Okay, let’s pretend for a minute that your dog didn’t know how to swim. Let’s pretend that he fell into a pool and started to drown. You’d save him, of course. You love him very much and don’t want to lose him.
However, being the responsible dog owner that you are, you’re probably not going to stop there. You’re going to keep him away from deep water or dress him in a doggy life jacket until you’ve taught him how to swim. You don’t want to risk his life again.
Here’s the problem: thousands of dogs are drowning every day, and their owners are doing nothing to save them.
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. If your dog has a behavior problem, he’s drowning. Every time he paces and pants or hides behind the toilet during a thunderstorm, he’s slipping under the water. Every time he lunges and barks at another dog, he’s clawing desperately to keep his head above the surface. Every time he bangs his head on the floor or wall as he tries to catch a beam of light, he’s going under. You need to save him, or he’s going to drown.
Saving dogs from drowning is my profession, and it’s also my passion. Anxiety is horrible, and not seeking help for a dog who experiences anxiety is every bit as cruel as not treating a dog with a broken leg. Emotional anguish is just as painful as physical injuries in many cases, and drowning dogs need our help. They need our compassion and they need our empathy.
So, how can you save your dog from drowning? Just as you’d keep a dog who doesn’t know how to swim away from water, it’s imperative that you protect your dog from the metaphorical waters of his behavioral problem. That could mean walking him at odd hours (many of my clients walk their dogs after 11pm or before 5am to avoid meeting other dogs), covering the windows so he doesn’t spend his days barking at people walking past, or taking a break from agility competitions to work on his confidence or self control. It could mean talking to your vet about anxiety medication for thunderstorms or discontinuing playing with the laser light to discourage compulsive light chasing. It always means protecting your dog from himself, just as you would if he were going to fall into the pool.
Saving your dog may be as simple as avoiding water, but sometimes that’s just not realistic. If the waters of your dog’s behavioral issue are likely to wash over him on a regular basis, then you will also need to teach him to swim. Just as a swimming instructor or lifeguard can teach you how to swim, a professional trainer can teach your dog to cope with problems that may have previously flooded over him.
Regardless of his specific issues, drowning is a very real risk for many dogs. Young dogs are more likely to lose their lives from behavioral concerns than any other reason. Storm phobic dogs can have heart attacks in the midst of their panic, compulsive light- and tail-chasers may become so obsessive that they injure themselves, and reactive dogs can become so highly aroused that they bite. Dead is dead, whether your dog drowned in your pool or was euthanized with a syringe full of neon pink liquid.
The message here is clear: just as you wouldn’t wait if your dog was slipping under the water, please don’t wait if he’s suffering from anxiety, aggression, fear, or overarousal. Each mouthful of water he accidentally swallows is just doing more damage, and if you wait to pull him out it may be too late. Help him learn to be a strong swimmer so that he can thrive in the deep waters of life.
[This post is dedicated to Red, who couldn't be pulled from the dark waters of his mind no matter how strongly his adopters paddled. He's on dry ground now, and at peace. You were a good boy, Red Dog, and are sorely missed.]