Let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a bit of a dog bubble. My introduction to dogs was through my grandmother, an international judge and accomplished breeder. Her dogs were versatile sport dogs, able to hunt all day on friday and win in the show ring on saturday. They traveled all over, sleeping in hotels and performing under really difficult conditions. These incredibly fit, confident, happy dogs were the norm for me. In short, I was incredibly sheltered and privileged when it came to dogs.
Then I got a job at a doggie daycare and got plunged face first into the pet world.
One thing was an immediate shock, and I’ve never gotten over it.
There is an anxiety epidemic in pet dogs!
Those first few months at the daycare it felt like every second dog was on the brink of nervous collapse. I had never seen anything like it.
A havanese hyperventilating on a corner.
A pug hiding under a blanket.
A weimaraner pacing the gate, whining and whining.
I couldn’t figure it out. What was happening?
It turns out, it’s complicated. (Isn’t it always?)
Honestly I really demonized pet owners there for a while. I had no idea how it was possible for this to happen, and that lack of understanding left me with no explanation other than "people bad".
But I learned more about the realities of where people got their dogs, and the results of poor early puppy raising and genetics.
I learned about what I like to call The Other Epidemic; boredom.
And I learned that a distressing amount of people either are unable or unwilling to recognize their dog’s emotional distress.
This is all very concerning stuff.
We can all empathize with these dogs, especially those of use with anxiety or trauma.
But what can we do?
I know my immediate impulse of yelling “OH MY GOD” really doesn’t help.
Over the years at the daycare we tried a number of different approaches.
I’ll be honest, it was hard. We failed a lot.
It was emotionally draining, and through trial and error, with a lot of tears and sleepless nights (your pet care professionals do have anxiety dreams about your dogs, just an fyi), we came to a surprisingly simple conclusion.
Here’s what works; build relationships with people and spread the dog nerdiness.
The cool thing about this is it isn’t just something that dog trainers can do. Anyone who cares about dogs can do some really serious animal welfare work. If you’re here you’re already probably doing it without realizing.
That was the lesson I needed to learn. Most people are doing their best, but we, as a culture, have a long way to go before every dog has the life they deserve.
So build relationships with people and call them in. Teach by example.
We’re all dog nerds here.