The value of being able to calm my anxious dog Jimmi, was far more important last Saturday than it was a few weeks ago during our dog agility trial in Kelowna. That was a voluntary exposure to stress; at least it was my choice to put that pressure on her and a very good reason to know the result of that pressure and to help her deal with it as part of my responsibility.
In this case; however, it seems she had swallowed a piece of bone that did not go down properly, then regurgitated and ate it promptly again. This caused serious trouble when that Saturday night she vomited her dinner and began shaking uncontrollably afterwards. Although the extent of the problem was not known at the time; to her it was a completely new and frightening experience and a huge change in how she felt inside.
She just stood there frozen, unable even to sit and although I was very concerned, I could see that fear was a big part of what I was observing. At first I had to determine if her shaking was a direct result of the problem she was experiencing, or if it was a result of fear. If she had swallowed chocolate, which I had eaten earlier, the shaking could be a symptom of the reaction and I have seen this before. But in this case, Jimmi’s shaking seemed to come in waves, much like waves of anxiety rather than the constant shaking seen in more severe physiological reactions including shock.
We were not sure if something was caught in her stomach, or more likely her esophagus, as she was still belching stomach gas when active. She did get a bit better the next day, although far from her normal bubbly self.
Although still a little worried, she no longer shook uncontrollably. She constantly sought out my presence, staying near, glancing up at me often for support and I met every glance with a smile and kind support. Time would tell if the problem was more serious, but at that time there was not much we could do.
Observing her and staying calm were probably the best things I could really help her with, aside from the obvious of being careful feeding her, and giving her stomach protection meds. She clearly was looking for my support as she dealt with her uncertain world. I have spent a lot of time over this past year helping people with very sick dogs where most of the time there is nothing more we can do than watch and help provide comfort.
Leadership in the case of any traumatic or frightening experience requires compassion and understanding first and foremost. Some would tell you simply not to coddle them or you will reward their response to fear and I will say straight out that I consider that outright mean, thoughtless and even abusive in my opinion!
When experiencing severe stress, any animal or human is desperately looking to their caregiver for help and support and preferably to end whatever feeling they are experiencing. The only good response if you cannot immediately alleviate the problem, is acknowledgment and reassurance – calm and supportive.
In Jimmi’s case, also to hold her firmly once again. My calm behavior; no anxiety or worry, just calm and determined action, helping her through the vomiting and cleanup. Then hugging her for support, slowing my respiration and heart rate intentionally while supporting her upper body, shoulders, neck and head against my chest.
With this firm and calm pressure I always feel her calm with me. Her breathing slows; her heart rate becomes more normal and the shaking will cease. Finally I had her sitting once again and a little longer and she finally lay down to rest. Although the problem continued and I had to help her on several more occasions as she woke up anxiously, or when she learned movement and excitement would bring the problem on.
Knowing when to let go and let them work on their own is also critical. This is where coddling can become a problem in some cases. It is not when to help that is critical for independence, but when to let go. Our role is to calm them enough to act and control their behavior on their own. I tend to like my dogs stronger, so I push them a little harder to go it on their own as soon as they are able. Others tend to be more protective and would be less likely to let their dog be on its own after experiencing stress of this kind. Giving control back to them though is important if they are to stop responding with fear.
Although the severity of the symptoms stabilized, every step of the way I had to help her deal with her stressful situation, keeping her calm through episodes of belching and choking up stomach acid that seems to have an open path and create so much trouble for her when excited. For days she sought my support regularly; knowing something was wrong. I could see it in how she behaved at most times. She was not relaxed, sitting and shifting her weight from side to side and would not shake her head even when she clearly wanted to.
We were able to walk and hang out and sleep normally without fear and anxiety and the benefit to Jimmi was and is immense. Stress inhibits healing and makes every moment more difficult for the dog and myself as well. And it most certainly does not help recovery, when rest might be the most beneficial part of her treatment.
Calm leadership and the ability to reduce stress through my actions, to provide reassurance and support rather than to amplify issues with my behavior. To ditch your dog emotionally in a time of need is what panic and worry provide, as does any kind of tough love. In this case there is no such thing as tough love. Calm then release is not tough love.
Compassion, reassurance and support are essential components of leadership and the essential care we provide as guardians and caregivers for our dogs. Jimmi has recovered now; no foreign substances were caught in her esophagus, just irritated mucosa and although it was a difficult experience, she was able to get through it in the best way possible, with as little stress as possible.
Richard Ford, M.Sc.