I’ve thought about leaving him.
When we go for a walk in the park, or through neighborhood streets, I’ve sometimes thought, What if I leave him here, right now? I’ve thought about turning my back. I’ve thought about just letting go.
My thoughts are self-inflicted sucker punches, because, in the short time we’ve been together, I’ve grown to love Beau too much to ever part ways. I’m ashamed of my thinking, though my friends who are parents tell me they’ve had such moments with their kids. It’s human. It’s normal.
Beau isn’t my child. He’s my dog. Yet my friends compare Beau to a baby, to the way they, as mothers, have sometimes gone stir-crazy with the intense, nonstop responsibility.
In 2020, as the pandemic began to rage, I felt keenly alone. In my 30s, I emerged from a PTSD diagnosis and years of self-imposed social isolation into a world of friendships and dating, only to find myself isolated once again in my mid-40s. My daily work and social activities moved online and ceased to feel real.
In the psychology field, one might say I had challenges around secure attachment and object constancy. I believed I’d lost a world of relationships that I’d taken a lifetime to be brave enough to cultivate.
Despite years of therapy, I still hadn’t secured a lasting partnership or a stable career. I was unhappy in my longtime position as a college professor at an institution with low morale and lower pay. I knew where my passions lay, and although I’d searched for decades, I couldn’t seem to find the conduit through which to channel them. What was so wrong with me that, at my age, I still hadn’t found the right place to be, to thrive, in my career, in my relationships, in my life?
Like millions of other people during the pandemic, I adopted a dog for companionship. Beau was a yellow lab mix from the South, and he opened my heart more than I imagined it needed opening. Still, unlike the stories I saw on the news about pandemic dogs saving people from their mental crises, our relationship wasn’t easy. He and I both had baggage to unpack.
The first time I left Beau home alone was a week after I adopted him. He was four months old, and I put him in his crate with a chew toy. I waited until he appeared distracted, and then I left for the supermarket.
When I returned an hour later, I heard him barking and crying when I entered the elevator, the sounds crescendoing as I rose to the third floor of the building where I lived in an affordable housing condo. I rushed to unlock my door and went inside, finding Beau in the throes of a panic attack: sweating, hyperventilating and frantically pawing at his metal cage as if trying to break free, his body — and the toy — covered in his pee and poop.
When I opened the crate door, he ran, leaving wet fecal footprints everywhere.
As I cleaned up the mess, everything felt out of control. I had a contamination phobia and lived alone. I was a first-time dog parent and had no idea how to handle the situation. Friends and family told me to let him “bark it out.” It was like letting a baby cry, they said. But a week later, when I tried to leave again, his behavior not only didn’t get better, it worsened.
The vet prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. “Try it. Take a walk around the block,” she said. It didn’t work.
I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to leave my home. Then I discovered doggie day care. Beau loved it, but I couldn’t afford more than a few hours a week; in that time, I crammed in essential errands and appointments before racing to pick him up.
Beau was born in a small town in rural Mississippi. His parents, rumored to have once belonged to a local hunting camp, were feral and hid him and his three siblings under a trap house where meth was made. They traveled a 10-mile radius each day, searching for food.
I didn’t know these things before we met. Beau and his sister were rescued, later parting ways during the adoption process; his brother was found dead in the road. Beau’s (human) foster mom explained that I’d need to have patience and help him learn that the world wasn’t so scary.
For years, I’d struggled with that concept myself. As a teenager, I didn’t socialize like my peers. I was too afraid to go out. My Friday nights were mostly spent keeping my mother company at home. I grew up in a house riddled with domestic violence, yet, instead of finding the outside world appealing, the idea of leaving home frightened me.
When I went away to college — a family expectation — I was terrified I might get assaulted while walking on campus. I hated parties and the buzz of a beer. I worried about what might be happening to my mother in my absence. At 18, I couldn’t envision my future. I lacked hope and faith that I could overcome obstacles to my happiness. What I didn’t realize was that my beliefs gave me a false sense of security. Only in changing my mindset could a rich life ever be possible.
As Beau grew bigger, his triggers worsened. I frequently had to brace my body to hold back a snarling 66-pound beast.
I was able to house-train Beau in two days. Unlike most puppies, he didn’t chew on anything other than his chew toys. He sat on command. He was smart and perceptive, loyal, goofy and affectionate, rolling over on his belly for a rub multiple times a day. He could give a paw, “sit pretty” and dance. He was a quick learner, but in the weeks and months that followed his adoption, I couldn’t make him understand that he was safe at home alone.
I hired a trainer to help me address his anxiety. She recommended crate training. She said that after 10 days, or a month at worst, I’d be able to leave my apartment without him.
Through my own research, I discovered that crate use is an American habit; Europeans don’t commonly believe in crate usage, and in some countries, it’s illegal to crate a dog overnight or during the workday. Crates can exacerbate separation anxiety. Putting the crate aside, I presented my absence as a game, instructing Beau to “sit-stay” in the living room while I approached the exit door, and, eventually, left. If he obeyed, I gave him a high-value treat when I returned. We seemed to make progress until he grew tired of the exercise and refused to participate.
When COVID restrictions began to ease, Beau seemed more like a jail warden than a companion, his piercing bark startling me into stopping each of my attempts to venture out, even if it was to check the mail. He reminded me of my mother, who, when she was alive, told me that women who travel alone get raped, abducted and killed, and if I tried to go out into the world, disaster would follow.
When Beau and I did go outside, he stopped walking and refused to budge if he heard the sound of a bird, a dog, a coyote, a motorcycle, a fire truck, a police cruiser. He lunged and barked at anything on wheels, at running young children, basketballs, and older people wearing a mask or using a walker or carrying grocery bags. I blamed myself for living in a city.
As Beau grew bigger, his triggers worsened. I frequently had to brace my body to hold back a snarling 66-pound beast. I became hypervigilant, scanning the distance for skateboarders, rollerbladers, scooters, strollers, and, eventually, anything that moved.
My anxiety coupled with depression. As restaurants, bookstores and movie theaters reopened, going out with a friend or on a date wasn’t possible. Day care wasn’t open in the evenings or on weekends. As I watched everyone returning to “normal” life, my existence felt more limited than ever.
During these moments, what I didn’t realize was that I was slipping back into the doomed mindset of my past. That’s when my intrusive thoughts of abandoning Beau surfaced. What I didn’t think about was how Beau’s anxiety paralleled my struggle to leave behind the belief system of my childhood. My journey to help Beau overcome his panic would become my own journey in exiting my (inner) trauma world.
So many people have adopted dogs from rescue organizations, shelters and breeders during the pandemic that vet clinics are now chronically overwhelmed in some areas, and professional dog trainers are overbooked. Not everyone understands the reality of caring for a dog, and not everyone is ready or willing to take on the responsibility, especially if the dog has behavior issues stemming from known or unknown past trauma, which is the unfortunate truth for many rescue and shelter pups.
Thankfully, many stories claiming people were returning pandemic pets “in droves” have turned out to be untrue. Still, I have known people who have returned their dogs after discovering the reality didn’t line up with their canine dream: Training the dog was too time-consuming, or the dog’s temperament didn’t work with their lifestyle, or the dog posed a safety risk to others.
I understand why someone would make the decision to return a dog, but despite the challenges Beau has presented, I’d never give him up. My heart instantly committed to raising him the moment I picked him up and held him in my arms at his foster home. I wasn’t naive; I knew there’d be bumps in the road. When the bumps turned out to be bigger than I’d envisioned, I held on to a deep conviction to find a way to navigate through the turbulence.
Just after Beau’s first birthday, I connected with an animal behaviorist who explained that helping Beau overcome his anxiety entailed not using distractions or treats, but rather, changing his mindset.
Now, five days a week, for 30 minutes each day, I conduct desensitization exercises with Beau around the process of my absence, including exit cues, opening and closing the door, walking out for designated periods of time, and returning. Each session is video recorded via a Zoom meeting on my laptop, which I prop on a countertop for maximum view of Beau’s activities.
I log into the Zoom meeting on my phone so that I can observe Beau’s responses when I depart and throughout my absence. On a data sheet, I note his stress responses — following me, yawning, panting, shaking off, and pawing at or chewing my shoes. His barking, crying, peeing and pooping were what I now understand to be “over threshold” behaviors. I no longer let his anxiety reach that level. Based on Beau’s behavior, the trainer prescribes a new set of exercises for the next day.
On his first day of training, Beau only tolerated my absence for one second. By the fifth day, he was comfortable with seven seconds, exhibiting zero stress responses. I lamented, How long will it take to reach seven minutes, let alone one hour? Is an hour even possible? Yes, if I looked at the facts of the data, instead of my old (hopeless) belief system. Seven seconds was seven times the amount that he was ever able to do before, and that was empowering and promising and said loud and clear: This is working.
I began to carve out an hour of Beau’s day care time to visit with friends, go to the gym, or sit at a cafe, sipping an iced tea and writing, something I hadn’t done since before Beau, before the pandemic. I began to look beyond my present circumstances and felt the heaviness lift.
A little over five weeks into separation anxiety training, Beau could tolerate three minutes alone. At eight weeks, we were up to eight minutes. He didn’t follow me to the door as much as he once had. I felt delight and pride as I observed him lie down on his side and relax, or play with a toy while I left. I was able to lock the door after exiting and walk down the hallway to the elevator, all of which felt miraculous, and freeing.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, he experienced a regression, which, according to our behaviorist trainer, is a normal and expected part of the training process. Still, I felt devastated. Beau wouldn’t tolerate my leaving ― period. He barked and whined and rushed to the door at my attempts to leave. It seemed like all the work we’d done simply unraveled. I began to wonder if his condition was unfixable. Then I caught myself in my past belief system once again. He’d made it to eight minutes and he would again.
What caused the regression? Perhaps pushing him too quickly on the door-locking post-departure cue and walking to the elevator. Or, perhaps it was the disruption of two neighbors moving out and a couple with an infant and dog moving in. Or, it could’ve been the result of medication withdrawal (at the recommendation of my vet, I’d put Beau on Prozac about a month into training, but it was causing him extreme GI distress, so we decided to discontinue it). Perhaps it was a combination of everything. Dogs are like people ― they’re all different, and there are so many things that can affect their behavior. Whatever the underlying cause, we went back to the beginning exercises to reestablish his sense of safety and confidence.
As I write this, it’s three weeks later, and I’m able to walk out the door and close it behind me. We are reintroducing the departure cue of the door lock, but more slowly this time. Once he is desensitized to that ― and my taking steps away from the door and to the elevator ― we can work on extending the absence duration once more. We are also addressing his outdoor triggers with clicker training. I don’t know how long this journey will take or where it will take us, but I do know that we’re staying on it together.
Each day, as we move forward, Beau is learning how to feel safe in his new, unfamiliar world. Each day, with all the patience and courage I can muster, I open the door, stepping across the threshold to where a fuller life awaits.
Tracy Strauss is the author of the narrative nonfiction book “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life.” Her writing has appeared in Glamour, Oprah Magazine, New York Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Ms., among other publications. She is former essays editor of The Rumpus and teaches writing and Zumba in Boston. Find Tracy on the web at www.tracystrauss.com, on Twitter at @TracyS_Writer, on Instagram at @TracyStraussAuthor and Facebook.
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