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My Dog is a Therapist

Ryland G
Head of Product at Temporal. Previously lead architect and low-level systems programmer for scale out SaaS offering. Game engine developer, ML engineering expert. DMs open on Twitter.
Originally published at cdevn.com ・3 min read

Cover Credit

Significantly more personal post today. Wanted to change things up.

This is an experience we had with our 1.5 year old border collie Audrey. It might be insightful if you struggle with anxiety.

Audrey and Anxiety

Audrey

We've put a ton of effort into training Audrey. She's had ~40 minutes of quality 1:1 training/games, nearly every day since we got her. She also gets 2 walks a day, plus a ton of other random attention. So you can understand our confusion when Audrey started developing anxiety issues a few months ago, especially while we were on walks.

Jeanie (my girlfriend) and I are both very anxious people. It's something we've both struggled with our entire lives. Obviously we're both aware and try very hard to improve the situation, but sometimes your mind has abstract ways of being anxious that are not apparent to "you".

We were devastated to watch as Audrey's anxiety worsened over a period of weeks. We had been passively working on it, but decided to start taking real conscious action to combat the problem. I noticed that if you were fully engaged with Audrey while you walked, her anxiety would dissipate. But if you were distracted on your phone or having a conversation, she would regress again.

I made a new rule for our walks with Audrey, if you were walking her, you needed to be fully engaged with her. I hoped, that given enough time, this would dampen the negative association her brain currently had with walking. Due to the nature of this rule, I spent a lot of time watching her over the next few weeks.

After a few weeks, I started to think there might be a pattern to her anxiety on the walks. Because she's a collie, she has a strong herding mentality. It's obvious to see how upset she gets when the group "isn't together". In fact, if the group separates, she refuses to lose sight of the other group members. So when I would be walking her, she would be constantly watching Jeanie to make sure we stayed together (and vice versa).

This made me curious. I decided to start observing Jeanie and Audrey's behavior simultaneously. It didn't take long to see that Jeanie's body language was incredibly indicative of if she was feeling anxious. She read like a bad poker player. And because dogs (as a species) have become incredibly adept at reading human body language, Audrey was seeing Jeanie from a similar perspective that I was. All of a sudden, I got it. Audrey's anxiety on the walks was a reflection of our anxiety on the walks.

If it isn't clear yet, here's an example. I noticed that Jeanie would walk through crosswalks much faster than she walked on the sidewalk. She was subconsciously anxious about the cars waiting to turn (cars held up by us pedestrians), and would increase her pace to satisfy that anxiety. Audrey, unable to understand the context of the anxiety, only saw that Jeanie was discontent and alert. We cross the street 20+ times per walk, and crossing the street is just one of many anxiety inducing scenarios. Compound all of these micro experiences over each walk twice a day and you have a dog with a serious anxiety issue.


Credit

Conclusion

After having this revelation, Jeanie and I started putting a ton of effort into reducing our own anxiety on the walks. This drastically improved the walks, nearly immediately. It also forced Jeanie and I to become far more aware of our own anxiety, and how we express it externally.

I strongly believe, that we pick up on those subtle indicators from other people, without even knowing it. This may drastically change the way you perceive someones behavior. Maybe there's someone who you just "don't like" and it's because your brain is subconsciously picking up on their anxiety. Maybe there's someone who doesn't like you for a similar reason.

Worry not, this is something that everyone can improve. Be mindful, and try to imagine someone is only able to understand things based on your body language. Would that be a pleasant experience? If not, how would you change to make the experience more pleasant?

And just in case you wanted to see Audrey in action, here's a video.

Discussion (21)

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rpalo profile image
Ryan Palo

100% here for all pet related content in Dev.to. Audrey rules! Keep em coming!

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taillogs profile image
Ryland G Author

Will do! Not exactly "Dev" material so I was worried it wouldn't be received well.

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Scott Simontis

Honestly this is what I would consider some of the best content. As an individual living with some rather serious mental health issues, I love seeing content that raises awareness of any mental health issue, and anxiety is one that I imagine a great many members here can relate to.

You approached this with the mind of an engineer. You made a hypothesis, gathered data that supported your theory, and once confirmed, integrated it. Uplifting stories can be difficult to find when anxiety or other mental health issues are involved, and your story has a happy ending, brings hope and optimism, and offers some great observations on the non-computing side of development, which is often neglected.

Great job and I look forward to reading more of your content in the future!

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taillogs profile image
Ryland G Author

Honestly this is what I would consider some of the best content. As an individual living with some rather serious mental health issues, I love seeing content that raises awareness of any mental health issue, and anxiety is one that I imagine a great many members here can relate to.

I'm glad it resonated with you. It's actually what I have the most to write about, so I'll make sure to write more stuff like this. Anxiety is a bitch, I think it contributes to almost every problem in the world.

You approached this with the mind of an engineer. You made a hypothesis, gathered data that supported your theory, and once confirmed, integrated it. Uplifting stories can be difficult to find when anxiety or other mental health issues are involved, and your story has a happy ending, brings hope and optimism, and offers some great observations on the non-computing side of development, which is often neglected.

I'm glad you took that away from the story. For a long time I would just get defeated by my anxiety, because that's what people around me did. Once I realized that anxiety follows rules like anything else, attempting to combat it became much easier.

Great job and I look forward to reading more of your content in the future!

Thanks for taking the time to leave such a positive and insightful comment. Expect more of this stuff moving forward.

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rpalo profile image
Ryan Palo

Well, Willy approves. :)

My dog, Willy

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taillogs profile image
Ryland G Author

What a stud. What breed is he?

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rpalo profile image
Ryan Palo

We’re not sure. Seems like some border collie and pit bull. Some pictures of staffordshire terriers kind of look like him. He may actually be just a very small cow.

What about Audrey?

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taillogs profile image
Ryland G Author

We’re not sure. Seems like some border collie and pit bull. Some pictures of staffordshire terriers kind of look like him.

I was guessing there might be some border collie in there, but I wasn't entirely sure. Pit bulls get such a bad rap, they are such awesome dogs.

He may actually be just a very small cow.

Have you tried milking him?

What about Audrey?

Allegedly a purebred border collie. She has very unique markings (for any breed), and we adopted her from a family, so it's hard to know for sure.

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Rachel Soderberg

My family's dog had an interesting way of picking up on anxiety too. My sister and I would walk her at different times with very different results - my sister is more anxious than I am and Jessie (the dog) would pick up on it and growl at strangers if they came too close. I walk confidently and have martial arts training so she would typically just ignore people on our walks together because I was not regarding them as interesting or a threat. I could run with her off leash, my sister could not. Pretty interesting how they can read us almost better than we can read ourselves!

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Rachel Soderberg

I forgot to share - this is Jessie!
Jessie

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Ryland G Author • Edited

That's a unique looking dog. What breed is she?

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Rachel Soderberg

She's a husky german shepherd mix! So she ended up with the husky colors (and stubborn attitude), with the shepherd markings and smarts. She's such a cool dog!

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Shih Tzu Expert

Cute pup! Always said dogs are far more intelligent that we give them credit for :)

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David Wickes

My editor is a therapist:

M-x doctor

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Cécile Lebleu

Thank you for posting this! Highly appreciated.
As someone with anxiety issues too, I will try to start watching more for my own triggers, and how it affects other people.

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Ryland G Author

Hey, thanks for taking the time to read the post. I'm so happy to hear it resonated with you. Let me know how it goes!

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Sarah-Jane Morris

What a good girl! She's clearly solving relatable problems in that video.

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Ryland G Author

I'm definitely not biased, so I feel confident saying she's a contender for "best girl". She's debugging the toy.

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Sam Ringleman

I haven't read yet. I hearted because of the title. ❤️