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Things I Learned About Stress... From My Dog

I’d wanted a dog for ages - doggy adventures in beautiful nature, cosy evenings with my fur family (2 cats and said dog) harmoniously snuggling on the sofa, and a big sturdy companion that I could cuddle like a boyfriend (shh, I know it's weird) without the drama.

So when I saw an advert for a litter of Ridgeback-Labrador puppies, I carefully considered it and decided it was time.
The first week after bringing Jackson home, the doubts set in. I found it exhausting to monitor him constantly in case of accidents or misbehaviour. I wasn't used to being around another being for long periods of time and, call me antisocial, but I love to be alone. (Red flag, anyone?) Except I couldn't because he would howl the house down if left alone for 6 seconds. Ugh.

That first week I considered returning him to the breeder but told myself it would pass...

And it did, except new issues arose. I hadn't realised that my work meant I was away from the house quite as much as I was. So the dog would either accompany me and be very disruptive or be at home, alone (with the cats who, instead of keeping him company, were terrified of him and had taken to toileting in the bottom of my wardrobe!) or I'd scramble to arrange someone to look after him.

When I got home, tired and needing to rest, he'd be ready to bounce around and play. I started to feel resentful of the obligation to interact with him or walk him when I just wanted to rest. None of this was his fault, of course, he was just being a dog.

It became increasingly difficult to balance his needs with mine. I was realising how much I like my freedom to spontaneously up and go somewhere. I felt overwhelmed by juggling work, my own movement training, walking and interacting with the dog, despite help from lots of people.
I was riddled with guilt for leaving him at home or with other people, and guilty that I was burdening said people, and at the same time felt trapped, frustrated, annoyed and stressed by expecting myself to do laborious training techniques, and highly resentful of just being around the dog who, in his defence, Your Honour, was just being a dog.

There were simply lots of things I was required to do that I hadn't anticipated and I found miserable. On top of that, I had a knee injury that got worse during this time.

It might sound like I'm just having a whinge, but I promise this is going somewhere. I’m trying to keep it brief…

To make things worse, Jackson developed a veracious appetite for hunting and as such, walking him became a nightmare. He’d run off and not come back for ages, frequently making me late for work. But I had to make sure he got his energy out before I went to work so that he wouldn't destroy the house in my absence.

Expensive trainers recommended either ineffective or impractical methods, like walking him exclusively on the lead which was a miserable experience for both of us - playing Tug Of War with a 40kg dog isn't as fun as it sounds, and he didn't get to run around like he needed to.

One of the most infuriating and confusing things was trying to navigate the conflicting expert opinions, and expecting myself to follow recommendations that were like another form of torture for me. Add to that a belief that I should only ever use positive reinforcement (ie, only ever be nice) and never harsh.

I felt burnt out from trying to prioritise Jackson over myself, guilty for not giving him the attention he deserved, and shameful about wanting to rehome him. Oh, and my knee... Stress levels through the roof!

Through this 18 month experience, however, I learned a lot about stress.

1. I realised that stress and overwhelm are a function of expecting yourself to do things that are not truly a high priority for you; believing other people's needs are more important than our own. Many of us do this and end up bitter and resentful of the tasks, and people around us for not helping as much as we think they "should". But if we don't want to do it, why should they? Ironically, the stress, bitterness and resentment we experience are necessary to help us change our situation.

When we are doing something we truly love that is high priority, we embrace the challenges and seek out more of them. When we are engaging in lower priority things, we want things to be easy and don't want to put in the work. I wasn't interested in putting in the boring hours to get Jackson to come back to me in the park, but I am interested in putting in the boring hours to nail handstands and flying trapeze tricks.

2. I also tangibly experienced how much stress affects the body - my knee pain grew as my stress did.

3. I learned that a major factor in stress is our expectations. Not the funnest of lessons, but here we are. None of us like to believe that our expectations are unrealistic, but annoyingly, they often are. We then create our own suffering by naively comparing our expectations to cold, hard reality. But the more able we are to embrace the reality in front of us, and not try to change it - bend so that we don't break - the better able we are to face the challenges, or run away to join the circus. I had naively expected things to be a lot easier than they were and that played a big part in my stress.

After a year and a half of struggling, telling myself it would all be ok eventually, I finally gave up. Oh, and let's not forget the hours of work with my coach that I put into overcoming the shame and guilt I had about rehoming him. It's amazing how the voices of strangers can affect us - if we allow them to. I found a wonderful family for him to live with. Judge me all you like for rehoming him, but I am certain this was the best outcome for everyone involved.

Two weeks after I rehomed him, my knee pain went away. And 6 months later, Jackson's new family sent me photos of a doggy triathlon they'd entered with him that, unsurprisingly, he'd won!

(In case you're wondering how a dog rides a bike - haha! - they don't. They wear a special harness and pull the bike with a human on it, a bit like a horse!)

If you want to learn more about stress and how to manage it, we're going to explore it in more depth at my Day Retreat on 4th May in North London. Jump in!
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