By: Valarie Ross, CBDC, CPDT-KA
CONTENT WARNING: Mental Health Struggles, Suicidal Ideation, Dog Bites, Child Abuse
Dog people, hell all animal people, talk a lot about what we need to do to make the lives of the animals we share our lives with better. We talk about husbandry, quality of food, veterinary services, training, enrichment, and where they sleep. We worry about them being stressed, in pain, too hot, too cold, and if they’re comfortable where they sleep. We get them calming activities, exercise, and if you’re like me, several soft beds and warm coats. I’m even the one that throws a warm blanket over them if they’re sleeping.
But what about us? Ya know, the human end of the leash.
Yes, animals can bring us a lot of comfort, love, and meaning. But also stress and anxiety can come with being a pet guardian, especially if those pets have behavior issues.
I am not a mental health professional (not for humans at least) but I have been an active participant in therapy for a long time. I struggle with anxiety, complex PTSD, and now active PTSD after being attacked by a dog. I am no expert but I am someone who fully supports and advocates for self-care.
I have two dogs, both that bring me love, joy, and peace… and stress, anxiety, and fear. Phoenix struggles with fear of new situations and can be reactive towards dogs. Gracie Bean has severe food and environmental allergies and is noise phobic (HATES HATES HATES storms and fireworks). So, they keep me on my toes. Sometimes spending time with them brings us all calm and sometimes it brings stress, lots and lots of stress.
Then there is my job. I work with families that have dogs that have some kind of behavior issue. Maybe the dog is struggling with fear, anxiety, aggression, or reactivity. I put my safety at risk with some of these dogs. I take on the emotions that families are feeling and sometimes act as a counselor if they have hard decisions to make or they have different ideas about how to help their beloved family members. So, burnout is very real; it is for a lot of pet professionals.
Since I am not a mental health professional I am just going to talk about what I find helps me and encourage you to engage in some self-care. Whatever it may look like.
Hikes with my dogs and wife. I love finding a quiet park or cemetery to walk with my family. I love spending time with my dogs and watching them do very important dog things. One of those is hiking. Finding someplace that is uninhabited, away from the noise of the city, seeing the girls just get to be dogs, sniffing and running around, brings me a peace that is beyond compare.
Getting away. I love, love, love traveling. If I could travel somewhere new once a month I totally would. I love traveling both with and without the pups. Sometimes completely alone and sometimes with our vacation family of about 16 people. Sometimes it’s to a city I haven’t been to, other times it’s to a secluded cabin in the woods that doesn’t have WiFi or cell reception.
Me time. I love my family, my friends, my dogs, and my clients. But sometimes I also need them to just go away. Me time is sometimes as simple as a pedicure, gawds, is it nice to have someone massage and pamper your feet. I am on them a lot and I’m not getting younger, so they often ache and after 10 years of playing roller derby my nails need all the help they can get to look pretty. I don’t consider myself a vain person, but I *need* pretty toes in my life. They just make me happy.
I also enjoy a good massage, hot bath full of lavender bubbles and epsom salt, a nap, or just a hot shower. Whatever it is, my phone is turned off and I just focus on the moment.
But also me time includes doing activities that help me get the anger and frustration out. Currently, I am in an axe-throwing league. Talk about a way to get anger out. Throwing axes at it… yep, I like it.
Sleep. We need it to be our best selves. I struggle with sleep so I do what I can to help get more of it. Some exercise, supplements, deep breathing, etc. If I need a nap, I take it. Set your bedroom up to be your sanctuary. Light dimmers, soft music, calming scents, all the blankets, and a comfy bed sure do help. Especially if you have wonderful animals and people to cuddle with… if that’s your thing. Get yourself some sleep!
Food. I love food. I love good food and I love bad food. I love eating at home- Hannah is a very good cook! OMG, her homemade mac and cheese. It’ll give me clogged arteries but it also fills in the cracks of that broken heart. And I also love going out to eat with friends. A taco and margarita friend date? Sign me up! But also, a burger, fries, and a Frosty from Wendy’s while sitting in my car… yes please. I do find comfort in food. Food was a central part of my relationship with my maternal grandma. We cooked together and it was always the best part of my week as a child.
Mindfulness. I learned about mindfulness a long time ago when I worked at a hospital. Hospitals, like the pet professional industry can be exhausting and workers experience a lot of burnout. I was really proud of this hospital for taking it all seriously with classes, calmness rooms, etc. According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.
Boundaries. I set and maintain boundaries. I turn off my phone. I don’t accept business inquiries via my personal social media or phone. I have days of the week I do not schedule any business-related activities or other things that an adult must do. I tell people no. I tell people that they need to respect me, my life, my choices, and my relationships. I don’t tolerate people using me or my family. Disrespect, threats, or any kind of sexism, racism, queer-phobia… you’re out. I’ll have a discussion with the person to express my concerns and if there is little to no care on their part. Bye Felicia. I have had enough of it in my life that I don’t need to tolerate it anymore and it is not my responsibility to try to teach the unwilling.
Therapy. Therapy and mental health still have so much stigma around them and I just don’t get why. I am pretty sure that without therapy I probably wouldn’t be here any longer. And then I would have missed out on finding myself, my passion, and my family.
I suffered rather horrific mental and emotional (and occasionally physical) abuse at the hands of my parents. And in the late 80’s and early 90’s when this was happening, we didn’t have the access to resources we do now. I didn’t know how to help myself and if you weren’t black and blue, the schools didn’t get involved. My mother is mentally ill and goes untreated and my father is a product of his generation. After leaving home I got myself into a string of abusive and toxic relationships. I was addicted to the drama, the fighting, and the fear. Yes, that can happen.
Finally, I decided I was tired of it. Tired of it all. I cut off a lot of people that weren’t good for me. I lost friends and family members. And I got myself into therapy. It took a while to find the right fit but I was at least trying and going. I met Hannah and found out what it was like to not be in a toxic relationship (and I’m not just talking romantic, as there are many kinds of relationships out there). And I found *MY* therapist.
I lucked out when I met my therapist at a pet-centered event. I knew like me, she was queer and from talking to her she *LOVED* animals. She also specialized in adult survivors of childhood abuse. I met her at a time I was at my worst mentally and emotionally. But I also wanted to be a better person, for me, for the dogs, and for Hannah.
When I was attacked by a dog and left to figure out how to get myself help, I made 3 calls. First to 911. Then to my wife. And then to my therapist. And I am not ashamed of that, at all.
Therapy is my biggest method of self-care. Even now, as I feel the best I think I have ever felt in my life, I will always have a therapist. I will always carve out time to sit down and talk with my therapist. I will always read some book, blog, or meme. I share a lot of memes too on my personal social media. I often find those tidbits to be really helpful, as we can only change a little at a time.
Take time to take care of yourself. The last few years have been hellish on a global scale. The politics in our country are scary. And then there is just life and life with a dog that has behavior concerns is just adding to the pile of things that stress us out.
Take care of yourself for your family. For your dogs. And most importantly, for yourself.
**If you are struggling with your mental health please contact a well-qualified mental health service provider. Check out the National Institute for Mental Health to find services in your area.