My Dog is a Therapist

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I just wanted to share an experience we had with our 1.5 year old border collie Audrey. It might be insightful if you struggle with anxiety.

Audrey and Anxiety



We've put a ton of effort into training Audrey. She's had ~40 minutes of quality 1:1 training/games, nearly every day since we got her. She also gets 2 walks a day, plus a ton of other random attention. So you can understand our confusion when Audrey started developing some anxiety issues a few months ago, especially on walks.

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Jeanie (my girlfriend) and I are both very anxious people. It's something we've both struggled with our entire lives. Obviously we're both aware and try very hard to improve the situation, but sometimes your mind has abstract ways of being anxious that are not apparent to "you".

We were devastated to watch as Audrey's anxiety worsened over a period of weeks. We had been passively working on it, but decided to start taking real conscious action to combat the problem. I noticed that if you were fully engaged with Audrey while you walked, her anxiety would dissipate. But if you were distracted on your phone or having a conversation, she would regress again.

I made a new rule for our walks with Audrey, if you were walking her, you needed to be fully engaged with her. I hoped, that given enough time, this would dampen the negative association her brain currently had with walking. Due to the nature of this rule, I spent a lot of time watching her over the next few weeks.

After a few weeks, I started to think there might be a pattern to her anxiety on the walks. Because she's a collie, she has a strong herding mentality. It's obvious to see how upset she gets when the group "isn't together". In fact, if the group separates, she will not lose sight of the other group (the one she's not in). So when I would be walking her, she would be constantly watching Jeanie to make sure we stayed together.

I decided to start observing both Jeanie and Audrey's behavior simultaneously. It didn't take long to see that Jeanie's body language was incredibly indicative of if she was feeling anxious. She read like a bad poker player. Dogs (as a species) have become incredibly adept at reading human body language, so Audrey was seeing Jeanie from a similar perspective that I had. It was then I realized, Audrey's anxiety on the walks, was a reflection of our anxiety on the walks.

If it isn't clear yet, here's an example. We would walk through crosswalks, much faster than we normally would on the sidewalk. We were subconsciously anxious about the cars waiting to turn (thus held up by us), and would increase our pace to satisfy that anxiety. Audrey, unable to understand the context of the anxiety, only sees us discontent and alert. We cross the street 20+ times per walk, and that's just one scenario. Compound all of these micro experiences over the course of a walk and you have a dog with a serious anxiety issue.

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After having this revelation, Jeanie and I started putting a ton of effort into reducing our own anxiety on the walks. This drastically improved the walks, nearly immediately. It also caused Jeanie and I to become far more aware of our own anxiety, and how we express that anxiety.

I believe, that we also pick up on those subtle indicators from other people, without even knowing it. This may drastically change the way you perceive someones behavior. Maybe there's someone who you just "don't like" and it's because your brain is subconsciously picking up on their anxiety. Maybe there's someone who doesn't like you for a similar reason. Worry not, this is something that everyone can improve. Be mindful, and try to imagine someone is trying to understand things based only on your body language. Would that be a pleasant experience? If not, how would you change to make the experience more pleasant.

And just in case you wanted to see Audrey in action, here's a video.