There’s a saying in the dog world that I just love, “You don’t always get the dog you want, but you always get the dog you need.” Layla has taught me some pretty heavy lessons, and I’m very grateful to her for it. That said, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and make her better. She will never be a normal dog, and some days that makes me very, very sad.
We’ve had a tough couple days, and I’m pretty discouraged. It’s frustrating to see her suffer so much. The black and white version of dealing with stress in dogs (or any organism, I suppose) is very clear. If something stressful happens, allow the body to return to normal. This will take time, but just sit back and prevent anything stressful from happening during recovery, and you’re golden. In real life, this can sometimes be impossible. Suppose it takes 3-4 days for Layla to return to ‘normal’ (for her) after a stressful event. During that time, something as innocent as being startled by a woman wearing a hat who walks past the car can cause another reaction when she’s blown over threshold, resulting in another spike of stress hormones which are released into her body. Then something else happens. Then another thing. Soon her body goes into a constant state of arousal, ready to deal with anything. It’s a constant state of ‘fight or flight,’ but with nothing there to attack or run away from.
This is where we’re at tonight, and it makes me heartsick. Layla is not a normal dog. She will never be normal. I need to remind myself of this and do the best I can to provide a supportive structure from which she can view the world, and safe places to go when she just can’t deal anymore. I need to be there for her without asking anything of her that she can’t give, and I need to help her when I can and step back when she needs me to. I need to realize that when she’s stressed like this, she doesn’t want to be touched and won’t seek out affiliative contact. This isn’t a critisism of our relationship nor does it have anything to do with how much she loves or trusts me. Her nervous system is just saying “Enough,” and even a simple pat or scratch is too much for her to process until things settle down. I need to sit back and allow her to come to me when she’s ready. And she will be ready again, and will come snuggle with me again in the morning and melt into my lap, tucking her head under my arm in that way that makes me feel all gooey.
So, what brought us to this point?
Nothing specifically that I can put my finger on, or perhaps lots of little things. There wasn’t one sudden event when I thought to myself, “Layla’s stressed.” Instead, it’s just crept up on us, as it usually does. There was the lady in the scary hat who walked past as we waited in the car, which visibly startled Layla and made her jump. Then the two small kids running past, which caused her to alarm bark with that pointing tail set and wide eyes I’ve come to know so well. After that, the car alarm went off, which completely panicked her. But she seemed to recover from that, sitting in my lap and pressing herself close until the trembling went away. Later when I stopped at the pet store, she seemed anxious to come in with me. But then there was a big exuberant dog who was staring at her from across the store. Later that night at home, I did a brief shaping exercise with her, which she was successful at. My dad was upset about not finding something and was grumbling and cranky, and I snapped at him. Layla went and lay in her chair, away from all the commotion.
That night was the first clue that she was seriously over threshold. One thing that’s happened recently is that she’s learned some coping mechanisms, and doesn’t outwardly show stress as much. Rather than pacing frantically, she lies quietly in her chair, which has become a safe place. It’s easier to ignore the effects of stress when she’s not as outwardly upset. But then she reacted to a sound outside, and I sent her to her crate. Duke was standing in between her and the crate, and she ran up to him and bit him hard on the ear. This is the first time she’s redirected like this on him, and it wasn’t a little bite. There was only one small puncture, but it was bad enough to require a vet visit because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. After attempting to glue the tear multiple times only to have it break open again, the vet ended up putting in one stitch and then glueing the wound as well.
And then today, there was more stress. At this point, the stress hormones are starting to make Layla visibly ill. Anxiety medication prescribed by the vet behaviorist helps a lot, and I dosed Layla a couple times with the Xanax today on top of her regular daily clomipramine. But nothing can cover the panic she feels at hearing trick-or-treaters coming to the door. Besides the Xanax, I also brought treats and some of the Control Unleashed games on board to get her though the evening. She survived, but it wasn’t ideal. Locking her in a quiet room wouldn’t have been any better: making her feel trapped would just heighten her stress.
So, here we are late on Saturday night. Friday, she bit Duke. Today, she’s thrown up twice and has diarrhea. She’s also having an especially bad reaction to a tick I pulled off earlier today. She’s always been allergic to ticks, but this is about the most swollen I’ve seen a tick bite. Usually the abscesses are about half the size of a pea. This one started off as a pea and has swollen since then. The skin is red and oozing, and the ball under the skin is almost marble sized. I have allergy meds on board, but clearly her weakened immune system just can’t deal with one more violation. And, is the tick one of the reasons for her heightened reactivity and stress level the past few days? It’s kind of a chicken and egg question. I don’t know. Dr. Overall mentioned that allergies can worsen a dog’s reactivity, and the chemistry of histamine seems to support this. But there’s not much that can be done to alleviate the allergies, since steroids are not an option. And she’s allergic to the preventative spot-on treatment as well, so even prevention becomes difficult. What else can we do?
So, this is the downside to living with a dog like Layla. I wouldn’t give her up for the world. When I look back at how far she’s come, I know that we must be figuring some things out between the two of us. She really has improved, and I just need to remind myself of that when she has a setback like she has the past few days. Things will get better again, and we’ll keep figuring out how to avoid these setbacks in the first place. But it will still be painful for me to see her like this when she does become stressed, and I’ll look forward to when she comes back to being my snuggly little dog again. We just need to ride out the next couple days and keep things quiet.