November 18, 2016
On Reactivity and The Election
It's been a hard week for many of us. The world which previously felt safe, secure and predictable feels suddenly less so. We are on edge, our skin prickles with the anticipation of what might happen or what bogeyman is around the next bend. We gnaw on the bones of history, our thoughts run in tail-chasing circles. I don't know if I've ever felt a closer kinship with my reactive dog.
A few days after the election I read a heartwarming story about a hiker encountering her candidate walking in the woods with their spouse and dogs. After reading political editorials until my eyes blurred and breathing with only the upper third of my lungs all week, I thought that getting outside with The Ginger Sisters was the best thing I could do. Friday happened to be Ruby's birthday-ish - a best guess of her age (now four) pinned to a double set of my favorite number (eleven) so I wanted it to be longer, more special walk than usual. I live nearby a wonderful open space park, a network of walking paths in a prairie ecosystem. It contains a frisbee golf course, soccer fields, a mountain bike trail system with obstacles and a major artery of our cities' primary cycling path. In a word, a minefield of triggers for a motion-sensitive reactive dog. It was a weekday, though - I expected fewer people, and I was feeling brave. I laced up my trail running shoes and fastened the girls into their jewel-colored harnesses. We set out, determined to be part of our world, however fractured or frightening.
For some time I've known that I can often diffuse Ruby's reactive meltdowns by picking her up. I tend to use it as a last resort - it feels like cheating somehow. People with large dogs don't have this option, and it rubs against that idea of "little dog syndrome." On Friday I asked myself why it couldn't be framed differently. I know that Ruby's responses are fear-based. They are highly correlated with speed, as well - she can usually pass someone walking but feels threatened by a jogger. I saw this firsthand in the park: she was able to watch a mountain biker crawl up a steep incline, but a road bike whizzing past was another story. Why didn't I try picking her up sooner, as a preventative rather than a panicked trump card?
I don't just want to snatch Ruby up without warning or consent. This is something I want to put on cue, so she knows what to expect, maybe even starts to anticipate, like a roundabout version of the Look at That game. I settled on "I Gotcha," and it didn't take long at all for Ruby to understand what this meant. Rather than wait for her to start spinning and barking, I said "I Gotcha" the moment I saw a potential trigger. Ruby would sit, look back at me, and even started to jump up into my arms as I bent down. From an elevated vantage point, she doesn't feel so vulnerable. From the safety of my arms, Ruby was comfortable enough to watch her triggers with alert interest rather than crazed defensiveness.
I long ago abandoned treats as a panacea for Ruby's reactivity. If she was able to take food at all, she would frequently end up choking on it. There is no distance that she is under threshhold with most of her triggers except out of sight or earshot. Food does not change the association for her - it is a platitude like "nothing is going to hurt you," "calm down," or "it's not as bad as you think." Food does not make her feel safe. During our entire walk on Friday, Ruby was able to look to me and count on me for a change of emotion, from hysteria to security. We encountered several dogs, many bikes and two runners and she only barked once. I felt a little silly and a little sad that it's taken me so long to listen, to try something unconventional.
In times of trouble and uncertainty, be gentle to yourself and those around you. Take a long walk, longer than usual. Pay attention to the ways that we exist in harmony even when it looks like chaos. Go to higher ground and see how your perspective changes. Do the things that make you feel safe and find a tribe that listens. Ask yourself too, what you can do to lift up someone who is feeling afraid, even when their fears seem frantic and unreasonable. Trust your own strength enough to say "I've got you."