Sunday, September 11, 2011

Compassion Fatigue and You: Tips for Caring for Yourself so You Can Care for Your Difficult Dog

In the human world, there is a phenomenon called caregiver or compassion fatigue. It is the result of stress on either a professional or a family caregiver who feels her life has become out of balance; caring for others has taken too much of her time and energy. Compassion fatigue is also recognized in the animal world, most notably among those who work in shelters or rescues. But the symptoms of compassion fatigue- exhaustion, frustration, irritability, hypervigilance, hopelessness, isolation, feelings of incompetency or self-doubt, or a pervasive negative attitude- are possible for those of us who own difficult dogs, too.

We all know that living with dogs with behavior issues- whether that’s reactivity, anxiety, fearfulness, or aggression- is hard. As wonderful as we know our dogs are, their behavior can be perplexing and embarrassing. The resultant feelings of frustration, exhaustion, or hopelessness can even lead people to give up their dogs. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation for either the dog or the human. So, what can we do to help protect both ourselves and our canine companions? In today’s post, I have taken some of the common suggestions for coping with compassion fatigue, and adapted them to fit our unique situation.

Understand and accept your dog’s limitations.
Your dog’s behavior problems are not his fault. There is mounting scientific evidence that behavior in both humans and animals has a strong genetic component. Dogs also suffer when they don’t experience a wide variety of people, places, and things during the critical socialization period. And, of course, bad experiences, trauma, and health problems can influence your dog’s behavior throughout his life. This does not mean that his behavior is unchangeable, but making progress requires you to educate yourself on your dog’s issues.

More importantly, you need to develop reasonable expectations based on that knowledge. The dog who is terrified of people may not be a good therapy dog candidate. The dog who hates the sight of other pups may never go to a dog park. Be willing to accept what your dog is capable of, and what he’s not, even if it means letting go of some of your idealized notions of who you want your dog to be.

Understand and accept your own limitations, too.
Your dog’s behavior is not your fault, either. Yes, we can make problems worse through our mistakes, but they are just that- mistakes. Acknowledge areas where you may have fallen short, then resolve to do better. My general experience has been that dogs are incredibly resilient, and I believe that people should extend themselves as much forgiveness as their dog does.

Remember, too, that none of us are born trainers. Even those who have natural talent must develop those skills. Some of us don’t even want to undertake what might become a multi-year project, and that is okay. Figure out how much you can do, and how much you’re willing to do. Even the smallest amount of effort can improve your dog’s life, and by extension, your own.

Ask for help and create a support system.
I am a firm believer that everyone with a difficult dog should enlist the assistance of a professional trainer or behaviorist, even if it’s just for the occasional consultation. It is very hard to be able to step outside of your relationship with your dog and make an objective assessment of how things are going. Having a professional that you trust give you the feedback on what you need to improve, and what you’re doing well can prevent you from feeling stuck or hopeless.

You can also benefit from having an informal support system. I have several other friends with reactive dogs, and it’s really nice to be able to commiserate with them at times. Unlike my co-workers or even my family, these people know what it’s like to live with a dog with issues, and understand how hard it can be. From friends to email lists to other blogs, just knowing that I’m not alone in this is comforting.

Relax, play, and laugh with your dog.
The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind here- not that I think you should be fighting with your dog, of course. The truth is, though, when you have a dog with problem behaviors, even a simple walk through the neighborhood can feel like war. Sometimes, you just need to find a way to enjoy some worry-free time with your dog.

In other words, not everything needs to be a training session. Take a day off and enjoy a romp in a secluded meadow or hike a quiet trail. Play tug or throw that ball. Or simply sit and pet your dog for awhile (assuming he likes that, of course). You both need some stress-free time to reconnect and remember why you chose one another in the first place.

Take time for yourself.
Finally, you need to make sure you take care of yourself, too. I know this isn't easy; I often feel guilty when I’m not spending time with my dog. And vacations? Forget it- even a long weekend feels impossible when you don’t know where to leave your dog.

Still, it is vital that you have some outside interests. I know, I know- your dog is the most interesting thing you can imagine. Mine too. But having some hobbies that aren’t dog related, and some friends that can talk about something other than what Fido did last night, can help you maintain the balance in your life that you need to prevent compassion fatigue.

These are just some of the suggestions that make sense to me… but what about you guys? What would you tell someone who has a dog with issues? What would you suggest they do to prevent burnout? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Information for this post was taken from:
The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Animals in Our Hearts


Catalina said...

"not everything needs to be a training session" Best words ever written! I have been feeling burnt out with Tibby lately. Yesterday for the first time in months we just played for fun. It was nice. :)

andrea said...

sometimes understanding that the issues are too big/serious for you to deal with is important to protect both you and your dog ...

that may mean making very difficult (nearly impossible) choices and decisions but there is a responsibilty to the dog and you, and those around you, that should not be ignored :(

Ninso said...

I've learned the "taking a break" lesson--a bit too well, I think sometimes!

What gets me is the hypervigilance. I think I've become nearly as jumpy as my dog. Some days I contemplate sampling some of her drugs. ;-)

Crystal Thompson said...

Catalina- YES. I've been there, too.

Andrea- Excellent, excellent addition. I didn't think of that because I've never faced it, but I know people who've had to make difficult decisions, and... yeah, it's hard. Giving up a dog, no matter how socially unacceptable, is sometimes the best thing for everyone involved, dog included.

Ninso- Yup, been there, done that whole hypervigilance thing. It's a vicious cycle because Maisy and I end up feeding off each other's anxiety. Sigh.

Kirsten said...

I have experienced rescuer-trainer burnout, especially when I had 4 dogs and three were active males with serious issues! I think the only solution to that stress was finding the right home for one of them.

Now that I have a more manageable number, I find that the dogs themselves are the best remedy for the fatigue they are responsible for:) As stressful as it is to walk two reactive dogs, the sensation of cuddling with both of them is one of the most fulfilling things I can imagine.

Joanna said...

Excellent tips! One of the things that helps me from feeling frustrated with Dragon's reactivity is reminding myself of how he's improved. To that end, keeping a training journal is quite helpful. (I just wish that my roommate would acknowledge Dragon's improvement more often, rather than "jokingly" calling him a bad dog for growling at him.)

Crystal Thompson said...

Joanna, what a great tip! I think you know that I LOVE logs and videos as a method of tracking, and yet I totally missed that in my list. I'm glad you brought it up.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! I've shared it with several people I know with reactive dogs.


Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks, Nicky! You inspired me to write it. :)