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Fear and Anxiety

July 4, 2011

Not putting the harness before the dog, I didn’t have one with me the day I adopted Delilah from the shelter.  When they brought her out to me, she laid down on the floor and curled up in a submissive posture, fearful of what lay ahead.  I gently lifted her and walked out to the car, placing her in the back seat for the short ride home.  I drove a block from the shelter, and at the stop sign turned around to make sure my fare was doing fine…and she had disappeared.  I pulled over to the curb and found the poor little thing huddled under the front seat and shaking like a leaf.  It was the saddest sight.  Since I didn’t know her whole personality yet, I wasn’t sure if she would bite me if I reached to get her, since her sense of fear was obviously extreme.  I had a blanket in the car, so I wrapped her with it, and eased her out.  She was terrified.  I put her on my lap for the rest of the ride home (hmmm, which might be against the law.  Desperate measures and all…) and she did better, although still clearly upset.  Surprisingly, once we got home she seemed to be comfortable exploring her setting, and even played with a few toys.  She was soon exhausted from her big day, and as she curled up in her new bed, even though she struggled to keep her eyes open, she drifted off to sleep. 

Her progress was uphill from that moment, and she amazed me with how quickly she felt at home.  She still exhibited fear occasionally, and it was with things as simple as a bird flying overhead when we’d be in the backyard.  She had clearly experienced backyards before, though, as she had a terrible problem with her ears when I got her, which the vet diagnosed as “fly bite”.  I’d never heard of the condition.  He explained that it comes from a dog being kept in a dirty environment where the flies land on and bite the ears until they become crusty and infected (somewhere prior to the shelter, as ours is kept fastidiously clean).  Her case was so bad, he wasn’t sure her ears would ever be normal again.  But luckily, with his always great help, they cleared up completely. 

I digress, however.  My topic here is really fear and anxiety.  As with everything else, Delilah was quickly able to enjoy herself on a car ride.  Until one day, months later.  We drove to the park for a walk as we did everyday.  The walk was pleasant, with nothing out of the ordinary occurring.  When we were finished, Delilah showed reluctance at getting in the car.  Once in, she seemed okay, until we started driving.  After about a block, she became nervous and began shaking, reminiscent of that first day.  I couldn’t believe it, and racked my brain to recall anything that could have created anxiety on the walk or within view of the car window.  From my perspective, there was nothing.  As the ride continued, Delilah became increasingly anxious until we arrived at home, where once inside the house, she was fine.  Clearly, something had sparked fear in her during our journey, or maybe even reminded her of something from her past. 

At any rate, she wanted nothing to do with the car afterward.  This posed a huge problem.  Walk locations became limited, visits to “grandma and grandpa’s house” were out.  And what about trips to the vet?  To my utter dismay, Delilah’s world began becoming small once again.  So we’ve started all over and begun a desensitization program.  Initially I couldn’t even walk all the way up to the car without her protesting.  So each day we’d just get as close as we could with lots of praise, and return to the house.  Next, we were able to approach the car and touch it, and eventually look in the window.  Now we can sit in the car and turn it on for a short time, but then that’s enough for her.

Plowing through fears, for animals and people, doesn’t seem to work in the long run and can do a lot of long-term damage.  It’s much better to take the extra time to desensitize someone to a fear so that it’s taken care of for good.  In addition, my mom read an article about something called a Thundershirt, so we’re also going to get one of those to see if it helps.  I’ve read lots of good reviews, even from vets who use them post-surgery to make the animal feel comfortable and safe.  It appears to work in various degrees with individuals, as with all things, but many are touting it as a miracle (especially for sound phobias…like thunder).  Basically, it’s a jacket-like garment  of stretchy material that has velcro which can be adjusted to give it a snug fit.  Apparently this gentle pressure can give animals a sense of security during times when they would otherwise be fearful and anxious.  So I’m off to order one, and will keep you updated.

That first night for Delilah at her new home:

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