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Part 1 - Learning to Manage Anxiety: Lessons from a Dog Named Ben

Many people are plagued with chronic anxiety and either suffer through it or soley rely on medication to manage it. Ben the Rescue Dog offers an alternative.

When we let it all go - it all gets done" - Lao Tzu

Last summer I adopted a dog - an impulsive decision, inspired by one of my
clients. His name is Ben. I call Ben or Benjamin, Benis the Menis, Handsome Boy
or whatever “puppy nickname” seems fitting in the moment.

My friends call him Benny and sometimes Benji (more on this later). He's a Poochon -- half poodle, half bichon -- with long white curly hair mixed with a touch of grey in his ears, whiskers and tail. I saw his photo on an animal shelter's website, and called to check his availability.  He was there, so I decided to meet him. When I arrived however, someone had already snatched him up.     

Despondent, I gave the shelter my phone number "just in case" he got returned.

“That probably won’t happen,” the adoption specialist told me as she tried to return my number.

“Keep it,” I responded, iin a desperate attempt to cling to some scant hope of
having him.

I left the shelter, went home and sat silently for a while contemplating the stars. Restless inside, I remember thinking to myself as I gazed into the dark sky, “Something is just not right in the universe … he’s supposed to be my
dog!”

I then practiced “vairagya” which means “non-attachment” in yoga, and let it go.

And guess what happened?

The very next day the shelter called me. Ben had been returned.

He growled at the new owner's landlord, and well, back to the shelter he went. So off to the shelter I went “just to meet him," I told myself. He then cocked his little head and smiled at me, and that was it, he became mine.

Ben was  1 1/2 years old when I met him. He and his brother Timmy were
initially purchased from a pet store (and most likely came from a puppy mill) by
a mother and son. The mother had Timmy, and the son had Ben. As the story goes, the son really didn't take care of Ben, so the mother got stuck with both dogs. Overwhelmed, she surrendered them to a shelter. She then missed Timmy, reclaimed him, and left Ben to fend for himself.

When Ben arrived at the shelter he was covered in flea dirt and tested positive for Lyme disease. Neglected, abused and abandoned, he awaited his fate. Then along came me, and Fate's master plan for both of us was set into play.

At first, his sweet snuggly demeanor masked his trauma. However, within a month it was clear to me he needed help. He had horrific separation anxiety and
I couldn't go anywhere without him. His mighty growl showed him distrustful of
most strangers and other dogs. Any time I left him alone, even for just five
minutes, he'd distress bark (a high pitched bark dogs use when they want their
mothers' to return) and salivate all over himself.

If I crated him, rather than eat the treats I left for him, sleep and or try to relax, he'd try to scratch his way out of the crate. And don't ask me how, but one time actually he did! “Houdini” became his new nick name.

I was fortunate to find an affordable dog sitter who could watch Ben while I work. She’s an elderly widow who groomed and boarded dogs for more than 30 years until she was forced to retire after a fall that broke her hip. Watching him gives her a sense of purpose, and me a sigh of relief.  She also just so happens to have a poodle named Noelle, and once again, Ben has a “sibling.”

As a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety, trauma and addiction – I was more than up for the challenge of helping Ben “figure this piece out.”

I researched and did my homework.

I read all the literature on how to treat dogs with separation anxiety.

I watched countless Cesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer) videos and articles.

I consulted with my vet who, ironically, I know from high school.

I picked the brains’ of every psychiatrist I knew.

I sought advice from every dog owner I ever knew.

I even asked for help from my mother.

And so the journey began. We joined a "puppy and me” dog training class, and
I worked hard to socialize him at the local dog park. I also met some great people there who understood my woes and took an avid interest in helping Ben.

He made progress -- house training and learning to sit came easily. Socializing with small dogs and children, who wanted to pat him, began to happen as well.

But being home alone, and behaving around men just wasn’t working! He continued to growl and nip at some of my neighbors (who were very understanding), and bark and cry every time I left the house without him. One
time, he jumped into the shower with me, because he couldn’t tolerate not seeing
me behind the curtain. When I'd try to put gas in my car, even though he could
see me through the window, he’d panic. It got to a point where my neighbors
complained about his barking, and I felt defeated.

To make matters worse, he then he ate my yoga mat.

It seemed that no matter how much love and training he got, it wasn't enough to turn off the panic switch in his brain. He was suffering. And I knew it was time to do something I desperately wanted to avoid.

Stay tuned -- Part 2 soon.

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Peggi Cohen August 07, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Hurry and tell us the rest of the story. We know a dog who has the exact issues and are eager to know how you solved the problem.
Maura Matarese, M.A. LMHC, R.Y.T. August 07, 2012 at 06:11 PM
I'm posting it tonight however, it's already on my personal website at www.mauramatarese.com If you can't wait. Just go to the blog page and scroll down until you see it. Thanks for reading it!!!
Maura Matarese, M.A. LMHC, R.Y.T. August 08, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Peggi, Just in case part 2 doesn't answer your questions - here's specifically what I did. 1. In terms of barking at my neighbors and growling, I started to give him the command "quiet" and made him lay down. When he did that, I would reward him with a cookie. Being a smart dog, he then started to go to my window, jump up and down, bark a little, then lay down and wag his tail because he just wanted a cookie. Nevertheless, this is working - for the most part. Now, when we are walking and I see a man approaching, I cue him with the quiet command, and he listens. At home, he's still hypervigalent when my neighbors walk by (I live in a condo complex so I really don't want him disturbing them) but if I cue him with "quiet" he's still alert and looking out the window but he doesn't bark.
Maura Matarese, M.A. LMHC, R.Y.T. August 08, 2012 at 12:47 AM
Hi Peggi - I couldn't fit it all in one comment box so here's the rest. 2. In terms of separation anxiety - I started to play "peek a boo" with him and I would go out the door, and then walk right back in. Then I would go out the door and stay a little longer and come back in. He started to learn that when I left, I'd come back. Then I would give him a specific hand cue and tell him I'll be back. I would then practice every day for one week leaving him alone for 5 minutes, then the next week 10 minutes, and then I worked up all the way to 30 minutes. I would sit in the storage room below my condo and listen. He got up to 30 minutes without barking. Then I stopped doing this, and he regressed because I wasn't consistent. My bad - so we'll start again. I hope that helps.
Peggi Cohen August 08, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Thanks so much Maura. Our biggest issue is horrible separation anxiety. He is a rescued dog so he had some tough times before we got him. When we leave him, he barks and scratches the door and sometimes potties on the floor. When we get home he cries very loudly and jumps all over us and acts crazy. He's been doing this for years so it won't be easy to change his behavior but we'll give your ideas a try. I'm also going to talk to the vet about puppy Prozac. Thanks again for your advice and good luck with Ben!

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