We’ve all had it. The knot in the stomach, tightness in the chest and uncontrollable stress when we have done something wrong. I’ve messed up a lot in my life, but made a tremendous mistake recently. I have no explanation for it. It was something completely out of character. I have wracked my brain for reasons why. It’s the bottom of a downward spiral, I am afraid to admit. These past few years have been the hardest of my life, but also include some of my best accomplishments. I have an amazing partner, five wonderful pets, a great family, a successful business, an amazing team and have had excellent opportunities. And I cannot shake the feeling that I want to run away from it all.
It’s important to say right up front that absolutely none of what continues from here is to justify or defend the mistake I just made. Nothing at all.
Each day is a struggle to get up and face it. I have trouble sleeping. I walk around constantly with knots in my stomach and a feeling of impending doom. I have lost my passion. I am resentful towards others. I am losing joy in all of the things I love to do. I am emotional. I am tired. I want it all to go away. And those who know me well, know that I am a fighter. I do not give in easily. I am determined. I am going to push ahead. So I criticize myself for all this – I see it all as weakness.
I started in the shelter world as a volunteer. I loved being there. It was hard but I felt like I could make a difference. I was hired on as an employee and was starting on Monday. It was the Friday before and my last day as a volunteer for behaviour assessments. We had been working with a beautiful dog who had impulse control concerns. The shelter did not train volunteers on how to handle this and had them taking Zeus for daily walks. He over aroused, jumped and ripped a volunteer’s jacket and drew blood. He did not do this because he was aggressive, but because he needed direction. But, he drew blood, so it was decided he was to be euthanized. How was this even possible? But, I trusted the team. I trusted them until I went into holding and saw Zeus in the back corner, sedated and waiting to be euthanized. And a pain like I had never felt washed over me. I wanted to scream, I wanted to rip the door open and run away with him, I wanted to do anything I could to stop this. I spoke to the team immediately and expressed my concerns and that I didn’t think enough had been done. The response? I was told that you cannot show that kind of emotion if you want to be successful at this job. Zeus was euthanized. And I cried uncontrollably the entire weekend. I struggled to get through the grief. The injustice of it all. The pain of feeling like I had not done enough. I wasn’t sure I could do the job. And then I realized I had to make a difference. I was going to take the job to stop this from happening. My path was set right then. I was going to do everything I could to stop the surrendering and euthanasia of dogs. I still have a picture of Zeus. He is smiling in the picture and I use it has my guide whenever I doubt myself or the fight I am taking on.
Fast forward to over 10 years later:
I run a successful dog training and daycare business. We have set out to get regulations in the industry. We work hard to show people how to successfully integrate dogs into our human world. I have poured everything into my business and have worked tirelessly to get here. I have met wonderful people, have exceptional clients, am surrounded by dogs, have made big changes and have the best team in the world. On the other side of this, I have had many dogs I love pass away. I have worked hard with owners and became very attached to their dogs, only to have to make the decision to euthanize the dog. I have seen the potential in dogs who then go into the wrong home and suffer tremendous stress and are euthanized because of it. I have worked with owners who have a wonderful dog, yet choose to ignore my advice and, in their own frustration, blame or are disappointed by the training. I have witnessed people who love animals and fight hard in rescue, save a terrified dog and then subject them to harsh training. I have become the hero and the enemy because I do not want dogs to suffer from aversive training. I have witnessed families agonizing over the behaviour of their pet. I have watched my team suffer with an owner’s decisions for a dog they are attached to. I have watched everyone in this industry tear each other apart. I have fought hard to ensure the dogs in our world get the training and handling they deserve. And these past couple of years, I feel like it has all been for nothing.
Owning a business is stressful and full of pressure. But, I always knew this is what I was meant to do. I loved every second of it and dreamed big. And this past year, I was feeling like I was losing it. I was detaching myself. Struggling. Feeling lost. And suffering. I would cry at home and tell my partner that I could not face it. Wipe my tears, put on a smile and fight my way through the day. I felt weak and was angry at myself. And in all of this effort to stay strong, I became weak and made a horrible mistake. I do not write this because I want to be a victim or to justify any mistake I have made. I believe there is a lesson in everything and I have learned a hard one.
I am dealing directly with the consequences of the mistake I made. However, I am also dealing with the deep-seated issue, which my recent mistake is of but one of many symptoms.
I have been ignoring all of the signs. I have suffered in silence for fear that it would make me look weak. I just recently returned from a trip and as we began our descent into Calgary, I was overcome with anxiety. Pain in my chest, knots in my stomach and tears began rolling down my face. I was embarrassed. I thought about reaching out to my team. I thought about talking to someone. And instead buried myself in my work. My passion has become too much, and as a result, I made a big mistake. If I can take one thing from all of this, it is that compassion fatigue is a real thing. Compassion fatigue is an epidemic in our industry. We are learning more about it and we cannot ignore it.
So, I realize today—this very morning—that to be strong, I need to share my story. I am seeking professional help. I am going to take on a different fight. We need to help each other. I feel sick when I think of the team I have had who have suffered through this and I did not recognize the signs. Or my colleagues. Or even the professionals I have learned from. I am going to share my story, we are going to talk about this and we need to do more to help each other. We are all here because we love the animals. We cannot take care of them, if we cannot take care of ourselves. Talk about your feelings. Surround yourself with support. Seek professional help. You are not weak. The world is full of suffering, but remember that “The kindness one does for an animal may not change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal”.