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OCD Parenting Lesson from My Dog Trainers

Jan 13, 2022

 I’m an animal lover. For most of my life I’ve had cats and fish and bunnies. When my son was in preschool, he launched a campaign to persuade me to adopt a dog. 

Even though my son’s official OCD symptoms did not emerge until he was about 17, he popped out the womb with determination.

He was relentless about his desire to have a dog. 

One day I was on a phone call with my friend Judy, she said, “I’ve got to go. I need to find a dog a home. Her owner died, and neighbors have been showing up a few times a day to feed her. They said they if she doesn’t have a home by the end of the week, they’re taking her to the pound where she will most likely be euthanized.”

I felt like it was divine intervention.

I said, “Judy, do you think this dog would be a good fit for our family?”

Judy said, “I think she would be PERFECT. She’s a 7-year-old chocolate lab and she’s lovely.” 

This is how Elvira came to be part of our family.  

Trouble in Paradise

Elvira seemed perfect in every way. She was well-behaved and a joy to be around. She had this amazing ability to read people. One day I took her to the field across the street to play catch in an open field. I saw a young boy and his mother. The boy was approaching Elvira, and the mom tried to stop him.  I yelled to the mother. “It’s okay. My dog loves kids.” The boy started interacting with Elvira, and I looked over at the mother who had tears in her eyes. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “My son’s autistic and I can’t remember the last time he spoke.” And there he was talking to Elivra.

Once Elvira was with us for a few months, there was trouble in paradise. When we were out walking, Elvira started growling at dogs we passed.  At first it was a low volume deep rumble. Over weeks it got louder and sometimes her lips curled. I started dreading our walks, and found myself walking in places and at times when we were least likely to run into other dogs. 

I mentioned this to Judy who suggested I consult with a dog trainer. Which I did. Becky came out to my house and evaluated Elvira.

She watched how Elvira and I interacted with each other. She watched us leave the house for a walk. Then she got her own dog out of her van so she could see how both dogs reacted as they walked past each other.

"You Have a Leadership Problem"

Then Becky gave me her assessment. She said, “You have a great dog. Elvira is very polite and very smart. I think her behavior around other dogs is an expression of fear. My guess is that her first owners were people bought her as a hunting dog. Many of these people treat their dogs like biologic property. I could imagine a situation in which Elvira was tied up as a puppy and another dog attacked her. That’s something that sets up a life of fear of dogs. 

Becky continued,”Here’s why you didn’t see this behavior until Elvira was with you for while. When you adopted Elvira she deferred to you as the pack leader. However, you’re new to dogs, and you unwittingly communicated to Elvira that you saw her as the pack leader. And based on her interaction with my own dog, she’s a strong alpha. 

“Now I could see and feel YOUR anxiety when it was time for the walk. Elvira can feel it. She’s thinking, ‘My pack doesn’t feel safe when we’re walking. I’ll step it up.’ You can see why she would be growling at dogs.

“Fixing this is simple. Just step up and be the pack leader.” Then Becky showed me how. I was to go out doors first. I would feed her after I ate. She would need my permission to get in and out of cars. 

Then she gave me specific exercises to make walking easier. The first step, even before I got the leash out, was to take a deep breath, and tell myself, “You got this.” This would replace the daily anxiety with calm. Once we were out on the walk and I saw another dog approach, I would have Elvira sit. When the dog was about to pass, I would instruct her to look at me to distract her. Then I would reward her.

Things got a lot better. 

Becky warned me that Elvira would always have fear. However, with my leadership I could create an environment in which she could thrive and behave like the wonderful dog she was.

There was a big lesson here. I thought the problematic behavior resided on the dog end of the leash. Becky showed me that both the problem and the solution resided on my end of the leash.

Elvira was only with us for a few years before she died of cancer, and I miss her to this day.

Round Two

After a period of mourning, my son launch a second adopt a dog campaign. He even went on dog rescue web sites and found the dog he wanted to adopt. 

The dog of his dreams was a 9-month-old pup who had been with the rescue organization for most of his life. His mother and her litter of puppies were found under a van on a cold and snowy November day.  They listed his breed as MuttPup because he was a mutt and he was a  puppy. 

We went to meet him and decided that we would adopt him. And my son thought that MuttPup would be a great name.

It was clear from the get-go that MuttPup was one frightened pooch. He was afraid to get in the car to come home with us from the foster family. He was afraid of loud noises. He was afraid of bikes.  And he was especially fearful when he was around tall men.

We thought that if we gave him time to settle in, he would put the past behind him. 

That’s not what happened. Yes, he got over some fears. In fact, he came to love car rides. Over time it became clear that his biggest fear was being separated from me. He had separation anxiety.

MuttPup followed me from room to room in the house. If he heard the door open when I took out the trash he’d would run to the door so I wouldn’t leave without him. He refused to leave the house without me. If my son wanted to take him for a walk, I needed to join them. One time I got them started on the walk and then returned home. When MuttPup noticed my absence he simply sat down and refused to move forward. The only direction he would go was back to the house. And when he got home, he looked me in the eye lifted a leg and urinated on a chair. Talk about being pissed off!

So how did I respond to MuttPup’s separation anxiety? I started adjusting my life so MuttPup did not have to be separated from me. I accepted that my son would not be able to take MuttPup on walks alone despite the fact this was his dog.  I accepted that I would take MuttPup with me in the car when I went shopping.

And then one gray weekend afternoon I got the wake-up call. I left MuttPup in his kennel to go running at the high school track. As I was on the second mile, I saw a big black mass running towards me. MuttPup had escaped from his kennel, opened the house door and followed my scent to the track. He crossed busy streets, and could have been killed by a car.  

This wasn’t the first time MuttPup got out of the house. If it was too hot or too cold to take him in the car when I went shopping, I would find often him in the driveway when I got home. My neighbors called him Houdini. 

MuttPup’s anxiety was running our lives. I started feeling like a hostage in my own home.

Most importantly, I knew MuttPup was suffering.

It was time to step up and proactively manage my dog’s separation anxiety instead of avoiding it.    

I consulted with my vet, and we made a plan. He recommended a dog trainer who specialized in treating fear and anxiety in dogs. He also gave me medication to help Muttpup get through stressful times like the Fourth of July.

I will never forget the day the dog trainer Christine arrived. She listened to my story, and observed my interactions with MuttPup.

She asked, “What do you do when MuttPup gets scared or has anxiety?” I said, “I go to him give him a hug and say, ‘It’s okay. You’re safe.’”

Deja Vu: "You Have a Leadership Problem"

Then she offered her assessment. She said, “Yes, MuttPup does have anxiety, and we can do some clicker training to rewire his brain. We can also help him learn to relax his body and release his anxiety. 

“However, here’s the bigger issue. You have a leadership problem. When he’s scared and you go and hug him, you’re rewarding that behavior. This reinforces the cycle. 

“You need to step up and become the pack leader. That means remaining calm when emotions around you are high. it means acting in a way that will help MuttPup learn to manage his anxiety.” 

This was deja vu all over again. Once again I saw a situation in which the problematic behavior resided on the dog end of the leash. Once again the trainer said the problem and the solution resided on my end of the leash.

Part of the treatment was a direct intervention with MuttPup. Christine taught me how to do clicker training. She told me to get a yoga mat and showed me how to help MuttPup physiologically relax. 

Christine also gave me pointers for leading with calm assertive energy. Things changed. 

Yes, the clicker training helped MuttPup. Brains can be rewired. 

However, I believe that stepping into effective leadership is the single most important intervention that turned our situation around. How do I know? MuttPup regularly challenges my leadership. When I back down, I noticed the troubling behaviors of separation anxiety reappear.

My pets enrich my life and I want to enrich theirs. Two different dog trainers managing two different sets of behavioral issues told me the same thing. Calm assertive leadership makes a difference. As the family leader it’s my job to create the circumstances that will optimize my family members’ ability to evolve into the best versions of themselves. 

What Does This Have to Do with Parenting a Child with OCD?

I’m a big gardener. It’s fun to buy all the new plants. However, the investments in the quality of the soil and the weeding make the biggest impact. Leadership is like investing in the soil. Both dog trainers were telling me to pay attention to the soil. Create an environment in which my four-legged family members can grow and thrive. Become an architect of change. 

We all want our kids to be launched into a successful fulfilling adult lives, and OCD can threaten that dream. Your actions as parents can either grow your kids’ OCD or shrink it. You can be the powerful force for healing.

As I reflect on my son’s OCD healing journey, I see many lessons from the dog trainers I’ve applied in my own parenting and shared with my caching clients. Here are some:

Lesson #1: Every sentient being has a brain that is wired with wonders and glitches.  

Yes, Elvira arrived with fear circuitry. MuttPup’s brain is wired with the separation anxiety circuit.  

You are here because you have a child who has a brain wiring glitch described as OCD. They have a wiring problem in which the brain offers made up unwanted thoughts or images that cause them to have 10/10 anxiety. They have learned to engage in actions we call compulsions to bring their anxiety back to baseline. And our kids are hard workers who follow through and meet OCD’s demands. Once they decide something is going to happen they make it happen!

My son popped out of the womb with this persistence. Look at his success in persuading me to adopt a dog. Not just once but twice. Dedication is our kids’ superpower.

Do you remember the movie Bull Durham. The Kevin Costner character said to the pitcher Nuke, “You have a million dollar arm.” The pitcher had raw power. The problem was that that he had no control. His fast ball could wind up anywhere.

You kid has a million dollar mind. It’s turbo-charged. Imagine what they can do once they learn to focus and have control over the direction of their determination.

Lesson #2: Learn about the brains of beings you love.

Dogs think differently than people. They interpret our actions differently than a person would. In the human world, when two people arrive at a door it’s polite to let the other go first. It’s polite to give someone attention when they approach you. It’s polite to serve a dinner guest before you serve yourself.

However, when I took these same actions with Elvira and MuttPup, it meant something different to them. In the dog world, I was telling them that they were the leaders.

Learn about OCD. This is a condition shrouded in embarrassment and shame and secrecy. While it’s difficult to get good statistics, it’s projected that one in 40 Americans carries the diagnosis of OCD. The average age of onset of OCD is 19.5 years. Most parents in online communities I’ve joined have early onset OCD. I’ve created a community for parents of kids with late onset OCD. The parenting challenges are different once your kids have car keys and credit cards. Here’s the statistic that blows me away and makes me very sad. Do you know how much time elapses between the first symptoms of OCD and the start of effective treatment? Between 14 and 17 years! That’s 14 to 17 years of suffering—lost income and lost time and undermined relationships.

Educate yourself about OCD.

Educate yourself about what it’s like for your child to live with his or her brain. It begins with a simple question, “What’s it like being you?”

Lesson #3: Your actions have consequences, and sometimes they’re unintended.

When I first noticed the problematic behaviors with Elvira and MuttPup, I did what many people do; I adjusted our lives so my dogs would be more comfortable. Elvira is growling at dogs? Walk her places where she won’t run into dogs. MuttPup had anxiety about being separated? I’ll let him be with me. 

Yes, I wanted to help my dogs to experience a high quality of life, and it’s uncomfortable living with fear or anxiety. 

However, when I get completely honest with myself, I could see that their problematic behaviors caused me anxiety. If I avoided the circumstances that triggered my dogs’ fear and anxiety, my life would be more comfortable. 

That avoidance has consequences. 

I remember a patient I treated when I was a practicing breast surgeon. A PhD academic scientist came to me for the evaluation of a breast mass. I asked her what made her decide to come in for an evaluation. She said, “My husband is complaining about the smell.” I had never heard that one before. When I went to examine her, she had an ulcerated oozing breast cancer that had eroded through the skin. I had never seen anything like this before. 

As I was examining her, she told me about all the things she did to keep her breast clean. 

She was asking herself a question, “What can I do to reduce the smell?” The better and more obvious question was, “What’s causing this smell, and what do I do about that?”

We often ask questions that are not the most helpful or useful. It’s human to overlook the things we do not want to see. We just adjust our lives to look the other way.  

Many well-intentioned parents make tweaks in their lives to avoid with the problematic behaviors that are the first clues about the OCD diagnosis. This had two consequences. 

First, it leads to a delay in diagnosis. My own son had symptoms for 3 years before he got the diagnosis, and I feel embarrassed about this.

Second, you could inadvertently be growing your child’s OCD. I see how I became part of completing my son’s compulsions by accepting his confessions and apologies. Think about OCD as a traffic circle. You kid can go round and round. Every time they go around it, it’s easier to do it the next time. You want to make it easier for your kid to get off the circle and pave a new neural paths.

Danger often resides in the circumstances  you don’t know or don’t see or don’t want to see. Make a commitment to look into your blind spots—even when it’s uncomfortable.

My life has taught me that the best way to get to the other side of discomfort is to go through it. 

Be willing to lean into your own discomfort triggered by your kids’ OCD.

This is part of the hard work we ask our kids to take on as they learn to manage their OCD. We coach them to recognize their obsessive thoughts, resist the urge to perform the compulsions and lean into the anxiety.

We can be model the changes we want to see in our kids. How can we expect our kids to take on their hard work of consciously managing their brains if we are unwilling to do the same work ourselves?

 Lesson #4: Assume family leadership.

In both Elvira’s life and MuttPup’s life, I saw the problem as behavior that resided on the dog side of the leash. My dog trainers told me that both the problem and the solution resided on my side of the leash.

You don’t have control over your child’s brain wiring. However, your willingness to step up and assume family leadership may well be the single most powerful intervention in your child’s life.

Steven Covey says, “Leadership is communicating to others their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”  

This is what we can do for our kids. 

We can remind our kids of their gifts. We can hold out the optimistic vision of a more hopeful tomorrow when they cannot see it themselves.

Remain hopeful about treatment options in the future.

OCD is nothing more than a brain wiring glitch. Imagine going into your kitchen, turning on the light and having the dishwasher start.

Elvira had a fear circuit. Becky told me the switch would always be there, and helped me see how to avoid flipping on the switch. 

Right now our goal is to give your child the tools and skills to take charge of their brains. In the ideal world, their obsessive thoughts become the background noise of their lives and not the force that controls your child’s life. They can witness an obsessive though drift by their conscious awareness like clouds in a sky and say, “Oh isn’t that interesting. My OCD monster just dished up another thought. I’ll ignore it and get on with my day.” 

MuttPup has a separation anxiety switch. Christine told me, “We can rewire the brain with clicker training. We can train the body to relax.”

One day could we cure OCD by rewiring the brain?

When I was in medical school I was taught that we were born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have.  Sneeze or drink alcohol and whoops there go the piano lessons.

Neuroscience is exploding. We have learned that the brain has the ability to change and grow. This is called neuro-plasticity.

I advise that you as the family leader do the simple things that promote brain health. I’ll review that in a separate podcast. This will make it easier for your kids to do their hard work of managing their minds, and for you to do the hard work of assuming calm leadership in your family.  

It leads to a bigger question. We can hire electricians to fix kitchen wiring problems. One day we will be able to cure OCD by rewiring the brain?

I believe we will get there.  

I invite you to hear the remarkable story of neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her book and or in her TED talk My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Bolte Taylor was a Harvard scientist studying the brain. One morning a blood vessel ruptured in the left hemisphere of her brain, and she witnessed the evolving loss of her left brain function.  On the morning of the hemorrhage, she could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any part of her life. Over eight years, she recovered all function. How did this happen? It defies our model of recovery from strokes.

I believe that in your child’s lifetime we will be able to cure OCD.

Until then, please remain open to the possibility that one day your child might say, “OCD is the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the skills and tools to help me get the things I really want in life.”

Trust that today you have the power to help you kids evolve into the best version of themselves and live meaningful, fulfilling lives. This is Power Parenting.


PS Here's the letter my son wrote to me after Elvira's death.

Dear Mom,

 Have you ever thought about how awesome it would be to get another dog? Now is the time. Although you may think it is a bad idea, I will take care of it, help to pay for its expenses, and help find the right dog.

 If we get another dog I will take care of it.  Perhaps you may think that this is a lot of work. However, I have already proven that i can put in the work with a dog. One way I will take care of it is I will feed it every meal.  I’ll also take it for walks and throw the ball.  This will help you a lot because while im taking care of the dog, you can get more work done.  This is how I will take care of the dog.

 Another reason we should get a a new dog is that I will help pay for its expenses.  You probably think that i dont have the resources to take care of the dog. However, I will be saving part of my allowance to help with the expense. For example, I will buy it treats, and I will buy some of its food.  Also, I will help pay for the vet bills.  This helps you a lot because that means you can spend your money on other things. By doing these things I will help pay for the dog’s expenses. 

 The last reason is that I’m willing to help find the right dog.  I know Elvira was different, because we didn’t really have to do a search.  Now that I’m older, and this is how I will help find a new dog.  Whenever we talk about this you say the dog has to have a story, so I can look for homeless dogs by talking to people, or we can go to an animal shelter.  Another way is that I will search on the Internet for dogs who need families.  And I will always be on the lookout for homeless dogs.  This helps you a lot because this is a pretty hard job, and this is one less hard job for you to do.  This is how I will help search for the right dog for our family.

 In conclusion, I hope I have convinced you to get another dog because I will take care of it, help to pay for its expenses, and help find the right dog.  I think having a dog would be a good addition to our family, so I think we should get another dog very soon.



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 © 2022.  Dr. Vicki Rackner. You may reproduce this blog post with attribution.

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