Maisy chilling at my husband's office- a relatively unfamiliar environment.
This behavior is normal now, but it wasn't six months ago...
Last week, I wrote a post in which I shared a video of Maisy in a fairly busy, novel environment. I was pleased by that big helicopter tail and her willingness to interact with people. I was happy that she was willingly entering the seminar room, and even pulling me to get in. And mostly, even though I knew she was a bit stressed, I was just thrilled with how well she was handling it. She could never have done that six months ago.
So I was quite surprised when Dr. Duxbury, Maisy's veterinary behaviorist, responded to my happy email by saying that she didn't like seeing Maisy so stressed. Now, I knew that Maisy was stressed in the video- she was moving slightly quicker and tighter than usual- but I thought it was pretty subtle. I guess I should be glad that I have a veterinary behaviorist that is skilled enough to see more than I can, but mostly I was embarrassed. After all, while she may be the expert on dog behavior, aren't I supposed to be the expert on my dog?
After several phone calls to trusted trainers (and friends), and what might be a potentially unhealthy level of obsession, I think I've figured out why I missed it. The key was in what Dr. Duxbury said- that Maisy was “on hyperdrive” in the video. In other words- all that moving around? Stress. Even though I know that excessive movement or pacing can be a sign of stress- heck, it was discussed at the very seminar where I took the video- I didn't recognize it as such because I thought it was normal for Maisy.
As Maisy begins to stabilize on medication, I'm learning a very hard lesson: I have no idea who she really is. Sure, I have some clues- she loves playing ball and chasing chickens, for example- but her base personality? Well, it's possible that I'm just now seeing it for the first time.
You see, when Maisy was a puppy, I thought she was a social butterfly. In puppy class, she flitted around on the end of leash, going from person to person, and she never stopped moving. I thought she was simply excited and happy to see everyone. Meanwhile, at home, she had a never-ending source of energy. I never saw her sleep until she was almost six months old, and then only because she'd just been spayed. She was constantly on the go, getting into things and climbing up the stairs obsessively.
As she grew older, the sociability morphed into leash reactivity, while her energetic nature began to express itself in constant scanning and pacing. Although I knew the reactivity and hypervigilance was a problem, I thought the rest was just part of her personality. She's a herding dog mix, after all, and aren't herding breeds known for being sensitive and high-energy?
This explains why I looked at that video and saw Maisy acting normal, and Dr. Duxbury looked at it and saw a stressed dog. For awhile, I played with the idea that she was wrong, that she just doesn't know Maisy as well as I do, that she has no idea who Maisy is. But when I thought about, I realized that wasn't right at all. When I take an honest look at the dog Maisy has become, I am convinced that all that excitement was a symptom of her anxiety.
These days, Maisy is a pretty laid-back little dog. She no longer gets the nightly “zoomies” like she used to, and she isn't constantly dropping a tennis ball in my lap anymore... or chasing the cats... or just wandering around aimlessly. As I write this, she is flopped out on her side next to me on the couch, which is pretty much the norm now. This isn't to say that she's drugged or lethargic; on the contrary, she can go for a two hour off-leash hike, and still be begging for more while I'm dragging my sorry butt back to the car. Even out in public, she's pretty relaxed. For example, when we hung out at the rally trial recently, she spent most of that afternoon in my lap or rolled over onto one hip. And while she was pretty excited to see some of her human friends, it wasn't with the same frantic abandon that she demonstrated in that seminar video.
The truth is, there are enough red flags in Maisy's puppyhood that I believe she suffered from anxiety from an early age. Just because certain behaviors might seem normal for her doesn't mean they're part of her true, non-anxious personality. I can't compare her behavior only to who she was. While it's important to do so in order to recognize how much she's improved, it also leaves me with some pretty big blind spots. I need to check those areas, and instead of assuming that something is simply part of who she is, I need to consider how the average dog would react, and ask myself, “Could this be stress?”
Of course, I know that Maisy is an individual, and as such, she will never conform perfectly to the notion of what a normal dog is, but then, no dog can. Therefore, I also need to compare her behavior to how she acts in familiar environments. Although this might apply to a wide variety of places, she's most comfortable at home, so I need to think about how she might react if we were there instead. If the behavior would seem odd in a familiar context, I need to consider that it might be stress, no matter how often I've seen her do it in the past.
Really, I'm saying that I need to rethink normal. I can't simply pass something off as part of of her personality because I don't really know what that is. Maisy is growing and changing every day, and I'm constantly surprised by what she's capable of now. I can't limit that growth by fixating on a “normal” that's no longer true. Instead, I need to be willing to challenge my assumptions about who she is, and accept who she becomes. Only when I do that can I help her move forward and realize her full potential. It's going to be hard, and I won't always get it right, but it's going to be worth it in the end.