Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Fear and Anxiety

I was just 8 years old when I made my first trip to the animal hospital with my new puppy. I felt inspired by the doctor who examined him. He was kind to me and my new dog. I was fascinated with his work and I was taken with his professionalism. I was hooked. Practicing veterinary medicine is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

That childhood dog meant a lot to me but a couple of years later my parents got fed up with his indoor urine mistakes and he was taken to the shelter. Kindness had no place in the discussion. I missed that little guy but I stuck with my plan anyway.

Pets aren’t for everybody but they can help bring out our best. I started learning to be a father before I even met my wife Carolyn, who would raise two sons with me. I’d been a damaged young man, fresh out of a divorce. I felt a calling to build a family. I just wasn’t ready.

Around that time I had an excellent dog named Juan. He and I shared just about everything, including backpacking in the wilderness and the sport of obedience competition. We campaigned all over the Southwest. We did well; he was nationally ranked one year.

Juanito’s value went well beyond companionship. His 13 years in my life planted the seeds of confidence – that I could someday be a father – and a good one. Despite my mistakes he taught me kindness, patience, and forgiveness.

I have a wonderful family now. Our dog is a Border collie named Maddie. She’s so loyal and cheerful that it’s almost impossible to have a harsh thought when she’s with us. I call her Miss America because, well, she’s mighty special to me.

Dogs are man’s and woman’s best friends but there are differences. Unlike most of us they walk on all 4s and they’re somewhat hairier. But like us they’re genetically programmed to look after each other. Miss America is always on duty.

Throughout my career, I’ve treated thousands of cats and dogs for illnesses and injuries. The people attached to them wanted their pets to feel better. Now, I’m a residency trained specialist in disorders of the brains of animals. These pets have abnormal and unhealthy behaviors. They need to feel better and so do their people. Everybody needs all the kindness we can muster.

There is a valuable lesson in the story of a dog named Kipper. He was a 2 year old Catahoula mix, weighing in at a robust 65#. Kipper was well-loved but he was not well-adjusted. He had lunged and growled and snapped at his female owner – often. Serious change was needed, but it had to be change that included kindness.

Kipper’s person was his 5 year old boy, who he guarded with intensity. This dog was all business. He attacked the trampoline if the kids squealed or screamed while jumping. It was clear that Kipper struggled with anxiety, so why was he trying to hurt his boy’s mother?

This family was deeply conflicted. The children were really bonded to Kipper but Mom and Dad believed he might be dangerous. There was a lot of angst. If Kipper was going to survive, his people would need kindness as much as he would.

When things go wrong in an animal’s brain it can be difficult to parse apart the details and figure out the cause. We do our best to gather information. But the utter failure of nonhuman animals to speak in complete sentences is part of the conundrum. That’s important because understanding and managing the cause of an unhealthy behavior is fundamental to lasting improvement.

Fear is often involved in canine aggression. Fear is an in-the-moment condition that’s built into all of us. We actually need it but if it gets out of control it can lead to defensive aggression.

At Kipper’s house there were emotional outbursts that had everybody on edge. Mom unloaded often, triggering Kipper to react. That waiting for the other shoe to drop, for humans and other species, causes a problem called anxiety. That’s the worry that something unpleasant may be lurking around the next corner. In veterinary behavior medicine we treat a lot of pets with anxiety and fear.

Empathy is another emotion that’s shared by dogs and humans. Empathy is mutual caring. It’s part of the reason so many of us share our homes with pets. It’s the glue that bonds them to us. I encourage empathy because it makes kindness possible.

During our consultation Mom shared information freely. She told me that “whenever she severely scolded” her 5 year old son, as she put it, Kipper became aggressive, lunging and snapping at her face.

Frequent, severe scolding of a 5 year old child triggered a physical reaction in me. I felt jolted back to the emotional and physical violence of my childhood. I immediately understood Kipper’s fear and his impulse to protect. I needed to help. But I’m a veterinarian. What do I know about family counseling? I was flying by the seat of my pants on that one.

The triggers for Kipper’s protective reactions needed to stop. So I made a suggestion. I told Mom that talking to her young son in quieter tones would reduce the risk of Kipper perceiving a threat to this child. This good lady was willing to make whatever change was necessary. She set her ego aside. Over several months new habits developed. She now reports that Kipper has stopped his aggressive lunging. She’s happier when I see her with Kipper and her son. Her kindness toward them both has improved everybody’s wellbeing. Mine too.

We live in a time of struggle, fragmentation, and for a lot of people, isolation. Pets can make a big difference because, even more than companionship, they provide opportunities to practice kindness. Their wellbeing improves right along with ours.

It was a good thing that Kipper’s family kept him. Had they gotten rid of him they would have missed an opportunity to practice kindness. Their children might have come away believing that challenging relationships are best abandoned. The kindness their mother showed Kipper will help her son and daughter become better adults.

Pets are excellent models for exercising our kindness because they never grow tired of us and they’ll never leave. When we make mistakes they forgive and they give us a second chance. They won’t grind an axe and they won’t rat you out. Pets can set a pretty good example.

I’ve often thought of Aesop the ancient Greek philosopher and storyteller with a cat curled up in his lap and a small child by his side, and maybe a random adult saddled with emotional wounds nearby, when the old timer said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

I hope you’ve found this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your pet-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.