Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.

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17 thoughts on “Progress Is Not Always Obvious

  1. I love this so much. I want to hug your old self, too! You really had every reason to feel over your head with your poor anxious cauliflower dog!

    Thankfully, my process of acceptance/adaptation was accelerated by having already lived with a “special needs dog” although thinking back on Freya now I laugh at how truly mild her issues were compared to Ruby.

    I so relate to your panic and desperation in the early days. I remember when Ruby reacted to the furnace going on for the first time in the fall last year, I had an utter meltdown about it which my boyfriend at the time could not understand. What was the big deal? We were already faced with so much in the outside world and insulating the house against triggers – the furnace is located in the kitchen where she spent the day, and I thought “great! now my dog is going to be terrified ten times a day in what is supposed to be her comfort zone!” That particular problem was easily solved in a few days and has been my greatest success with DS/CC. Furnace fires up = hot dog time!

    I think the adaptation and management part is essential to living with reactive/fearful/anxious dogs. I feel kind of bad for the people and dogs that drill away at stuff to the point of not having any perspective to step back and remember what dogs are meant to be: companions to share our lives with. My dedication to training waxes and wanes, but waking up to sleepy Ruby kisses and silly Boca smiles is the best part of my day.

    As you say, progress sneaks up on us. This morning I used the lint brush on my pants, which at one time sent Ruby into a barking frenzy. Today she just watched the process calmly.

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    1. I’m not sure I’ve ever DS/CC *anything* with Silas with great success. I felt like a terrible failure on that front, but the behaviorist was pretty upfront about it being a lot harder in practice than it is in the books. We’ve made huge progress with the leaf blower; that might count. He still barks, but only when the lawn guys are right up against the house, and he would bark at that whether they had leaf blowers or not.

      In a weird way, I think Silas being my first dog was actually helpful. I accepted a lot of “problem” behaviors as just the way dogs were. That acceptance got me in trouble a few times (like, “Oh, I guess dogs just throw up a few times a week?”), but it also insulated me from feeling like a terrible failure.

      And definitely yes on the adaptation being so important. I have a hard time even articulating all of the things we do, which means that they don’t feel like a burden anymore. I found a picture of puppy Silas next to an open window, and I thought “We used to open the blinds? Weird.”

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  2. I don’t often hear people say that doing an elimination diet is stressful but it IS. Maybe people just give up early? I used to roll up at the grocery store checkout with nothing but 10+ bags of frozen tilapia and cashiers who I’d never seen before would ask me how Suki was, because I was famous for being the weirdo buying fish for a dog.

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    1. It was brutal. I felt like I was torturing my poor dog every time something made him sick, and I kept having to do it over and over and over. Then every time I put his dish down there was a countdown: “He’s been eating this for two weeks. Is it going to make him sick today? Four weeks to go.”

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  3. I heart this post too! I am so glad that your non- cauliflowered dog feels so much more (literally!) comfortable in his skin, and that you are both happier as a consequence.

    On crying over furnaces and food allergies: man, it’s so easy to forget that we humans are susceptible to trigger stacking and stress accumulation, too. My experiences living with a dog with noise phobias, SA, and more makes me think that most reactive dog owners need a cortisol vacation just as much as their dogs do. And a year later, I still get weird and anxious whenever I hear a motorcycle (her number one fear).

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    1. Definitely. When Silas was really at his worst, he barked every time there was a noise outside. We don’t live quite downtown, but we’re in a busy urban neighborhood. One day, when he barked the twentieth time over something (and these were not just little alert barks), I yelled at him. Then I sobbed hysterically for at least fifteen minutes. It wasn’t long after that that we went to the behaviorist.

      I think separation anxiety has got to be the worst, because then you really can’t get away. Silas, bless his terrier-mutt heart, doesn’t care deeply whether I’m here or not, so I could always leave when he had pushed my last button.

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      1. SA is totally the worst. Well, that and anxious/compulsive tail chasing–which Callie also did. That behavior alone probably caused the biggest number of sob fests for me (see previous comment on trigger stacking). I’m glad that medication has made such a huge difference for Silas, and I think the big thing I’d do differently now with Callie, given the opportunity, is try that.

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        1. I find myself increasingly advocating for medication. Used cautiously and appropriately, of course. I think the stigma for psychiatric drugs is, in a weird way, even worse for pets than it is for people.

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  4. That’s awesome! I usually don’t recognize progress until I see another dog doing something mine used to do and I have that “oh yeah…” moment. At times when we have an untrained or unruly house guest, I really get it:) I’m scared to look back in the blog though for now… We started in March 2012!

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    1. I remember taking adolescent Silas to visit my grandparents-in-law, who live in a typical old-people house–lots of little knickknacks and widgets. I followed Silas around for two hours taking them out of his mouth. He still might take something particularly awesome, but I doubt it. I’m sure they were horrified by him.

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  5. Congratulations! It’s such hard work and you deserve credit for what you’ve done! I sometimes think anxious pet owners need a human support group so that we remember to pat each other on the back now and again, because it’s SO HARD to see the forest for the trees. We’ve been using the Timehop app lately, and things pop up all the time about Daisy from a year ago, and I often breathe a sigh of relief. I see a huge number of pictures of her on full alert staring out the window, which she used to do for hours on end, rather than just the small, mostly relaxed sessions she indulges in now. But the improvement has been so gradual that I didn’t realize it had slowed down. Knowing that there has been even small improvement in triggers makes you so hopeful doesn’t it?

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    1. Yes! It’s a relief to know that things can change, even if they aren’t completely better. Keeping some kind of records–a blog, a notebook, periodic video clips–is so important.

      And congrats on Daisy’s improvements!

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