Awareness of the emotional as well as physical needs of our dogs has increased enormously over the past 20 years and these days most dog owners welcome a new dog into their home with a similar degree of excitement and trepidation that they might a new baby. Reading books, seeking advice, preparing the household for the new arrival is all an accepted part of the experience. Many of us continue this journey of self education as we seek to give our dogs the best life we can. We attend seminars, tune in to webinars, join social media groups, enjoy classes, clubs and doggy activities, subscribe to magazines and gather together at annual events. This is a wonderful indication of the love and dedication we feel towards our canine companions. Keeping well informed and being aware of our dog’s needs is a rewarding experience for both ourselves and our dogs. But like everything it’s about striking a balance. Unfortunately, sometimes that can be hard to maintain and the line between doing our best and becoming overly anxious that we’re not getting it right can become blurred.
We all have our Achilles heel and my blurring of this line seems to have arisen around exercise. From questioning whether I walk my dog enough to worrying that I’ve walked him too much (he has some joint issues); giving far too much thought to when (as a chase driven hound) he should be on the lead and when he should be off the lead, over the years I’ve noticed a pattern to the confusing internal dialogue I’ve had in my daily decision making. There are different ways that I have seen this habitual overthinking impact our lives: A few years ago, my routines were a fairly predictable and my habit was to walk my dog first thing. I used to become quite anxious and feel very guilty if I didn’t stick to this timetable and wasn’t able to walk him until later in the day. He would reflect my anxiety back to me by following me around or watching me with anticipatory whining. Of course, I do appreciate that having a more predictable walking time meant that he was primed for his morning activity and therefore would naturally be waiting and watching me for signs that we were on the move, however, I also could see that the escalation of his expectant behaviour (following me, whining, unsettled fidgeting) was fed by my guilty glances and anxious verbal assurances that he mustn’t worry we’ll be going soon. This view was compounded by the fact that on the odd days when my husband walked him, they would leave much later than me and (as long as I wasn’t present) my dog’s behaviour was always noticeably more settled and relaxed, often snoozing in his bed until the point that he heard the shake of the lead. You might ask why does this matter? It seems a relatively minor thing. Well, it is and it isn’t. For a dog that’s generally confident, relaxed and secure, it’s quite minor. For a dog that’s less confident, and (like my dog) carries a degree of nervous tension these regular unsettled, fidgety experiences reinforced by my twitchy guilty glances caused him to release stress hormones into a system that’s already dealing with higher than average cortisol levels and feed the part of his brain that is primed for reaction. Like people, a dog is the sum total of all of his or her experiences. When a dog presents regular reactive and anxious behaviours it’s important to try and keep his general stress inducing experiences to a minimum and maximize the calmer, more enjoyable experiences. Thus, strengthening his sense of security and confidence.
Another exercise related dilemma has occurred for me when my dog’s joint issues have flared up or he has suffered a minor injury. In both situations the obvious course of action is rest followed up with gentle lead walks until better. I cannot tell you how many times I have over-thought this and the simple common-sense approach of rest has been pitted against an imagined fear that he is ‘depressed’, he must have some sort of exercise, he will get so frustrated! I would find it almost impossible to keep him in, with thoughts such as ‘I’m sure a little walk won’t hurt’ or ‘Just a short time off the lead will be fine’. Inevitably, often my ill-advised decisions led to a longer spell of restricted exercise and a protracted period of guilt on my part that I had not looked after him properly.
Guilt in itself is not a bad thing, it is a reminder that we the way we have behaved may need reviewing. Our twinges of conscience can keep us on track. However, when we find ourselves in repetitive situations in which we question our actions and feeling guilty has become part of a cycle then things need to be addressed. Otherwise, we risk negatively impacting our dog by allowing our internal conflict to influence our choices and our attitude when we engage with them. In my own examples the effect on my dog’s life is noticeable though not extreme. I have worked with clients in circumstances where addressing their guilt and excessive worry has had to play a significant part in resolving the behaviour problems presented by their dogs:
One such couple attending a workshop I was running. Their dog had generally had some reactivity issues around other dogs, and they were pleased with how well their dog coped in this group situation. They explained that the dog had had a rather traumatic social experience as a puppy, they believed they had managed the situation very badly and so were directly responsible for his unconfident social behaviour, they continued to feel very guilty. Every time their dog displayed reactive behaviour around other dogs they were reminded of the original puppy experience and berated themselves for letting him down. As we discussed things in more depth, they were able to see how much their guilt (and the associated tension) influenced their dog’s behaviour. They realised that this part of themselves actually had an investment in their dog’s negative behaviour, each reactive social encounter acting as a mirror to their guilt, reinforcing their notion that they had let him down. In order to resolve his issues, they also had to resolve their own. Unable to forgive themselves, their inner turmoil continued to play a part in unconsciously feeding stress and tension that inevitably was influencing their dog’s behaviour.
Another example is a client who called me in to help with recall training. Tragically, the owner’s previous dog had run away while still fairly young and had been killed. The owner felt very guilty about this and carried a belief that she had let the dog off the lead too soon. This belief and the associated guilt meant she was in terrible conflict about letting her new dog off the lead. When she did, she was calling him back constantly, her fear causing her to reprimand him severely if he didn’t seem to respond quick enough. Consequently, a situation was manifesting in which the dog was becoming very stressed and not responding well to recall. A significant part of our behavioural sessions was spent working on her guilt and helping her come to terms with her grief. In doing this she was able to respond to her dog in the present and not through the filter of her past experiences, creating a more balanced and neutral relationship in which they could thrive.
In relation to our dogs, excessive worry and guilt are often linked to a feeling of us not being good enough or that we have let our dogs down in some way. This may be as a result of real events or just a feeling we carry within. For many, the internal dialogue of doubt reinforces a sense of inadequacy at our ability to look after our dog properly, we are left telling ourselves that we could and should try harder. Like a sore that won’t heal, negative thoughts, feelings or circumstances that we find ourselves re-experiencing are an indication that we’ve not got to the root of the problem. Whether it’s a more extreme situation such as the owner unable to let her dog off the lead due to a previous tragedy or myself regularly twitching with anxiety that I am late for our daily walk, the impact of guilt can only erode our own and our dog’s emotional wellbeing.
So, how do we break the cycle? For situations that involve previous trauma or grief then counselling or a similar therapy may be required. For a more general tendency towards over concern and guilt, we must work regularly with a combination of self-honesty, self- compassion and practical change. List the areas of conflict, the things that tug at our conscience. Where do we feel we could try harder? Appraise our list with honesty, could we try harder? What practical changes can we make in order to address the situation? And if we are trying our best and if we have made the necessary practical changes then we need to take steps to not feed our negative voice of doubt by viewing ourselves with compassion and understanding. We need to work on building our confidence and reinforcing our sense of adequacy by recognising what we do well, and trusting our capacity to make appropriate informed decisions. Anxious thinking is an emotional habit and like any habit it can take a determined approach to break. There are many resources available to support us as we seek to build our confidence and become ‘good enough’ form books to webinars. The more we practice the easier it will become.
And there’s no time like the present.
About the author: Sharon Rich has worked with dogs for 10 years and is a Master NLP practitioner. She specializes in exploring the emotional dynamic between dogs and their owners and it’s use as a tool for personal development. Her website is www.making-the-connection.co.uk