The Reality of Adopting a Dog with Anxiety. Part 1: Zoe, The Underdog

The Reality of Adopting a Dog with Anxiety. Part 1: Zoe, The Underdog

It didn’t take me long to realise Zoe was different.

She was six months old when I adopted her from the refuge. This pup played the typical “Choose me, I’m adorable” card. The ridgeback-cross cutie pie was smooching up to the gate of her enclosure, captivating me with those eyes that said “I promise I will love you forever, if you just give me a chance”. 

I was sold.  

And I had no idea just how much this fur-baby would challenge me.

I am fortunate to live close to an off-leash dog beach. In Pre-Zoe time, Tessa (my first rescue dog, a Labrador-cross) and I would enjoy our daily beach jaunt without a care in the world. As soon as we’d reach the sand, Tessa was free to roam, showing off her somersaults in the sand trick, bounding around in the water, before rolling in the sand again doing her “Look at me, I’m a schnitzel!” impersonation.  My friendly girl Tessa can always be trusted to play nicely with other dogs, or to keep her distance from those less sociable. 

So, if I treated Zoe with the same relaxed approach, there’d be no worries, right? 

Erm.. no. 

The problem is, having such a good-natured pooch as my Tessa, I was in no way prepared for the newest addition to the family- a crazy and unpredictable maniac. 

I admit, I was naïve and foolish. An irresponsible dog owner. 

Zoe’s first day at the beach and as per routine, as soon as we had hit the sand, both girls were de-leashed. Very soon I came to the realisation that Zoe did not have the social skills of Tessa. Her behaviour was erratic; she was wary, defensive, and bombarded other dogs in a confused kind of “I’m not sure if I want to play with you, or bite you” approach. 

In hindsight, the poor girl was overstimulated and overexcited. 

This was possibly Zoe’s very first experience at the beach and she was smacked in the face with a sensory overload- extreme open spaces and unfamiliar freedom that was way too much for her to handle.

I have now had Zoe for more than two years, and understand that she suffers from severe anxiety. She is not only uncomfortable around other dogs. Bush turkeys, skateboarders, bike riders, kitesurfers, regular surfers, jetskis, four-wheelers and birds are all included on Zoe’s List of Quite Unacceptable Things. 

The details of Zoe’s first six months are unknown, but it is clear that she had a rough start to life. She was one of seven abandoned pups surrendered to an animal shelter, in poor condition. Just like people, dogs experience trauma and anxiety that can leave lasting emotional scars. And yet they can’t share their experiences and feelings with us. So as Zoe’s number one, it’s up to me to protect her, help her to feel safe and prevent situations from escalating into an anxiety attack.

And yes, dogs do have anxiety attacks. 

These incidents are tough. During the meltdowns, Zoe’s behaviour is often reactive and aggressive. She is strong, and thrashes around on the lead. I am regularly left with scratches and bruises. She not only barks, but makes a high-pitched whining sound that is probably best described as screaming. It’s distressing for her, myself, and for others who may witness it. 

To some people however, this hostile behaviour is naughty and should be disciplined. Or must surely be the product of a cruel owner, who mistreats dogs and breeds them vicious. And to be perfectly honest, Pre-Zoe, if I’d witnessed a dog carrying on the way she does when she is “in the grip”, I may have judged the owner myself. 

There have been stressful, embarrassing, and sometimes frightening situations. Time spent in desperation, on the phone to the dog trainer in tears. I thought I was such a good dog parent. I took it personally. What was I doing wrong? 

But with time, I have learned that Zoe’s anxiety cannot be simply fixed or disciplined. It is something that can be managed and minimised, with understanding, patience and awareness. She needs security, boundaries, comfort and reassurance. This fur-baby has taught me so much about dog behaviour that I had never considered with my chilled out Tessa. 

And Zoe has kept her promise. She proves her unreserved love for me every day. Her unwavering eye contact as if I’m the only being in her world, her eagerness to please, the delighted greeting I get whenever I come home, the warm snuggles... 

The joy this girl brings me, only a dog person can truly understand. And she deserves my love, protection and devotion in return. 

So if you have only had the pleasure of knowing the laid-back, good-natured Tessas of the dog world, please consider the dogs who may be different. There are many out there who have experienced a traumatic past. If you see a dog who is upset and needs space, give them the respect and space they need. 

Written by Belinda Thompson

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