As many of you will know, I can be an anxious fella. I wrote about this back in September when my Mum consulted a dog behaviourist looking for advice on how to manage and improve my anxiety. I’ve also written about this on Instagram and Twitter, and have been amazed and really touched by the comments. I’m not alone in anxiety, clearly. And the more that Mum and I have shared this, the more we’ve met other dogs and their humans who have been struggling with similar issues – very similar issues. We met a standard wirehaired dachshund one day outside my grocery store in Stockbridge, and he and I were mirroring each other in our signs of anxiety: both trembling, tailed tucked, eyes darting, not making eye contact with our Parents. And it isn’t a ‘size thing’. We’ve heard about and met bigger dogs with the same issues.
So having talked about it here, I thought it was time for a progress report. A good progress report. I have made Progress. Mum and I have been working on this for the last few months. We only had two sessions with the behaviourist, but Mum learnt a lot. And yes you did read that correctly: Mum learnt a lot. (Ed: I truly did.) First up, she changed my lead. I’ve always had an extending lead, the same as my Uncle Bracken, as the Parents reasoned that I so rarely get time off the lead that an extending lead at least gave me some freedom to explore and sniff when we were walking in quieter places in town.
The first thing the behaviourist Mark advised was to change to a short lead. Nothing fancy, just a short lead. This means that I’m always close to Mum and I’m in a safe zone where she can divert my attention quickly from anything that might be… worrying. Things improved from the very first walk on my short lead. Seriously. If you’re having problems walking and you’re using an extending lead, try it. (I still have the extending lead for when we go out of town to the woods or beach – where I’m generally off the lead anyway.)
Also, Mum learnt to pay more attention to me, and by that I mean my body language: what I was looking at, what my tail was doing, how I was walking. She learnt to pay more attention to everything going on around us: dogs, people, cars, noises, anything that I might be about to react to. She learnt never to get frustrated, even when she was feeling frustrated. Never to show it. To be calm, patient, consistent. To praise me readily. She learned never to push me to my limit, as once I reach that point I’m no longer paying attention to anything. I’ve shut down.
Also, crucially Mum says, she learnt to trust her intuition. Always. Which is why we’ve spent the last few months working on new experiences. Rather than trying to get me better socialized with other dogs, Mum decided to get me better acquainted with the city we live in and then, in time, to start introducing dogs to the mix. The Dog Nanny has a fantastically informative blog for all dog parents and has been writing recently about training her own wirehaired dachshund pupadoodle Pretzel. This post pretty much sums up what Mum has been doing with me (only minus the carrying bag).
We’ve been on weekly tram rides to meet my Dad from his work at the other side of the city. The tram is smooth and quiet, but this being Edinburgh, it’s always busy, so I’m getting used to being around strangers and new smells and sounds. We’ve walked back through the city, straight along George Street (one of the main shopping streets in Edinburgh) in December when the place was full of Christmas shoppers, walking in a Mum-and-Dad-Sandwich formation, with me flanked by the Parents so I’d feel safe while still taking in all the people and lights and noises. We’ve been to the train station to meet Dad, and the station itself, with all its strange sounds, it less stressful than the walk to get there through one of the busiest parts of the city.
And Mum and I have been to various cafés and pubs to meet her friends and my Aunties, and I’ve joined Mum for meetings with her work contacts. All new people and places. Experiences to push me towards my limit without ever reaching it. Experiences that have gradually stretched that limit. Some of my anxiety is to do with association: when we leave our flat and turn right, I reckon we’re heading to meet my Dad. When we turn left, I reckon we’re heading for a walk, and that’s when I dig in. To be honest, I’m shaking as Mum carries me down the stairs from our flat to the street. So Mum decided to find me a ‘safe place’ – a place that she could carry me to, and I’d walk from there. (Carrying being a considerably less stressful option for me than stopping on the street every few yards, shaking in fear.)
Let’s be clear, I’m no lightweight – one of the things that people say whenever they meet me for the first time is that I’m a lot bigger than they expect a miniature dachshund to be. “Is he miniature?” they ask. So yes, Mum has spent weeks lugging me, the “towster”, to my safe place. The photos above and below are that place – not the garden (if only) (Ed: if only!) but the pavement around it, as there’s a fence and trees on one side and there are always cars parked on the other. For some reason I walk from this spot. Not always happily, but I walk. Here I am on Tuesday this week, but we’ll get to that….
Firstly though, last week, something changed. And for the better. Mum and I have a sign: if I need down when she’s carrying me, I nudge her with my front left paw. So we had just left the flat, and I gave Mum the nudge. “Really?” she said. It was a stormy day. The wind was hammering along the street and it was freezing cold. “Yep,” I said. “I need to pee.” Mum placed me down, I did my business, then looked at her. “I’m not sure I’m ready to walk,” I said. Mum thought about this. “Okay, let’s not walk, let’s run,” she said, and off we ran, all the way along the road, across a road, along another road, and on and on to the safe place, where we stopped. “See,” Mum said, attempting to breathe, “you don’t think about it when we run.” Which was true. And off we trotted, walking now. Zoom zoom…
The next day – striking while the iron’s hot and all that – we tried it again. This time, I gave Mum the nudge, she placed me down, and we walked all the way down through town, past my safe place, and on to Stockbridge. This was a first for me in a long, long time.
So on Tuesday this week, we tried something different. On every trip out we’ve made since Mum and I started this process, there’s been an incentive. We’ve been meeting Dad or one of my Aunties, or we’ve been going to my grocery store for chicken (major incentive and reward wrapped up in one outing). On Tuesday, it was a calm blue-skied day. “Let’s go for a walk,” Mum announced. I was tucked up in bed, by the radiator, contented as a young fella can be on a freezing January afternoon. “Who are we meeting?” I asked. “No one, we’re just going for a walk round the streets, like we used to do, for no reason other than walking,” Mum said. “There’ll be things to sniff. It’ll be fun.”
I gave Mum the paw nudge pretty much as soon as we got outside. “Let’s do this thing,” I said, so we did. We walked. I sniffed. Mum stopped and took photos of random buildings and doors she liked the look of. (She’s weird that way.) She talks to me all the time now, constantly giving me encouragement. And she just talks – something about the tone of her voice feels reassuring. Given that where we live is basically a gigantic car park, with cars lining every street, most people who are walking or driving past us don’t see me. They just see Mum, walking along, talking to herself. We paused to take this photo. It was a good walk.
And today we did the same thing, only this time Mum threw in a trip to Just Dogs to get my chicken treats. Today was a bit more stressful as we met a few dogs and people who stopped to talk, but it was okay. I walked. I exchanged a few tentative sniffs with other dogs. These things were impossible last year. Think about that: pretty much the whole of last year, unable to go for a walk in town without completely freaking out at some point.
So, yes, progress. There’s still a way to go, but we’re getting there. This also means that you can expect to see more photos of me plonked in random places. When I was super-anxious, Mum wasn’t going to stop and take photos. Mum and I have a rule: no photography if I’m stressed. Now, however, I seem to have no problem about posing on strangers’ doorsteps. Progress.