkw. Without folk like you to give them a chance at finding their forever home, so many, many more animals would wind up simply thrown away. It's a bittersweet calling.

sylvia said...

I'm just catching up as quick as I can and not leaving so many comments but this post made me slow right down. Beautiful.