Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with their anxious dog

What Adopting an Anxious Dog Taught Me About Being an HSP

Living as an HSP is not easy, and each day can be exhausting. But adopting an anxious dog has proven to be therapeutic for my sensitive soul.

A few months ago, my husband and I adopted a dog, Hazel, from a local animal shelter. When I first met her, she wouldn’t let me pet her or get close. The shelter staff warned me that she was extra anxious and needed a calm home to help her adapt to being a pet. Instead of running the other way — and finding another dog that would be less anxious, one who would come to me immediately — I decided to embrace her anxiousness and knew that she was the one for us.

I was quickly able to relate to her; namely through her anxiety and sensitivity. In fact, having an anxious pet has helped me understand myself better as a highly sensitive person (HSP). Living as an HSP is not easy, and each day can be exhausting. But having a dog as a companion has been therapeutic and calming for me. These days, we are doing a lot better. While Hazel still doesn’t cuddle with me or sit in my lap, we have developed trust with one another. I see her actions and the way she reacts and responds to things — both daily adventures and challenges — and have come to realize that they teach me a lot about how to navigate my world, too.

Here are 10 things that my dog’s anxiety and sensitivity have taught me about myself as an HSP.

10 Ways That Adopting an Anxious Dog Taught Me More About Being an HSP 

1. It’s OK to be cautious and analyze the pros and cons before committing.  

Hazel is very cautious and is always looking around at her surroundings. Like HSPs, she is always alert; sounds or movements can cause her to instantly look up and take notice. By being cautious as HSPs, we do what we can with the energy we have. When we realize a situation might be too emotionally exhausting, we can then move on, like politely excusing ourselves from that birthday party we have no more energy for. If we are cautious and realize that we are not in harm’s way, then we can move forward.

In the past, I used to get excited about something and would jump right in without much thought. Now I analyze situations more closely — like that birthday party example from above — and really see if it’s a good choice. Will going, even for a little while, make me feel better? Or will it be too draining, give me an HSP hangover, and make me feel worse?

2. “Take time to smell the roses.” 

As cautious as Hazel is, she also takes a lot of time to sniff, and literally smell flowers, on our walks. This made me realize that no matter how frustrated or overwhelmed I may be in a situation, I, too, just need to take time to smell flowers and enjoy nature; it makes a huge difference. After all, nature is healing for highly sensitive souls.

I have been taking Hazel on walks every day since we adopted her, and I can tell the difference it has made in my life — with exercise, being outside, and taking time to enjoy her company. While I used to use headphones and listen to music on walks by myself, I never take them anymore, nor am I ever bored. Taking the time to enjoy the scenery, and company, makes a difference.  

This also speaks to taking time to relax and calm down, which is the more figurative side of “taking time to smell the roses.” Slowing down and communing with nature — and with ourselves — makes more of a difference than we may realize.

3. Be curious — it allows you to explore new opportunities, from jobs to friendships.

Along the same lines of taking time to smell the roses, being curious is an important reminder for us HSPs, too. Hazel is curious about everything. In people terms, when you’re curious, you are looking into things and doing research, but not necessarily committing. By being curious, we can explore new situations — like job opportunities and friendships — but without commiting… yet. Once we realize we are safe, or feel like we have found a good opportunity, we can then commit and move forward. 

4. Rest when you need to. After all, HSPs need more sleep than non-HSPs.

Dogs rest a lot. And Hazel has taught me that after a long walk or a long work day, it is perfectly OK to rest and recharge. After all, highly sensitive people may need more sleep than non-HSPs since we are constantly overstimulated (which is exhausting). Over the years, as I have tuned more into myself as an HSP, I have become more aware that rest is an extremely important part of my self-care. Resting and recharging looks different for everybody, though. Another way I do so is by watching my favorite TV show on Netflix. No matter how you recharge, just remember it’s important for us HSPs.

5. Taking baby steps is OK: You’re not going to automatically stop being sensitive or anxious.

Hazel has shown us that it’s OK to take baby steps. We have seen her open up a lot in the past few months, and we know she will more, but it will take time. This is another reminder to me that we HSPs are not going to automatically stop being sensitive or anxious. But as we put one foot in front of the other, it becomes easier. I feel like baby steps are actually a good way to start something new. Jumping in can be extremely overwhelming, but if we take baby steps, the end goal is much more attainable.

6. Don’t rush into relationships; it’s good to be cautious and take your time.

Hazel is very nervous around new folks and new dogs, and she will show it by barking and even retreating. However, I think this is a good tactic for all of us HSPs. I have tended to run into relationships — mostly new friendships — assuming the other person has the best intentions, but have gotten hurt. I think Hazel’s method is a great one to remind us that we don’t have to rush into things; it’s OK to be cautious. I continue to remind myself of this step, as well, with managing my time. When we jump in and give a lot of time to a new relationship, it can be very time consuming and lead to a sense of overwhelm.       

7. With time, listen to your intuition and try trusting others.

While Hazel is cautious, she has learned — probably through her instincts — that she can trust us and her new home. She knows that her home is safe and loving! This is a great reminder for us HSPs. As Hazel has taught me, it’s good to be cautious, but at some point, you can listen to your intuition and trust others and situations. It’s natural to hang onto past hurts, and this has caused some trust issues for me. But highly sensitive people have good instincts, and they can come into play here.

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8. Block out distractions and focus on the present moment.

Hazel is really good at blocking out distractions! When she’s outside, she’s in her element. She truly loves being in the present moment — the nature, and sniffing, exploring, and walking. When other dogs or people are around, she quickly acknowledges them, but then gets right back to her current job. She is able to truly focus on what is in front of her, and that is a very good skill. Personally, as an HSP, it can be hard to block out distractions. I am always thinking of a lot of things at the same time, but this is a great reminder that when you can be in the mindset of blocking distractions, you can enjoy yourself, and on the flip side, be productive. Plus, mindfulness is a great way to quell anxiety. Hazel is doing so without even realizing it!

9. Practice patience, which will help calm your overstimulated mind.

Hazel has an extreme amount of patience. She has developed trust with our routine, and she knows that we will take care of her and take her on her coveted walks. In my teaching job, I am extremely patient, but when I am outside the classroom it can be hard to maintain it! Hazel has again reminded me that patience is, indeed, a virtue. When we are patient with others, but foremost with ourselves, we are able to pause and give others and ourselves grace, which is one of the most special gifts we can give. We are also able to slow down, focus, and handle the moment less hastily, which is an important way for us to calm down our overstimulated HSP minds.

10. Respect your boundaries, which doesn’t come easily for HSPs.

Hazel does not enjoy being touched much, and that is one of her boundaries. As an HSP, it’s important not only to have boundaries — which can be hard for us to set — but to respect those boundaries. Personal space is important for Hazel and myself, and it’s OK if you need this space. We have boundaries for a reason, and they can often help us as highly sensitive people. One of my boundaries is that I need time alone, and Hazel has become the one exception to this boundary (yet she has also become part of it). My rest-and-recharge time has gotten a lot better now that Hazel is a part of it.

Whether you have a cat or a dog or another kind of pet, highly sensitive people have a special bond with animals. I’m sure this has to do with our empathetic and caring natures. The reminders above have proven what a calming presence Hazel has brought to my life. Without her, I’d be dealing with a lot more anxiety on a daily basis. I feel like Hazel and I are on this journey of coping with anxiety — and life  — together, and I am extremely grateful for the fact that my husband and I adopted an anxious and sensitive dog.

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