Mia’s backstory – what happened?!

The truth is that I don’t know exactly what happened.

I don’t know if there was a particular moment or situation that caused Mia’s anxiety and fear. Something must have happened that pushed her over the edge but I don’t know what or when that was.

I adopted Mia when she was two months old and, for that first month, everything seemed normal for a puppy. There was some training and socialization that I had to start right away – such as establishing a routine, getting her used to me and the apartment, starting potty and crate training, learning how to do stairs, and creating positive associations with the car. She was also born on a farm, so I knew there was a lot about city life that she would have to get used to.

We started a virtual puppy foundations class and I was working on taking her for longer walks each day. She was a happy puppy – seemed comfortable with me, our home and playing.

Any odd behaviour or reactions were easy to explain away as due to her just being a puppy – for example, teaching her how to walk. She’d happily walk for a bit, then turn around and whine to go back the way we came. When we turned around, she would rush back eagerly. I would come home and the internet would tell me that this is normal for a puppy learning to walk. All the posts told me that I should ignore the whines to avoid teaching her the bad habit of crying to get her own way. Instead, to keep teaching her to walk, they recommended turning my back to ignore her until she started walking again or carrying her further away and then putting her down to walk again (either forward or just back home). I would do that and it seemed to work – she was eagerly walking back. Sometimes she would shake in nervousness but, again, I figured that’s normal fear for a puppy – she’s small and just learning about city life, all the people and noises.

Then after a month together, it was like a switch was flipped overnight. All of a sudden, Mia was afraid of going out – afraid of the apartment building hallway, afraid of going for walks, afraid of standing outside. She would freeze, rush back to the door, cry, face the door, jump at the door, etc – all to get back to the safety of our apartment. In these moments, she would completely ignore me and I couldn’t calm her or distract her using food or treats. It was like she had tunnel vision – she just desperately needed to get in to safety.

It was apparent that something had changed and this was not normal. I ended up emailing our puppy class trainer for some advice.

She asked me for specifics of what happened and I had to admit that I had no idea – I hadn’t noticed anything specific. She suggested that perhaps Mia wasn’t as fine as I thought all along and said that I was describing a very nervous puppy. She shared that Great Pyrenees are a sensitive breed to begin with but it sounded like I was pushing her too hard and she may have reached her limit.

Over the next few weeks, we exchanged emails and she even came over to do a private 1:1 session to observe in person. Through the trainer, I learned about thresholds (more on this later) and the idea of fear layering on so that, by the time we’re outside, Mia’s too terrified to do much else. The trainer emphasized how crucial it was to address her fear now in the prime period of her development to avoid cementing the reactions and behaviour. She also commented early on that we might need more serious help via medication and that made me very anxious – how could that be?

In the meantime, she kindly spoke to my vet about non-medical options (ex. probiotics) and suggested we try a pheromone collar. Based on her recommendations, I also tried meeting up with other dogs to play out front and to attempt a walk around the block together, walking in quieter places like the cemetery, etc. Mia made good progress and then suddenly regressed drastically a month later. As time passed, this became a pattern – she would take a few steps forward and then big steps backward and it started to become more obvious to me how serious this was. She was also getting bigger but still reacting with the same level of fear and I was struggling to carry her, to calm her and stop her from racing back to safety and potentially hurting one or both of us.

I will share all of the different approaches we tried in detail in another post. But, eventually, after working with two other trainers, a number of conversations with my vet, and many tears of frustration and sadness, we met with a Vet Behaviourist & Psychiatrist. It took four different people to meet Mia over time and give me the same advice – to explain that it was time to consider medication to help her through this – to get me to feel comfortable with and accept that this would be the best way forward.

Now, after ten weeks, I can say that the medication is helping and things are very slowly getting better. There is a lot more training and socialization work to do but she has more capacity now to work with me through this. We’ve also figured out a daily routine that works for us and helps minimize her triggers. But I continue to remind myself that it’s going to be a slow and steady process, with occasional setbacks and more scary moments. She won’t wake up one day and suddenly be a super confident dog but things will get better over time.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what exactly it was that pushed her over the edge. The more I’ve learned about her breed and dogs with fear and anxiety in general, the more I’ve realized it was likely a combination of factors. But it’s more valuable and productive now to focus on helping her live a better life moving forward. Slowly but surely we’ll get there.

Mia’s backstory – what happened?!