HOW OUR MENTAL HEALTH AFFECTS OUR DOGS
Dogs have never had so much pressure put on them as they do in this day and age. Dogs are humanized more than ever. And though we say we treat them as our kids, we typically don’t come home and expect our kids to be our emotional support.
Our expectations of them has grown exponentially.
I have worked with many clients who struggle on one level or another with mental health issues ranging from anxiety, brain injury to depression and PTSD. And after covid I am noticing the rise in mental health issues of peers and clients more and more.
One of the most beautiful and remarkable things about dogs is their simplicity and ability to live in the moment. This is a really large part as to why we love them so much. They love us no matter how we look, sound or how much money we have. Our dogs often provide the least complicated relationship in our world. The reason is because dogs are typically very clear, honest and real.
In my last post; https://www.instincttoheel.com/post/when-the-pendulum-swings-too-many-dogs-are-paying-in-the-form-of-their-life I speak to the clarity of dog communication and how we are letting these guys down by complicating it.
When you see golden retrievers as unwanted personal guard dogs frothing at the end of the leash, with a bite history. Doodles taking chunks out of kids in the home, and Boston’s stalking, scaring and biting those in their home it begs the questions, WTF? I don’t make these up, they are real stories, and I have 3 or 4 real stories in a board and train weekly.
I provided a basic board and train to a beautiful young cattle x. As usual with these breeds she is incredibly smart, sensitive and easy to train.
As a young couple, with their new rescue, they were coming up against some challenges, particularly around other dogs. Committed following through with the advice and running with it after a few private lessons, they really wanted that extra control that a board and train would provide so they could safely give their girl more freedom to be a dog when out and about.
I was aware of the female owners (F) anxiety as shared in the lessons, she was very accountable and understanding of what travels down the leash. F was one of the most diligent students you can have, and I knew they would make great headway together with the training and dog communication information I provided.
The sweet little cattle dog also experienced anxiety and an inability to really settle and lacked confidence in her leadership.
I hadn’t met the male owner (M), and by the time the board train came around a few months later I was not aware of his story.
Both of them attended the Friday lesson with great enthusiasm. Not knowing M’s story, but before bringing the dog out I started to notice some contradictions with him, and was struggling to put together what wasn’t adding up. After I brought the the dog out and we started to train, I spent most of the time with M in large part because he was learning first hand from me for the first time.
As he called the dog, “placed” her, and repeat…I saw the dog was a lot more to him than I could have realized. Still not knowing much about him, I started to see the relationship between the two was what I’d call messy. And what I mean by that in this case is his total love and adoration, lack of boundaries and clear communication due to heavy feelings was creating a messy connection between the two for
What I came to understand later causing the messy was she had unintentionally became his ‘emotional support’ dog.
As they took her home that first weekend to follow through on what they learned and to shift the current dynamic between dog and owner, the dog had a tummy upset starting Saturday afternoon and didn’t start to ease until Monday evening. With this and a rash creating loss of hair about an inch of fur, at first thought to be cause by friction of the collar, I got to see more of the seriousness of the relationship between the dog and M.
M showed what I would say an irrational amount of emotion and fear around the dogs physical issues. When I say irrational, it is no judgement nor exaggeration. Dogs are our kids, I really do understand that with no kids of my own. And concern, fear, upset etc are all normal reactions, but when talking to M I could hear and feel that it was charged. Until the dog’s tummy settled we agreed to hold off brining her back to finish up the second week. With this I talked to F on the Monday to check in and agreed things were getting better and Tuesday she would commence training with me. In talking to F, I brought up very cautiously what I had noticed on Friday and thoughts of the weekend.
As it turned out M had been through a terrible incident that ultimately sent him to hospital and changed his life quite dramatically a couple years earlier affecting different aspects of his life. And now the emotional messy of M’s relationship with the dog made so much more sense.
This information allowed me to direct their next lesson accordingly and really get across the effects of us emotionally down-loading on our dogs, and that I understood that this may have not even be recognized by either of them… this alone is enough to cause a dog to move through the world very differently. Including the creation of anxiety.
So let’s break this down, the dog was experiencing high anxiety, nervousness and some reactivity toward dogs. She’s still quite young not reaching maturity yet, so her ‘dog’ hadn’t either…meaning at a later date she may have exhibited more serious issues or at the very least would require more time to turn things around, which both are common.
Then F, with known anxiety, and M with PTSD coupled with other issues are totally in love, obsessive about the dog’s every move and unintentionally unloading on her emotionally when coming home every day.
The dog is now the holder of human hurts and emotions, giving the feeling she has to “have his back”.
It’s the human needing to take the leadership role with dogs. So if a human shows lack of clear boundaries and expectation, at the same time as confusing communication with things that don’t makes sense to the dog, the dog then instinctively feels they need to show up as a leader in our world, where they have no ability to understand the complexity of the rules that run our society.
Our mental health if not checked is an added weight to our fury friends as they have no understanding or ability to “be” in it with out being affected by it. A sensitive girl like this one taking on more then she can won’t be able to shake the anxiety, nerves and reactivity as she leads her owner through a very confusing world. We need to shift first.
Please be mindful, understand that a good trainer won’t just try and change the dogs behaviour, they will be looking at yours while interacting with your dog, because most of the time, changing the dogs “behavioural issues” should be secondary to figuring out why they are having them in the first place.
In their next lesson we took it to town and we focused on allowing the Cattle dog to relax by teaching the owners how to stand for her. This mixed with what they learned the week before created a new world for owners and dog.
This family has since reported wonderful changes and great success. And as little Miss Cattle Dog deserves a life free of human heaviness so do the rest of our mates out there.