Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rethinking Normal

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.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

What is it that she doesn't like about the video? Is it just the panting? I guess I have a hard time seeing Maisy as being stressed in a bad way in that video. I know she is not Lance, but my corgi would have been doing that exact same thing. Going from person to person, offering his beg, staring at the food, and then moving on to the next sucker if it didn't work.

but maybe the missing piece is that if I told him to knock it off and lay down near me Lance would eventually close his eyes and go to sleep the rest of the seminar.

Vito on the other hand does get hyper active when stressed. He would also be fixating on the food but being in a new environment with lots of people he very much has the potential get over the top excited and unable to relax. He might be able to do a nice down stay under my chair but it would take a while to actually calm down.

I'm having a really hard time with Vito right now and figuring out what changes are side effects of the medication, what are good changes, and what is just him. While I think Vito can get way too hyped up because of anxiety, I also know that he has great drive and love to work/play that I'm trying not to lose. And now I have no idea if his lower drive is due to barely eating, meds, or something else.

I think Maisy has come a long way and it's great that she is becoming a different and less anxious dog!

Crystal Thompson said...

Dr. Duxbury objected to all the moving around/activity. She IS more active than I think is "normal" for her in this video, and I do think it's probably stress related. The interesting question is: Is that stress bad?

Personally, I think it's more excitement stress. I'm not sure if this distinction matters or not. On one hand, stress is stress; the physiological effects of good stress are the same as of bad stress. On the other... it does seem that she's managing it well, and I don't think we prevent our dogs from ever experiencing stress.

Still, had I realized that she was as stressed as she was, I might have opted to take her outside on breaks to sniff and walk instead of into the seminar room.

Raegan said...

Wow, that's really paradigm shifting stuff.

I was particularly interested to read that you saw precursors to her anxiety as a puppy. I don't quite know what the implications of that are, for puppies in general that show that kind of behavior, but I feel that they exist. In a young puppy I'm inclined to think there is a strong genetic component (and I was inclined to think that before) to reactive behavior. I'm thinking about what implications that has to Puppy Kindergarten classes.

Crystal Thompson said...

I absolutely believe Maisy's anxiety/reactivity is at least partially genetic. She also missed out on a lot of early socialization, so it's hard to parse out the interplay of nature and nurture. Still, she showed warning signs so young, and she needed medication to truly help her, so I'm inclined to think there's a genetic component.

I've often wondered how things may have been different if we'd gone to a more experienced trainer for puppy class. I don't think we could have changed what was already happening, but I think we could have reduced the impact by getting early intervention.

Joanna said...

It is really difficult to get owners of hyper-active stressy dogs to realize that their dog who pulls toward other dogs on leash, jumps on people, etc, is actually stressed in a bad way and needs to be taken out of those situations. They just can't parse that drive to get to other dogs/people as negative in any way.

Sophie said...

It's strange hearing that Maisy was really stressed in the video - I saw her as excited (which is still stress I guess, but not the 'bad' kind in my mind) to be around people and food.

I know as responsible dog owners it is our job to protect our dogs from stress, but from excitement too? Lola has a great off switch, but she gets very revved up and excited - yes, stressed - about certain things, like her boomer ball, which she will chase and bark and bite at and sometimes even give disgruntled whines and yelps at because it just won't go in her mouth. But she loves it: if she sees it, her tail goes excitedly from one side to the other, she will hang around wherever I've put it afterward, and it will keep her occupied for an hour or so easily. Does that mean I should never let her play with it, never play fetch with her, never let her play with Jess, never let her play with toys? I can't imagine how much energy she would have if she didn't have outlets for it, through her enthusiastic excitement-stress.

Crystal Thompson said...

Joanna, it's REALLY hard. When Maisy was little, it looked friendly and outgoing (and no one told me different). Now I see it and think, Hey! That's what she did as a puppy... without thinking that she wasn't exactly a normal puppy. But I'm learning.

Sophie- As a matter of fact, I've read/heard stuff by European trainers (Rugaas, Scholz, Von Reinhardt) suggesting that we shouldn't play ball the way we do, that it's too stressful. And, if I'm honest, I have seen signs of stress in Maisy while playing ball- especially sweaty paws.

Honestly, I don't know what to think about play stress. I'll have to think about it more, but I will say we still play ball anyway.

As for the video- I had a really hard time seeing at stress, too, and I'm still quite happy by the way she managed her stress. Still, after a lot of thought and discussion, I did have to reluctantly concede that she was stressed. I haven't had time to discuss it in depth with Dr. Duxbury, but you'd best believe we'll talk about these things at our follow-up in June!!

Ninso said...

Interesting, Crystal. How did Dr. Duxbury want her to act in that situation? Or did she think that Maisy just should not have been in that situation at all? If it were Jun in that video, I would have been THRILLED with the behavior, as you were. As a fellow owner of a fearful, anxious dog, my goal for Jun is eliminating the fear and anxiety. Not eliminating all stress. I adopted Jun because I like how UP she is. And to some extent, how crazy she is. To me, if a dog is in a "stressful" situation, but is not behaving in a problematic way and is reasonably able to recover from the stress, then mission accomplished. Life is stressful, and all stress is not bad. For example, I find being around large groups of people stressful. I am an introvert and prefer one-on-one interaction or small groups. That doesn't mean I'll never go to a party. And even though I may find it a bit stressful, I'm still able to enjoy myself and take advantage of the fun. I will probably need a few hours to unwind afterwards and "de-stress" but I think that's normal. I also think that people who are often under stress but know how to manage it and deal with it in a healthy way are often the ones accomplishing the most and leading the most fulfilled lives.

Karen said...

I saw Maisy's video & mis-read it, also. I thought she'd made great strides but another lesson learned.

My 18 mo old Springer is genetically high energy but I am recognizing signs of stress. We had our 1st CGC class last night & she shivered nervously running between my legs for security when we first walked in to class. She was walking directly towards 6 other dogs & their owners, some dogs more reactive than others. Not showing the confident dog I see going to the dog park. It took several minutes before she settled down.

Another incident was midway thru the class, and acting much calmer(almost bored)she sat facing me, made eye contact & barked once, waited for a reaction (I had ignored her) & barked again, directed only towards me. She did this two seperate times until I told her to settle. (she's always been "bossy" with me) Is that a form of stress? Would it benefit her to burn some energy before a class?

Crystal Thompson said...

NINSO- I haven't had a chance to talk to Dr. Duxbury about it in depth. She has a heavy teaching load (in addition to her clinical work) this year, and it's finals time, so yeah. Personally, I AM thrilled with the video, even if she was stressed. This display of stress is a far cry from what it would have been six months ago.

What I'm really struggling with now is the difference between stress and anxiety, what each looks like, how each affect Maisy, and how I should respond to each.

At the very least, while we cannot (and I'd argue, should not) eliminate stress, I do think we should try to minimize it when we can. There's a balancing act in there I have yet to figure out. In the case of the seminar- the hotel experience itself was super stressful, so using breaks to de-stress instead of being exposed to more stress would have been a kind thing to do.

Crystal Thompson said...

KAREN- Even though Maisy is stressed in that video, I still think it demonstrates a lot of progress. There's a huuuuuge difference between reactivity in response to stress and being on "hyperdrive" in response to stress. It's still stress, but it demonstrates that she's learned some impulse control, and (more likely) that she's got more positive feelings about people now.

As for your questions about your dog, it's hard to say without seeing her in person. What does your trainer think? Or, could you get some video to post? You could always try some exercise before the next class and see how that affects things.

Kristen said...

Thanks for sharing!

Semi-related...an article in this month's Journal of Veterinary Behavior is "Evaluation of physiological and behavioral
stress-dependent parameters in agility dogs" where stress responses were being studied.

Kirby, CGC said...

That is really interesting. I have no idea what Kirby was like as a pup, I can only go on what the past year has been like. One thing Kirby does when he is stressed or nervous is he yawns, an over exagerated yawn! That's my cue to do something.

Kirby's mom