It honestly feels like we’ve been living as a threesome forever, but the calendar says it’s only been 3 years so I guess we’ll go with that.
Every year on Ruby’s birthday/adoption day, I take a moment to acknowledge how important animal rescue is to me. It literally changed my life and it changed Ruby’s too. This year especially, we kept hearing the same thing from friends and family:
“She’s a different dog.”
“She’s so calm and happy.”
“She looks really healthy and young.”
I cannot emphasize enough how good it feels to watch her blossom every day. To know that we took in a lost, fearful little dog and helped her make the face below on a daily basis. You can read more about Ruby’s adoption story here and here.
This was our toughest, most confusing, and most rewarding year yet.
Ruby has always had a little trouble in social situations. She does ok with small dogs, but is usually reactive towards larger dogs and she has a hard time with new people, especially with new people who make direct eye contact. She hates the mailman, and she doesn’t tolerate guests in our house or on our property. She goes straight into defense mode – howls, barks, growls, lunges, you name it. But she has always been sweet, silly, and loving with the two of us. With one exception.
She is EXTREMELY reactive when she falls asleep. If we accidentally brush against the blanket she’s sleeping on, it scares her so much she goes from passed out to full aggressive rage in the blink of an eye. For a long time, we just avoided touching her or being near her if she was resting, but it was difficult because she is so affectionate with us, and we don’t want to deny her affection if she’s asking for it. She WANTS to come sleep next to you, she WANTS to snuggle up under the covers with you.
This issue has been getting progressively more serious and more stressful over the last couple years. It eventually reached the point where, after coming up to snuggle in bed, she snapped at me while I was still half asleep, started yanking on a mouthful of my hair, and left several scratch marks on my neck and ears. I called my mom sobbing after that morning because I was so afraid that the only solution was going to be to put her down. But something inside me said that wasn’t the answer.
I want to be very clear: 95% of the time, Ruby is exactly like every other sweet, well behaved, playful dog. She loves to go for walks, learn new tricks, and is incredibly smart and expressive. Other people don’t get to see that side of her because she can’t be around them. If friends are at the house we put her in the bedroom to avoid conflict and keep her stress levels down, and she can’t handle being in crowded public spaces like restaurants or parties. It’s really upsetting for me to think about the animated little beagle that I know and love, and to realize that other people don’t know that side of her exists. I want to make sure I’m not portraying her as a monster. She is an absolute delight who has a couple issues to work on, and I love her more than anything in the world.
We had worked with a trainer during our first year together and contacted her for some advice. She thought we might benefit from seeing an animal behaviorist, and passed along the contact info for the VCA in West Los Angeles.
An animal behaviorist is essentially a psychiatrist for pets. They study the behavior of animals and diagnose and treat behavior problems with modification training, lifestyle changes, medication, or a combination. I know, it sounds silly to take your dog to see a psychiatrist and I was feeling a little skeptical in the beginning, but I had also run out of other options.
For those of you who have never been to a behaviorist, let me break down our visit for you:
At this point, all we felt was relief. We had been concerned about territorial aggression and other scenarios where we just didn’t know what the outcome would be. An anxiety diagnosis was the last thing we were expecting, but it made perfect sense once they explained why. From there, we were given a number of handouts outlining different behavior modification training techniques, and we spent a little time practicing them in the room with the doctors.
They also recommended that Ruby start taking fluoxetine, which is the equivalent of a Prozac type medication. People have lots of different opinions about medicating for mental health, but we decided to give it a try. The doctors explained to us that the medication was really a tool used to supplement the behavior training – it would help Ruby relax and keep her from going to a place of extreme anxiety while we showed her other, better ways to respond to situations that make her uncomfortable. They even said that some dogs start by taking the medication and are eventually weened off it because they don’t need it anymore.
Before we went to see the behaviorist, I kept a log in my phone of every time we had an “incident” with Ruby. I detailed the time of day, what happened just before and after, and any other details I could think to add. We were averaging 1 to 2 incidents per month. Since leaving the VCA that day, we have had ZERO incidents. IT’S BEEN 9 MONTHS.
Maybe the most important thing we left the VCA with was a better understanding of our own dog. Now, when I see her exhibiting certain behaviors, I know she’s feeling anxious and I have the tools to help her relax. Whether that means asking her to go lie down, focus on me, or just removing her from the situation entirely. I think she can feel that understanding too, she knows we’re making an effort to keep her safe and happy and because of that, she feels more at ease. It’s a circle of good vibes, you guys.
There is a stigma about rescue dogs that I think keeps a lot of people from adopting them. The idea that they’re “damaged goods,” or “have issues.” My response to that is: I have one of those dogs that you’re afraid of. I let her into my home, made a sincere effort to understand her, and have done everything I possibly could to help her succeed. And guess what? She IS succeeding. With a little effort, she is living the same happy, healthy life that your dog is.
If you have a pet who is exhibiting some of the behaviors I’ve described and want someone to talk to, please get in touch with me (click contact above)! I know how stressful it is and I’d be happy to chat, offer advice, or put you in touch with the trainers and behaviorists we saw. Just please don’t give up on your pet. In all likelihood, this is the moment when they need you the most.
So happy birthday to Ruby, the best part of my day, everyday.