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

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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

8 Responses

Zoe Ching
Zoe Ching

November 01, 2018

Wow, Belinda. So well written. I relate to this article so much! I had no idea what I was in for adopting an anxious, leash reactive adult greyhound. My experience reflects you so much. Thank you for sharing. It feels great to know people out there have such a similar story.

Nichole Curtis
Nichole Curtis

November 01, 2018

I known exactly what u mean, my brother found a Jack Russell mix that the owners threw out and handed him 2 me. Shortly i found out that he was so physically and emotionally abused by them and the streets that he has aggressive anxiety about dogs. I’m glad I’m not the only one who can understand y certain times all types of dogs may attack or bite other dogs.

Laura
Laura

November 01, 2018

This is a great article, thank you. I feel I can empathise. I also have unreserved love for our pooch I think he is satisfied when he’s curled up on our bed snoozing after a long walk. But his behaviours in the outside world are more challenging. He is frightened, easily startled and is very reactive. People pass judgement on him often and I have to be very wary of him around children, dominant dogs, cars, traffic, the postman etc. He doesn’t like being patted by anyone other than his human parents and sometimes my dad. He was a rescue and he came to us in pretty bad shape. When I met him, I too saw the “Choose me, I’m adorable” face and the decision was immediate. I thought he would shed his troubled past as he transitioned into his new, loving life. But he has maintained those nervous, frightened, reactive behaviours. I respect him and his space as I love him unconditionally. I do worry that his behaviours are a reflection on me (I can get anxious at times). But most of all, I wish we could have a conversation with him and ask, are you happy? Because that’s my only goal.

Sandra
Sandra

November 01, 2018

I can truly understand what you are going through. My first dog who was 18 when she died was a dream dog so I bought another dog from the Dog’s Home and she is exactly like your dog. It’s a nightmare taking her for a walk but hopefully she will get better with age as she is only 16months old. She is a Red Heeler x Jack Russell and full of energy sometimes too much for a 75 year old widow.

RHONDA NETTLETON
RHONDA NETTLETON

November 01, 2018

Your story is my story and bought me to tears. You kinda wish you could snap your fingers and fix these poor babies. My boy is my world and I am his. Together we will help each other to learn. Thank you for sharing.

Laura Hoare
Laura Hoare

November 01, 2018

This is so beautifully written.
Thanks Belinda.

Fiona
Fiona

November 01, 2018

What a fantastic article! I too have a rescue dog who has high anxiety. We know nothing about him prior to being in the shelter, of which he was there 6 months because the word anxiety ave people anxiety and they couldn’t commit to understanding his needs. Lawrence has given us so much love and completely changed our lives. He has character, he has love and he has anxiety – and we love him all the same. He’s taught us patience with ourselves and others, and the ability to be present and observe. Sure, he might not be a ‘cafe dog’ (I am so over hearing ‘experts talk to us in a fashion where it would be better if we got rid of him rather than focus on helping him) but we don’t drink coffee so we don’t care! lol
Dog with anxiety (as do humans) need love and understanding and they have been gifted to us chosen humans because we understand. Keep being you Zoe and thank you for sharing Belinda x

Jennifer Greer
Jennifer Greer

November 01, 2018

I’m confident many, many people will connect with this story. We have the exact situation. Our first girl, Stella, is the ‘ultimate party host’- she loves people and dogs alike and is a confident girl who easily modified her behaviour to suit her playmates. Harli could not be more opposite. She’s shy, unsure, and gets overwhelmed. She’s a bundle of love and snuggles once she trusts you, but she’s cautious and apprehensive at first, and if others respond to her with nervousness (animals and humans), she gets even more unsure and reactive out of fear. We love both of our girls so much, and they are challenging in completely different ways. We believe being a good, responsible owner is knowing that each pet is an individual, with different likes, dislikes and needs. All are beautiful and perfect in their own way :)

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