This is our dog Toby. We got him in April of 2016, about a month before our wedding. It was probably not the best timing, but when we saw his picture pop up on the Humane Society web page we knew he was our next family member.
So far as we know, he lived the first seven and a half years of his life with Mama The First, a little old lady who never went anywhere or did anything. He was over-fed and unsocialized, but well-loved. He knew and craved affection and he attached himself to us very quickly.
What none of us – including the shelter – realized was how traumatized Toby was by his short time with them. We didn’t know about his habit of shutting down when overwhelmed. As a result, he presented as a polite dog who did well with other animals and other people.
A week or two after adopting him, he started letting his guard down. It turned out he was not interested in making friends with any humans other than us, and was not good with other animals. He was terrified (and thus reactive) to everyone and everything. Taking him on walkies was unbearable, and we couldn’t have people visit.
We were at our wit’s end. We wanted to help him heal, but his anxiety was beyond our abilities to soothe. For nine months we tried virtually everything: we hired a dog trainer (who did help some) and tried virtually every dog-calming product on the market. Nothing worked.
At a nine-month check-in, we had a conversation with the vet about getting Toby on some anti-anxiety meds. Thankfully, she agreed. We noticed a demonstrable difference in his behavior after a few months. Walks became easier, even downright pleasant. We started having people over, and he started accepting their presence. Begrudgingly, but still. We even managed to take him on day trips around the state and a couple overnight trips to Grammy’s house. He started sleeping with us at night, cuddled up close so close to me I could barely move.
Earlier this week, we took him on his biggest adventure yet. We took him to Maine for three days, and stayed with family while there. Family with children. I will admit, I was concerned. I worried that we’d spend the entire vacation managing his reactivity, and there would be no relaxation for us.
He proved me wrong.
We kept him under pretty tight leash the entire time we were there, but he behaved very well. We took him on hikes, we took him on beaches, we even took him on a boardwalk filled with people. He was a Good Boy. Granted, he was also overwhelmed and exhausted, but it helped him see that we would keep him safe no matter how crazy things got.
This trip made me realize that I spent so much time the first year or so reacting to his reactivity, that I labeled him a “problem dog.” My label of him kept me from seeing the positive changes over the last two years. It kept me from seeing the Good Boy he worked so hard to achieve.
He’ll never be one of those goofy dogs who sees everyone as a friend. But… he’s getting better. He’s proving that old dogs can learn new tricks. Moreover, he’s proving to me the harm labels can do; whether they be self-applied or given by someone else.
I have to change how I present Toby to the world now. Because he is changing.
If my dog can change, people can change. If you don’t like the label you’ve been given (by others or by your own mind), then you can change it.
You don’t have to be what you tell yourself you “are.” Or what other people tell you you are. You are so much more than the label. And you don’t have to do it alone, either. There are so many who want to help you succeed. Let them in. Let them help. Change your narrative.
Become the You underneath the label.