Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I've Gone to the Dogs!

Newsflash: dogs are wonderful! You read that correctly: dogs, in fact, are wonderful!  Apparently, most of you out there already know this, but I’ve only recently become absolutely convinced of its veracity, and with this amazing revelation, a whole new, delightful world has opened up to me.

I began to suspect the unlikely wonderfulness of dogs during the 12+ years that I had my dear dog, Jamie, who passed away in December. Oh, I knew she was wonderful, that I realized from the moment I first laid eyes on her as she walked into my neighbor's living room with her hello-will-you-be-my-friend-and-play-with-me-I'm-up-for-anything-if-it-makes-you-happy-I-know-we-just-met-but-you're-the-human-for-me-and-I'm-the-dog-for-you-so-can-I-come-home-with-you expression, came right up to me, put her head on my lap, and gazed up at me with her friendly, guileless, deep brown eyes, just as my neighbor said matter-of-factly "She's going to the shelter on Saturday, I just can't deal with her."  I think I knew right then that I was going to adopt her, even though I didn't know I knew it, but I know for sure I knew right then that she was a deeply loving, wonderful being.  Yet I concluded that was probably just she and couldn’t be the case with all or most other dogs. Surely most other dogs were still suspect. What do I mean, “still suspect”? I mean, even though dear Jamie helped me get through my fear of dogs and progress to the point at which I could be around most of them and remain relaxed, I still believed that you could never fully trust a dog (except for Jamie, of course), as they could turn on you in an instant and shred you from stem to stern.

This fear I had (mercifully, it is past tense now) of dogs dates back to my earliest childhood. I don’t know if it was inherent to me as an individual, or if something(s) happened that started it all, but the bottom line is that, as a child, I was terrified of dogs. I’m not talking the normal, healthy fear that one feels when being charged by a snarling Doberman (which happened to me fairly recently and, trust me, fear was the healthy, normal response to that sitch), I’m talking abject terror, of the bordering-on-phobic-if-not-actually-phobic variety, of ALL dogs, and it didn’t matter if they were a snarling Doberman or a yapping miniature schnauzer named “Princess” (who I’ll get to), I was absolutely terrified of the lot of ‘em.

I was a very sensitive little tyke (some things never change—INFJ ALERT!) and I loved cats, yet that same sensitivity to everything around me probably led to my fear of dogs. Dogs were nothing like cats, first of all. Dogs were ferocious-seeming things that chased me, barked at me very menacingly, tried to jump on me and even to knock me down. I was absolutely convinced that they all wanted to kill me. I know I was chased home from elementary school a time or two by one or, I seem to remember, two German Shepherds of the ferociously barking and snarling variety...at least, at the time, it seemed to little 4 or 5-year-old me that they were ferociously barking and snarling. Perhaps they actually really were “trying to make friends” with me, as adults kept telling me dogs were doing every time I FREAKED OUT upon encountering the creatures. Yet, in the case of those German Shepherds (I’m sure it was two...or, one who was so scary that he just seemed like two!), I think they meant business. They meant to be menacing and mission accomplished! From then on, my long-suffering mom had to walk me to and from school, to protect me from any and all rogue dogs. I refused to walk to school unescorted, embarrassing though it was, even for a kindergartner, to have your mom walk you to school. Better to be embarrassed than to be shredded by a German Shepherd.

My little BFF, who lived in the same block as I did, had a little miniature schnauzer named “Princess” (told you we’d get to her). Now, I mean, how terrifying can a miniature schnauzer named “Princess” be? Yet I would NOT set foot in their house until Princess was either safely secured either in their back yard or relegated to the basement for the duration of my visit, poor little pooch. And if, for some reason, she did get let up into the house and commence barking at me, I would summarily FREAK OUT (to the tune of climbing up on a kitchen chair and becoming hysterical, not necessarily in that order) until someone would once again secure the terrifying beast. Poor Princess.

Adults would always try to calm me down and tell me “he just wants to make friends with you” or, my personal favorite statement, “he can sense your fear and that’s why he’s acting that way”. Um, if dogs are so great, reasoned little I, and so nice, friendly and loving, then if he can sense my fear, why is he MOVING IN FOR THE KILL versus going out of his way to reassure me that he is a gentle, sweet doggy? I didn’t believe a word they said.

My mom or dad had to accompany me trick-or-treating, to “protect me from dogs”. One of them would have to go up to the door and, if the poor opener thereof had a dog, explain to them apologetically that their kid was a high-strung little case study and would they mind securing the dog before she would walk onto their property? At that point, the person would usually try to assure mom or dad and/or me (by calling out to me at my post in the middle of the street) “Oh, he’s friendly!”, etc., etc., etc., yada, yada, yada, yeah, yeah, yeah: get him away from the door or I’m outta here, what part of that do people not get?

There was ONE dog, when I was a child, whom I did not fear. He was the gentlest, most loving Golden Retriever imaginable, named Luke. I will never forget Luke. His extraordinary gentle spirit (which I now know isn’t so extraordinary after all, it is wonderfully typical of so many dogs), combined with the fact that the adults in that house really were excellent at reassuring me and encouraging me to go ahead, pet him, we have a hold of him and won’t let him go unless and until you say it is okay, led to me being okay with Luke. I wasn’t afraid of Luke. Our families even went camping together several times, Luke included, and I loved it and him. But Luke was the one exception in my entire childhood (other than this little, ill-fated toy poodle we had for a short time, named Shadow, but poor Shadow is a sad saga unto herself—with a happy ending, though, for her, as my mom ended up making a command decision to give her away to a good home—and so we’ll just give her an honorable mention here and move quickly on, or else we’ll get bogged down in the entire spectrum of dysfunction going on in my family when I was a child and how it impacted that poor little dog...yeah, let’s move on or risk the total paralysis of this blog entry).

Right up into adulthood I kept my extreme fear of dogs, although thankfully I did get a little better as I grew up. I got to the point that, if a dog’s person told me the dog was okay, I would usually trust that (to a point) and at least be able to be around the dog. This was major progress for the little kid who needed an escort to school and trick-or-treating, and for little Princess the schnauzer to be locked away every time she went to her house to play.

I remember once, in college up in Vermont, my boyfriend, Mike, and I were out walking on a totally deserted, unpaved road for some reason, and we passed a farmhouse. In fact, now that I think about it, we may have even wandered onto a private road belonging to that farmhouse, which could explain the behavior of this, like, pack of seemingly crazed dogs that rushed at us from the farmhouse and stood there barking, snarling and looking extremely vicious to my untrained eye. I remember thinking, okay, so this is how it all ends. I grabbed Mike’s arm so tightly that I no doubt cut off his circulation. Next thing I knew, Mike issued forth one word and one word only to the dogs: “STOP.”

That’s all he said, just: “STOP.” And you know what? I’ll be damned if those dogs didn’t all immediately stop barking, sit down and just look up at Mike as if to say “Okay, we’ve stopped. What’s your next instruction?” I was dumbfounded.

I just continued standing there, frozen in place, with my vice grip on his arm. He then said to me very quietly, while keeping his eyes on the dogs, “We’re going to leave now, just turn around slowly and walk away with me.” I’ll be further damned for all eternity if we didn’t simply just turn and walk away, and those dogs didn’t make a single move to follow us. Finally, when we got a fair distance away, I said incredulously to Mike, “How did you do that? They understood what you said! How did you do that?” He said, “You just have to tell them firmly. They respond to your tone of voice.” I never forgot that. I wasn’t quite sure what the lesson was until recently, as I just thought Mike was this incredible dog whisperer. I didn’t call it that, on account of referring to anyone as a “whisperer” of anything didn’t come about, far as I know, until that movie “The Horse Whisperer”, and this was pre that (yes, I’m old, what of it?), but I thought, okay, Mike has A GIFT. Little did I know that anyone can do that and, indeed, Mike was right: it is all in the tone of voice, as well as your body language. Dogs take their cues from us. Oh sure, there is the occasional dog who is intent on shredding you no matter what, but what I’ve learned to my amazement is, those dogs, just like those type of people, are the exception and not the rule. Most dogs are closer to the gentle, loving Luke of my childhood than they are to the Doberman who recently chased me on my walk and WOULD have killed me, I’m convinced, had his owner not called him off at the last possible second (I had already hurtled myself into a two-lane main artery road at that point, deciding that being flattened by an SUV or two would be preferable to being ripped apart by one of the Hounds of the Baskervilles).

It turns out that, just like with people, there are good dogs and not-so-nice dogs and, just like with people, the not-so-nice ones almost always start out as good ones, too, but get hurt by how they are raised. The vast majority are: GOOD!!! Granted, it isn’t like with cats, because ALL cats are not only good, but divine, enlightened, and one with the universe. No other species can live up to that, except perhaps for trees, but they aren’t cuddly. Dogs are just like us, they are all individuals. The revelation to me is that most of them—the vast, vast, vast majority—do NOT want to tear me to shreds. In fact, most of them are very loving, smart, fun-filled, hilarious, affectionate, AWESOME beings and I have wasted a lot of time being afraid of them, when I could have been ENJOYING them. Instead of avoiding dogs, I could have been sharing my life with them all this time, and how much richer I would have been for it.

This has been confirmed to me since I adopted my second dog, Hurley. First Jamie was wonderful, and now Hurley, where does it end? Turns out, it doesn’t! Turns out, while dogs aren’t, as a group, as enlightened as cats, they are a boatload of loving FUN and you can take them places and do stuff with them and they are playful and silly and sweet as all get out and, basically, they are just like us, only way less likely to destroy the whole earth (although goodness knows what they could get up to if they had opposable thumbs).

I plan to make up for lost time now that I really KNOW for certain that wonderful dogs aren’t the exception to the rule, they ARE the rule! How great is it to live in the same world they inhabit? For example, Hurley has a little BFF from the dog park circuit, named Bella (turns out that “Bella” is the in name right now for dogs, as evidenced by the fact that you can’t go to any dog park in my city without there being at least one Bella in it) and Bella recently (Friday!) got a new sister, named Clara. Bella and Clara’s “pet mom” and I plan play dates at the dog parks all the time for these little guys. It is at least as much fun for us humans as it is for the dogs. I wasted so much time being afraid of dogs, and here it turns out that interacting with them is one of the greatest joys of life. Who knew? I’m glad I know now. They have so much to teach those who let them in.

My dear Jamie
1996 - 2009

Hurley, my sweet little canine son, at the dog park

And a few more of Hurley, at the dog park...that black dog with him in two of the shots is not his aforementioned BFF/dog park buddy extraordinaire, Bella (I wish I had a pic of them to post doing their signature schtick of tugging on a stick together, which I guess you could call their "stick schtick" *tee HEEEE*), he is a dog who is not one of the "regulars" at the park, and he is doing Hurley's favorite thing:  chasing him, YAY!


  1. I wonder what the world would look like if every kid grew up in a house with a dog where the owners really "got it"-- I often think that dogs can be such wonderful companions and teachers to kids. So glad things changed for you!
    :) Angela

  2. Exactly, Angela. Luke's people really understood what I needed to get past my fear (at least with Luke, too bad it didn't translate to getting past it with other dogs). They reassured me and they held Luke while I approached him. Of course, Luke truly was such a gentle, patient spirit, that it helped a lot. But I agree with you passionately: if kids are introduced to dogs the right way, it teaches them to understand, respect and not fear them. I think organizations such as the SPCA, Humane Society, etc., should offer workshops/classes for folks to bring their little kids to, in order to introduce them to dogs. Kids need to be taught how to approach dogs, how not to approach dogs, how to interact with them, what the dog's different postures and barks mean, etc. I'd write more but my boss is lurking, so I'd better jettison myself off the net ASAP. Bottom line: Great comment, thank you.

  3. Here's to the magic of dogs! I can't imagine my life without them!

  4. I'll drink a hearty swig of peppermint-kukicha tea to that!