Olive: our anxiety

The frazzled early days of dog-motherhood

When they brought her around the corner of the rescue organization, the first thing I noticed was her protruding ribs.

But this malnourished two-year-old dog looked at me and her whole body wiggled. It was like she said “oh, thank god. You made it.”

Moments later, when my husband entered the room, she said something quite different to him. She said something like, “fuck you, I will kill you dead.” She initiated what we would come to affectionately call “full-on Cujo mode.” She tucked her ears back, barked and snarled while backing up.

“Oh, yeah. She doesn’t really like men,” the rescue organization lady said.

Jeremy immediately dropped to the ground, palms up, and said with confidence – “it’s okay, she’ll love me in a minute.”

And because he knows these sorts of things, she totally did.

Thirty minutes later, the three of us piled into the car and went home.

And we were happy because, since the loss of Grace more than a year earlier, we had shuffled through life with a dog-shaped hole in our hearts. Olive filled that space beautifully. But it might have been worth thinking about the implications of her little Cujo moment.

Olive was anxious, timid, and haunted by her past abuse. She has had very few experiences of the world, other than having far too many litters of puppies for her young age. Fire hydrants, flags, and statues were terrifying. She made no distinction between house guests and intruders, so anyone daring to step onto our porch would send her into a fear-rage. When I walked down the driveway to get the mail, she cried hysterically as if her death was imminent. She ripped the spines off my books. If we put her in a crate, she would bang her tail against the side so hard that it would spurt blood, covering the walls like a horror film. When I tried to pad the crate by pinning a quilt to the sides, she ate the safety pins.

“She’s so cute,” my friends said. “How’s it going?”

I would smile and say “She’s a handful.” And I’d try not to cry.

We wanted a challenge. We said that to anyone who would listen while we were looking for a dog. We were experienced dog owners and we were ready for a dog who was difficult. We expected that would be an older dog with health issues, but we kept saying we wanted the harder-to-place rescue. And we got just what we asked for.

The last five months have been filled with love and sadness. Of heartbreak. Of joy. Of learning and of failures. At times, I wondered if we took on a dog who is too much to handle. If her anxiety and fears are beyond my capabilities — because they trigger all of mine. I laid in bed and held Jeremy’s hand in the dark while I choked back my shame and guilt and I whispered: “what if we made a mistake?”

But as I train Olive, I find myself in training.

We use the phrase “leave it” to mean a bunch of things. It basically means I don’t like what you are doing with your face. It could be sniffing at a rotting bird carcass, or barking at the neighbor kids. “Leave it” means – stop that immediately and make a different choice. 

One night, I was spinning. It was 3 AM and I was obsessing about how Olive’s terrible separation anxiety was going to mean that Jeremy and I could never travel again. I’d never again go out to a movie. I extrapolated to the extent that I no longer had a career because I was not able to leave my house. (Nevermind that I work from home – this was not a time for logic.)

3 AM has a way of creating a singular panic within your heart. The half-awake, inky blackness seeps in and makes any number of irrational things inevitable. At a certain point, my wiser self woke up, stepped to the forefront and said, This is silly. We need to stop. So I said, out loud, LEAVE IT. It’s time to stop what I’m doing with my face. Or, rather, that unreliable narrator behind my face – my mind.

Leave it, Lisa.

Leave the irrational thoughts and the spinning and the obsessing that is not productive. Leave the repetitive, negative thoughts. Put down the fear like the rotting bird carcass that it is.

Leave it.

And go lie down.

In the past few months, we have recruited the help of some incredibly talented dog trainers, and Olive has made fantastic progress. She is calmer, more confident, and less fearful. Her separation anxiety has dissipated and she now knows that I always come back to her. I see how clearly she reflects my anxiety right back at me. Olive needs me to temper my fears so that I can show her how to manage hers. I need to be brave so she can relax and let me be the Alpha of our lives. She is forcing me to calmly step up and take charge.

We are learning how to play. How to find the courage to go on adventures. And we always come back home where it is safe and warm with good food and cozy beds.

Sometimes what seems like a mistake is actually a gift. Because this is what love does: it builds you up and it breaks you down to the core of what you need to deal with. It holds up a mirror and shows you the scariest depths and most beautiful heights, all at once.

And when you get to witness it all and also get to be the recipient of cuddles and unconditional love? You’re one lucky dog.


Olive learns to be brave.


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20 Replies to “Olive: our anxiety”

  1. Thank you for giving Olive a home, and for not giving up on her. All of my dogs with the exception of my first one have been rescues, and I would not have it any other way. I also believe that while dogs may not be our whole lives, they make our lives whole.

      1. So kind of you to write that, Lisa. I wouldn’t have written that if it wasn’t what I truly believe. My dogs got me through my divorce, because they were the one constant in my life. I recently lost one of them, three days after she turned 13. It was as devastating a blow as I have ever experienced.

  2. Olive is lucky to have found you and you’re lucky to have found Olive. My dog, a year old puppy, tested me from every corner of my being, and he doesn’t have the past abuse that Olive does. I just hadn’t had a dog in years and thought I could handle it. Training classes were a life saver because it was a way we got to know each other and how each other worked. He still has his trying days, but overall I’m thankful for my little buddy with the waggly tail.

  3. That damned unreliable narrator in our heads. Lisa, this is so lovely. And you point out beautifully that when we do our own healing, we make space for and encourage others to do theirs. Thank you for this.

  4. Taking responsibility for your life in truly inspiring ways, then accepting the additional responsibility of another being with even greater issues is brave beyond the capacity of many of us. I doubt that I will ever tire of your writing. What shines through is your willingness to challenge yourself no matter what obstacles you encounter.
    It’s not just the bravery, but your candor and honesty about your inner being and personal issues, cutting through the bullshit, and your desire to help inform the rest of us on how to improve our own well-being. Thanks for that.
    I’m looking forward to seeing what your future challenges will be.
    In the meantime, my best to you and your family. 🙂

  5. You and Olive are so fortunate to have each other. You rescued her and she rescued you. It is beautiful when this happens.

  6. Lisa, we faced the same dilemma with a dog we rescued ten months ago. We are experienced dog rescuers, so why was this dog making us feel like failures? Clearly his issues were larger than our experience. Professional training rescued us, and within a short period of time, Loki’s soul was able to shine. He is so visibly happy to be safe with us, and we are so visibly in love with him!

  7. Such a lovely story and wonderful insight on how we are all learning to be brave all the time. Thank you for a couple happy tears this morning

  8. Beautifully said! I am the dogmom of six (seven, until recently) and as many as nine at one time. Each presenting their own unique challenges, individually and as a member of the Herd (I call them the Tanksley Thundering Herd), but all of them learning and teaching us every day the lessons we need then. Congratulations on rescuing Olive! I send my best wishes as you all continue to grow and flourish together.

  9. I really admire you. I love dogs and have always had rescues but no-one as difficult as Olive. You are making a big difference to one person and that’s a great thing. Cause dogs are people, in the sense that all living individuals are equal, in my view.

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