Adopting A Dog With Anxiety! Guest Blogger: Sandy Balzer

My Little Prescription

By: Sandy Balzer

I found him on the website of a southern California rescue group.  His name was Peanut, he was an adorable 3-month-old 30lb Shar Pei Mix. I was finally living someplace where I could have a dog, so I applied to adopt him. The rescue drove him north to a pet store near my home with a dozen other dogs that had been adopted online.  When I entered the store, he was yelping frantically, and banging the door of his cage on his way to what I now recognize as a full-blown doggie panic attack.

I did not want to take him home.  But I felt too guilty not to.

The first two days of our coexistence we spent every minute together. I changed his name to Chuck (less cutesy, more substantial). We became friends. I assumed we were settling into a harmonious happily ever after. But when I left for work on the third day, Chuck decided I was abandoning him and frantically attempted to follow. He scratched the door until his nails bled. We tried crate training.  It worked until I left him home alone and he broke off two teeth and a toenail escaping from the crate. When let him roam free in the house and instead hired a dog walker, Chuck changed tactics and tried to tunnel out through the drywall next to the door before the dog walker even arrived. I knew this behavior was not normal dog hijinks. I had an anxious dog.

As it turns out, my dog and I are a lot alike. I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder over 20 years ago and address it with a combination of medication, talk therapy, exercise and diet. Helping to ease anxiety was one of my main reasons for getting a dog.  And it worked, but not in the way I thought it would.

It was not until I combed through his medical records that I learned the full extent of his situation.  He was actually older than the rescue group realized – actually 7 months when he came to me. At four months old he was pulled from a garbage bin somewhere in Los Angeles with bits of duct tape sticking to him. He had too many dog bite wounds to count.  He spent a month healing in the hospital kept away from other dogs because he was fear aggressive. I don’t blame the rescue group for not doing a more thorough matching of experienced owner and special needs dog, they were doing the best they could. But I had a lot to learn.

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Over the next tumultuous year Chuck and I worked with multiple trainers. We uncovered new sources of Chuck’s fear that resulted in aggressive or panicked behavior: Separation anxiety.  Skateboard anxiety. Tall man with deep voice anxiety. Don’t touch my paws anxiety. Dogs on leash anxiety. Dogs off leash anxiety. Why is the floor so slippery anxiety.

From dog spats and injuries obtained during Houdini-like escape attempts to allergic reactions of epic hive proportions (yay Shar Pei!), I developed a close - albeit expensive - relationship with Chuck’s vet. But we persisted. We kept up the training. I took him to a nearby off-leash beach every day for exercise and socialization. I stocked up on Benadryl. One might think it would be too much for me to handle but it actually forced me to set aside my own anxieties. I was not overcoming anxiety for me, I was doing it for my favorite furry little being.  When Chuck reached a new goal like being able to stay home alone for a couple of hours, I felt like a gold medal winner. My anxieties still existed, but my ability to manage them had changed. I recognized anxiousness – I named it, I let myself feel it and I kept it in perspective.

Progress has not been straight forward me or for Chuck. We still have set backs. Like the time 4-year-old Chuck stayed with my sister while I traveled. Four days before I was due home, he lost his cool and picked a fight at day care. Six hours, 87 stitches, and a prescription for Prozac later, Chuck was no longer welcome at day care and my sister was forced to work from home the rest of the week.  She wore knee-high boots because Chuck anxiously followed her everywhere bumping into and bruising her calves with his cone. My fabulous European vacation was very difficult to enjoy those last few days.

We had leaps forward too. I found High Tail Hotel – cage free day care and boarding and Chuck loves it there. I cut back his Prozac and partially replaced it with cannabinoid oil that is less stress on his liver. We still enjoy the beach every day.  I follow him around obsessively with my camera recording every joyful moment. His training has paid off in front of the camera and his Instagram has a small but loyal following. Even now he occasionally surprises me by instigating a play session with another dog.

November is our month.  Mine and Chuck’s. This November 15th is Chuck’s 10-year adoptoversary and although I haven’t purchased him a gift yet, I know what he’s getting me.  He will gift me a walk on the beach or in the Presidio (something I never did before him). I’m probably going to get one end of a ragged monkey and a request to play tug of war. If I happen to leave for two minutes to get the mail, upon my return he will jump and twist and just generally throw a doggie dance party. Cuddles and kisses are absolutely coming my way. He gives the best gifts.