Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reframing, reworking, re...everything

A year is a long time. A year ago my daughter who is now crawling was a gummy bear on an ultrasound screen. A year ago my son who is building puzzles and telling me about his imaginary friends was wobbly on his feet and just stringing 2-3 words together...and a year ago I was at a loss for how to handle Reyna's extreme reactivity towards dogs and overall stress, anxiety, and over-excitability issues.

Reyna was a rock solid puppy, she trusted me to take her into any situation and faced all things new and scary with maturity. At 5 months old she walked calmly up to a fence full of dogs who were barking hysterically and sat quietly until they all calmed down and then elicited play and chase games up and down the fence line. She was already becoming a beautiful example of her German heritage with a temperament to match.

Then adolescence hit.

There were warning signs...I should have noted them...she was always an excitable dog especially when it came to greeting people. We called it "her brain going out her ears". What I didn't recognize at the time was that "brain going out her ears" was a symptom of stress levels and a tendency to go over-threshold. We worked extensively with her as a young puppy on self control, she could tug hard enough to pull me over and soft enough for our 1 yr old son to play, she knew not to go into the play room no matter how enticing the lure, we packed up her crate when she was four months old because we could trust her alone in the house. All of those things blinded me to the underlying threshold issues, like how she would scream like a maniac if she was on leash and my husband and son walked "too" far away. Or how when she would play with the neighbors dogs there was no sense in calling her because Reyna didn't exist in that moment, a crazy whirring ball of fur had temporarily replaced our obedient puppy. I thought she would out grow those things with consistent leadership and training, instead she grew into them.

As she reached adolescence her excitability started coupling with nerves and what seemed like overnight those over-excitability issues became reactivity and annoying behaviors at home became neurotic tendencies. We couldn't stand up without her whining and running around the house, we couldn't make eye contact without her whining and pacing, she leaked noise constantly, and to top it all off we couldn't see a dog without her charging, thunderous barking, hair all on end.

All of that was a year ago...over the last 12 months we have implemented a fairly aggressive plan to lower Reyna's reactivity as well as her baseline stress levels. It involved Control Unleashed exercises and games, Dr. Overall's Protocol for Relaxation, advice and support from talented friends, integration of several rituals into Reyna's routine to increase predictability, a concerted effort on my part to learn Reyna's threshold levels, indicators of excitement, documenting triggers....the list goes on.

Everything we have done has been about first learning how Reyna views experiences, not how she should, but how she does. Then taking that information, compiling all the tools we can and coming up with multifaceted approaches for reframing those experiences.

So where has all this work gotten us? what difference has a year made for Reyna and for our family?

To start with, Reyna's "steps of stress" are

1. Notice trigger
2. Lock on trigger
3. Head raise tail raise
4. Panting
5. Pacing
6. Hair raise
7. Low growl
9. Bark
10. Hysteria

I realized recently that am I consciously aware of each step, a year ago I couldn't even tell you what the chain was it went so fast from 1-10, in fact if I didn't provide some major intervention at or before 1 she would be at 10 before I could react. Now I can't remember that last time she went all the way to 10.

There is no amount of time in the world to describe in detail all the ways in which Reyna has improved and everything I have learned, but there are those light bulb moments where I'm blown away when I realize what I am seeing.

We were on a walk and a loose dog ran up to us, they greeted and we moved on.

We were hiking with Reyna off leash and another hiker with another dog came up behind us, we said hi, the dogs met and then we called Reyna back so we could all continue on.

We came home from being gone for seven hours and Reyna lazily flopped off the couch to greet us.

If you have never worked with a reactive or anxious dog then these probably seem like trivial occurrences, but those of you that have know how monumental these brief moments are. They are jaw dropping examples of how far we have come. 

There is nothing quick or easy about recreating emotional responses or revamping how Reyna interacts with her world, A year ago I had no idea how much I didn't know, or where to even begin. I could not have fathomed the intricacies involved and the commitment it would take. It wasn't just "she's reactive to dogs", from where she sat everything in her life was stimulating, noisy, stressful, exciting, coming too fast, in too many shades of red. It wasn't until we fully grasped this depth, that we could help her take a step back, regroup, and breathe.

Now together we as a family are repainting the world for Reyna in calmer, cooler colors, one brush stroke at a time.

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