This reaction is regardless of weather – frosts, rain, sunshine, wind. It’s all glorious in their eyes. Its infectious, their happiness, and I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t smile to be part of that morning ritual. Most of us end up dancing around like lunatics with the dogs, since that seems to be the going thing…
Amongst all of this excitement and merriment it can be tough to notice when something is going awry for one of the dogs. The dogs begging for your attention can drown out any attention for the dogs not looking for a hello.
Josie is a highly valued senior member of our pack. Josie doesn’t always come to work at schools with us, preferring to keep things ticking over at home. Josie was bred to work stock and it runs deep and true in her veins. Josie loves to work and is a dedicated hand when things get tough out in the paddock. Josie is also a true mother who loves puppies and will regularly try to steal any pups she can, making milk and feeding them within days.
Josie doesn’t always come to work with us because she is a highly emotional dog who will absorb so much of her handler’s energy in a WAGS session that she can quite literally make herself sick. It is not unusual for Josie to spend a day or two after a WAGS session being a little down in the dumps. She likes lots of cuddles on those days.
So to care for Josie I rarely require her to come on WAGS trips, instead I let her decide if she wants to come and she often decides not. And that’s ok with me.
In the last few weeks, I had failed to notice that Josie’s down days were dragging on for a bit long. A week since her last WAGS session and she was still not picking up. In all the normal activity of the pack, I hadn’t noticed that she was withdrawn. It’s easy to miss. She wanted my attention but she hadn’t the energy to seek it out.
Often when you feel a bit down, a little depressed, or sad, you feel tired too. Being sad can be exhausting. Another symptom can be a raised anxiety level, particularly a greater level of social anxiety where you worry about what people might think or say. Feeling down will also tend to put a bit of a negative slant to your thinking, even if you are normally a very optimistic person. Dogs are no different. Sad dogs get tired, they isolate themselves as they get worried about the reactions of other dogs, and they get pessimistic about the likelihood of good things happening.
Josie was off down the yard, not shunning company exactly but not looking for it. She wasn’t jumping into the scrum to say hello with all the others and it’s easy to miss one smiling face when there are lots of them. That old saying “Laugh and the world laughs with you, Cry and you cry alone” comes to mind. Josie didn’t have the energy to make me see something was wrong. She wasn’t angry; she wasn’t scared, she was sad.
It’s a real problem when one of the pack gets unsettled. I take it as my personal responsibility to ensure that my dogs have productive and contented lives. They should have every opportunity to be happy and nothing more than they can handle. I am not a soft dog owner, by any means. But my dogs work hard and they deserve the very best in return (although the “very best” will never include my couch…!)
So I was thrown a little off kilter when I noticed Josie the other morning. How had I missed that? Was I too distracted in my life? Was I putting enough of my energy into the dogs or taking them for granted?
Regardless of how I felt, I moved straight into recovery mode and spent a bunch of time with Josie reminding her how important she was to me and the rest of the pack. As is the way, whatever the boss lady is doing becomes the most interesting thing in the world so the rest of the pack were right there with me, spending time with their matriarch and reminding her of her place in the pack. It didn’t solve things for her immediately but with a little more care and attention, and a few more love-fests for Josie over the following days, and Josie was back on track, towards wellness.
There was still the issue of me failing to notice for a few days though. And pondering this issue brought me round to pondering how hard I needed to be on myself? As a youth worker, I tend to push myself to some pretty high standards. I expect to notice the energy of people around me and I expect to be alert to the energy levels of my sensational canine team mates. I depend on them to do an important job and I hold myself to a pretty high level of responsibility for their welfare. I aim to be as attuned to them as I am with my daughter.
In amongst all of these thoughts, a story broke on the news about a young teenager who had killed herself. It was a devastating story. Her mother reported “bullying” and friends who had failed to reach out as the cause. I could read the heart break in her face. She was bashing herself with the same question I was – how could I not notice?
There can be no greater loss than that experienced by people left behind by suicide. The “if only’s” roll over you relentlessly. I have seen the desire to have “just one more chance to make it right” destroy parents and loved ones. I have seen workers walk away from their life’s work in disillusion. I have seen young people question what love and friendship can possibly mean.
But the truth is, suicide is largely a silent killer. People who are depressed or sad are easy to miss amongst all the action in your life. It’s hard to see the shaky smile or hear the muddled answer when the business of living is hard enough already. It’s easy to miss the one who is deliberately staying out of your spotlight.
Like dogs, people who are sad or in pain are often tired, they don’t have the energy to come to you and explain all the ways in which they feel bad. They will often worry about what people around them will think and they don’t want to burden you with their sadness. And people who are sad are not going to seek comfort for fear that they won’t get it. Sadness and depression will often instil a belief that they are not worthy of feeling better anyway, pessimism reigns.
It’s easy to miss it when someone, even someone you love, is feeling bad. And having missed it, it’s easy to misjudge its depth.
People who are suicidal are usually not going to come to you to tell you about it. They will often share their thoughts if you ask, but if you don’t ask, they won’t tell. It’s not enough to say that your door is always open. Think of it like a person in a wheelchair trying to get up your porch steps. You can’t wait for someone to come and talk to you, you need to go to them, constantly. If someone you know looks sad, go talk to them about it. Ask them. Show you care and you have noticed.
Feeling like we belong to a place and to people is what makes our world go round. It’s the foundation of everything that makes us tick. Knowing we hold a place that can’t be filled by anyone else gives us a reason to believe in ourselves. We all crave it. Seeing that it’s possible to withdraw from your life, and have no one ask about it, can validate the feelings of shame, hurt and lack of worth welling inside a person considering suicide. They can be screaming inside, and frozen in fear.
Suicide is a sneaky, silent killer. It’s killing more of our young people in Australia right now than any other cause. Hold your loved ones close. Ask them how they are – and mean it. Listen to their answer and hear what they are telling you. Fold them back into your circle and reinforce their importance there. Be there for them when they can’t be there for themselves.
And I’ll give Josie a pat for you.