In my twenties and thirties, while my friends were getting married and having children, I was intractably single. What I didn’t imagine was that in my mid-forties both a partner and a child would enter my life as a dog.
Beau was a sweet and obedient yellow lab mix, a rescue who instantly won my heart, but in September 2020, a few days after I brought him home to my one-bedroom affordable housing city condo, I returned from grocery shopping to find him barking , crying, hyperventilating, covered in his own mess, and trying to break out of his crate.
At the time, I had a contamination phobia and, as I cleaned up the mess, I had no idea how I’d fix the problem. Dog-parent friends encouraged me to “let him bark it out,” comparing it to letting a baby cry. But doing so only made matters worse.
It turned out Beau had a severe case of separation anxiety that would leave me housebound for more than a year-and-a-half.
I tried toys that offered mental and physical stimulation, anxiety vests for animals, calming music, and CBD treats and oil, none of which helped. The vet prescribed a short-acting anti-anxiety medication, which induced panic rather than relaxation—a rare but possible side effect. Prozac gave him extreme gastrointestinal distress.
Clomipramine hydrochloride, an anxiety medication used for dogs, which cost $120 per month, went over well though it wasn’t close to a cure. Due to the pandemic, my friends and neighbors were too skittish to watch a dog, and Beau didn’t tolerate sitters. He loved doggie daycare, but the expense drained my paychecks.
I hired a reputable trainer, but this person blamed Beau’s problems on my own anxiety. More than a decade earlier, I’d been diagnosed with PTSD caused by my experiences growing up in a home ruled by abuse and violence. I’d spent years doing healing work in therapy, though I still coped with some of the psychological effects.
The trainer instructed me to rush into the room yelling and/or slamming my palms on his crate if Beau started barking. This was supposed to teach him to be quiet, but it simply raised his anxiety level, and my own.
Beau’s anxiety went beyond the home, where it was my nervous system’s nemesis. Going outside meant holding down an uncontrollable whirl of frenzy when we encountered a trigger: skateboarders, rollerbladers, scooter riders, drug users, or kids running with flailing limbs. Beau’s state of anxiety outdoors was manageable when he was little, less so when he grew into a 75lb barking, bucking beast. His reactivity tested my strength and balance, jolting me with adrenaline.
Some days, with overwhelming frustration and sadness, I thought I might have to rehome him, a profound loss I didn’t want to face. I loved him. I thought if I tried hard enough, I could find a solution.
Ten months post-adoption, after trying several different training methods, I thought I’d exhausted my options. Beau’s separation anxiety seemed unfixable, and my inability to leave him home alone had crippled not only my social life but my ability to go to the gym, to the store, to medical appointments. I felt trapped in an isolated existence that I knew I could not endure indefinitely. I contacted Beau’s rescue and asked for help; They recommend a local dog behaviorist.
This person educated me on canine body language and stress signals. She assessed Beau’s separation anxiety, designing a program of desensitization based on scientific data. A session included repetitive exercises exposing Beau to pre-departure cues—putting on my shoes, zipping up my jacket, picking up a bag, walking toward the front door—and the departure process, opening and closing the door, locking the door, walking down the hallway and stairwell, and out of the building. Beau’s stress responses comprised the results of each session and determined the next session’s protocol.
One day, while walking Beau, I met a woman I knew from a self-defense class. We started talking about anxious dogs, because she had also had one, and I confessed that I sometimes thought Beau would be better off with somebody who didn’t have PTSD, someone who had a spouse and a yard. I felt ashamed of my inadequacies. The woman shook her head: “You’re the absolute right person for him,” she said, “because you understand.”
And that’s when my self-perception shifted. I was being the parent I’d never had, for Beau. I knew what it was like, not just to live through trauma, but how to get to the other side.
That’s exactly what Beau and I were doing.
We partnered in separation anxiety training thirty minutes each day, five days a week. In the beginning, Beau was unable to tolerate my approaching the door, let alone exiting. But then, slowly, over many, many months, he progressed (and regressed, and progressed again) and I was able to leave the building. In the process, I learned that raising an anxious dog meant cultivating compassion, Herculean patience, and indefatigable hope—for him, and for myself. Training Beau to change his mindset meant reconfiguring my own outlook on life after trauma. I grew to believe that the damaging effects of the past did not determine the present or future; With the right tools—and love—at the helm, even the most difficult challenges could be overcome.
I hadn’t known Beau’s history prior to adopting him, but a few months into training with the behaviorist, I was able to chat with the woman who had found him and his littermate, who were born to feral dog parents and were found under a trap house in Mississippi. So, I discovered Beau had a traumatic history of his own.
In June, we completed our twelfth month of separation anxiety training, a process of healing that can take between one and two years. Though we still have work to do on this, and his outdoor reactivity, his anxiety has far less of a hold on him, and me.
In the early mornings, I take him to a field where he jumps gleefully as I toss his favorite squeaky ball, which he catches in his mouth with a satisfying pop.
I toss another and he chases it, pounces on it, and then lets the ball go, somersaulting onto his back, paws up. I get down on the ground with him and we play-wrestle, his brown eyes gentle and glistening, his tongue dangling out of his open mouth as if he’s smiling at the universe. I feel his joy, his indefatigable essence—and mine—free from suffering.
This is us, making it through.
Tracy Strauss is a Harvard University writing professor. She is the author of I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life, and she is currently writing a memoir about raising Beau. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyS_Writer and Instagram @pawfessorbeauandco.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.