Skip to main content

Anxious Dogs

7 min read

Coco the dog

She arrived at the Canadian rescue in November of 2017. The only history available for “Petunia” is the official documentation that got her across the US/CAN border. She was spayed, received a rabies shot and a microchip in the states prior to crossing the border. Petunia was also given meds to treat a cough and prevent heartworm.

The rescue organization saves dogs from shelters that euthanize, breeders, or simple surrenders from owners. Small dogs may be at a particular risk in the last 10 years or so because people like Paris Hilton who use the animals as accessories. Harsh judgements like that aside, every pet deserves a loving life even if it means uprooting them from thousands of miles away. The philosophy of the rescue that saved “Petunia” is that they can help more dogs find a “furever home” (this pun is used by all rescues, I swear) by using a kennel facility. Instead of finding foster homes until such time the dogs can be adopted, this rescue takes care of the animals at their location as best they can, while a call is put out for a new family.

“Petunia” has now traveled many miles, being abandoned at a kill shelter, to being poked, medicated and brought somewhere entirely new. When I meet her in February, she’s shaken and wary. “Petunia” seems to have bonded with one of her caregivers in 3 months and now she’s about to be removed from that relationship as well. She’s full of anxiety, afraid to be touched and her tail is so firmly tucked behind, and under, that you could mistake her for a boy dog. Things don’t get better at our new “furever home,” located downtown instead of the country like the rescue where she could run about if she chose. This tiny ball of anxiety has been abandoned and confused for so long that it is her natural state.

What If?

That’s the question anxiety is constantly trying to prepare us for. I am perpetually worried about everything. How poorly will you judge me for ending the sentence before with a preposition? Will people think I’m weak for sharing this? Does anyone really care, or are they showing me pity? Did I look like an idiot at the grocery store today? Does my sister hate me for not calling her recently? Maybe she'd rather I didn't call?  My old friends must think I’m a loser for breaking down, right?

The first week with “Petunia,” who we renamed Coco, was very challenging. My fears of not being accepted and Coco’s fear of abandonment clashed. It felt like she didn’t want to connect for fear of losing us. Meanwhile, my mind was wanting that unconditional love from a pet. My insecurity barked at me as Coco started to bond with my spouse in the second week. Rationally, I was telling myself that having her as a somewhat distant roommate for the next few years was better than her being euthanized. Emotionally, I was crushed. All my “what ifs” that played out were validated. My negative self image isn't my illness, it is the truth.

At the same time, I was fascinated how similar I was to Coco. The psychiatrist has asked me if I think I have abandonment issues because of my need to be validated by others. The desire to get my self-worth from those around me is driven by fear. Coco was afraid to be left alone in that first week, but also afraid to get close to us. For me new people, new friends, are more humans I will fail. This is where Coco and I differ. She’s all, “I’m not getting close to you because you’ll probably leave me.” In contrast, I believe that I will fail you and lose you, so why try?

Old Dogs

Talking to people about our rescue, Coco, I got lots of advice. “Give her some time, she’ll come around.” One person with a dog of a similar breed commented that her dog was now 9 years old and still timid. She continued to mention that her dog prefers women to men. It’s not just me. However, that doesn’t fit the negative narrative that depression wants to keep replaying, “there is something wrong with me.”

As Coco does start to warm to me by the end of a month, my story has to change. How can I keep depression’s motto alive in my head, “there’s something wrong with me?” Well, one month and Coco has come around and is no longer afraid of me. It’s almost been an entire year of groups, therapy, and classes to work on my mental health. Something must be wrong with me if Coco can beat much of her anxiety in only a month.

Why can’t I learn this new trick? Am I too old? Coco is still suspicious of strangers, but one could argue that’s a healthy fear. It can protect her in a cagey situation. What is my fear trying to protect me from? The obvious answer is pain and hurt. Coco was afraid of the same thing in the first week. Yet, she didn’t turn it on herself, as I did. My concern about failing others is a way to prevent myself from getting close in the first place. It is self sabotage.


On good days, I can see how far Coco has come in a month and be inspired. Potty trained outside, being brave in a big city on walks, letting me pick her up, learning her name, and getting used to our schedule are just a few of the things she has accomplished in such little time. Anxiety comes to her face a lot, but she’s persevering. Every change she’s accepted has been due to practice. That’s what training is, essentially.

For me, practice and routine are difficult. The negative voice interrupts me, “The dog got better in a month, what’s your problem?” I fall into that loop of self-loathing. Change takes time and practice, but perhaps I keep trying new things instead of sticking to one? That was me being hard on myself again. I have stuck with some strategies that work, but impatience can easily tempt me back toward the negative self-talk. It’s another fear. I’m scared that no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to love myself. I think I’m supposed to sit and stay with that emotion, but it will take some training.

Meanwhile, Coco has decided the entire sectional couch is hers. She loves walks, belly rubs, and Piña Coladas. Just kidding, no alcohol for the pooch. Coco’s tail is rarely hidden from view these days, unless it disappears in a wagging blur when my spouse comes home. Her ears seem to be always alert, even when she looks like she’s napping. That anxiety of me possibly abandoning her to go to a psychiatrist appointment, or my partner leaving for work, keeps her attentive. Though, overall she’s made some impressive leaps in behavior. With Coco’s influence and example, I hope that I too can overcome my fears.