Sunday, August 7, 2011

High Anxiety

This post was originally published August 28, 2010.

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.

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