Our puppy, Stella, went to a new doggie daycare place yesterday. I feel the need to take her not because I want to spend less time with her but to be sure that she will be happy and safe if I have to leave her there for a day or an overnight or an emergency. The first place I found had too many dogs. There were about twenty each time she went, and the people who took care of her were different each time. They kept telling me that she had separation anxiety and that bringing her more often was the way to make her get used to it. I thought about how she must feel, with strange, yipping dogs jumping on her and nice but unknown people who kept saying, be brave and get over it. It didn’t feel like the right way to make my dog feel happy and safe.
So, with trepidation, I tried again. This new place was highly recommended by a friend who leaves her dog there for weeks while she goes on vacation. The same people have taken care of her dog for years, and he loves them. The only thing is that the dogs are not allowed to play together. Each has its own separate little room with a bed in it and is taken out every two hours to play in the grassy backyard area for fifteen minutes at a time with one of the “technicians”. So, it’s more like a traditional kennel. I had hoped that our puppy would get some playtime with another dog. Nonetheless, it was noticeably calmer when I dropped Stella off, and she seemed less upset when I left than she did at the other place. The girl who was her “technician” was very friendly, and Stella didn’t mind going with her.
I got in the car and realized that “separation anxiety” is an animal instinct. It’s no wonder that people have it too. My horses, both mother and daughter, are anxious when they have to leave each other. My daughter has been showing a lot of separation anxiety since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and while I try to not let her see it, I admit that I am also very conscious of my uneasiness recently when she is away from me. When I grew up, we didn’t live in a world where crazy people might kill you when you went to school or the mall or the movies. Our children are feeling a justifiable sense of danger, and telling them to buck up and get used to it will not help them become more comfortable and confident. At the same time, I know that I need to instill in my daughter the ability to be independent and live without fear. Just as Stella needs to know that she will be okay if I leave her for a few hours or a few days, my child needs to know that she has the emotional fortitude to take care of herself wherever she goes.
Since she was a little girl, I have tried to teach my daughter to be aware of what is going on around her. Many of her friends get so distracted and involved in what they are doing that they live in a little bubble of giggling chatter, oblivious to everything and everyone else. One of the reasons that I like going to New York City with her is that it gives me the opportunity to subtly teach her who and what to be wary of and how to be relaxed and happy while also being aware and careful. She has developed a good “street sense” and is comfortable in unfamiliar situations. The recent events in our town have definitely shaken her confidence, but the whole world was shaken by what happened. How we recover and what we learn from the tragedy is going to take some time, and we need to be patient and gentle.
I realize that when someone’s answer to anxiety, whether it be in a horse, a dog or a person, is to say “get over it, get used to it”, my gut reaction is to resent being pushed or pressured. It is never a good idea to resist or ignore one’s intuitive feelings. I am old enough to know that sooner or later, it will come back to bite you in the butt. So what we need is more compassion and empathy and less hardheaded determination in so many aspects of our lives during these troubled times.
Stella was not as anxious when she came out of the new doggie daycare after her first four-hour stay. She obviously was very happy to be home with us last night. It’s the same response that every member of our family, two and four-legged, have when we are all together and there is no drama going on around us. It is a gift to have that sense of security and well-being, and we need to do everything we can to spread it around so that more of us can feel it.