I have a lot of growing up I need to do.
My dog teaches me this in a visceral way almost every day.
Yesterday the phone rang at 9 a.m., and it was a trainer I had reached out to try to work on aggression issues with my rescue pitbull Sam. She had a very soft, kind, patient voice, totally different than another trainer I spoke to a few weeks back who I felt like was not empathic at all, which makes my entire body tense up in self-protection. Probably not the right fit.
But this new trainer spoke to me so gently and lovingly as I could barely put my thoughts together in a dream-like state, half-awake and barely lucid. I had done the night before something that's been a terrible habit of mine almost my entire life: staying up way too late. The night before I went to bed at 5 a.m. after a marathon night of catching up on projects I've needed to do for quite some time. My pitbull Sam was with me the whole time, curious and loyal and excited as always.
Sam is about two-and-a-half years old, so if you were to look at me parenting a toddler, I would be keeping my toddler up until 5 a.m. erratically, not because of an emergency -- no, because I got on a roll. Not acceptable. And I know this.
Today, the trainer I spoke to said understandingly, "I used to be the same way. I would work very late, but my rescue dog changed all of that. If you give them a schedule, you will see his behavior change dramatically and it will support the training."
Then she went on to say something that I had thought of before, of course, as I often have "You are the pitbull" type philosophical discussions with other pit owners about the dog's temperament reflecting your own. My dog is incredibly loving, like me, but, also like me, he is incredibly anxious. He never knows what is going to happen. Will we stay up until 5 a.m.? Will we go on just one half-hour walk for the entire day when he really needs much longer? Will my place be covered in clothes and mess or will it be nice and orderly with his toys doled out as rewards in a way that he understands?
First I told the trainer why I was reaching out for her help in the first place, which was an incident at daycare where he punctured the skin of another dog after playing too rough. My heart sunk when it happened, and I cried like a jerk at D is for Doggy when I went to pick him up.
They are the best, and they love him almost more than I do after two months of working with him (where he is normally great with other dogs) but obviously, they can't put other dogs at risk if he plays too rough again, so if it happens one more time, he won't be able to go there anymore. Which of course, I totally understand. But I hope it doesn't come to that. (The other dog is OK, by the way, but he is taking antibiotics, and I'm devastated the incident ever occurred in the first place.)
After I provided this background, here is the Big Epiphany the trainer provided.
"What you need to understand," she said, "is that you need to teach him positive behaviors when he is in a calm and relaxed state because right now what's happening is that he doesn't know how to control the over-excitement he feels which can lead him to go into his prey drive."
It clicked. It clicked a lot. And honestly, it led me to think about my own "prey drive."
Oh, I have one all right. It's when I feel as though I don't have the tools to control the excitement I am feeling, that is exactly when I make bad decisions.
As the trainer talked, I felt so grateful as I pet Sam as he lay next to me, patiently panting, while I thanked the trainer for her time.
Then I checked my bank account. Ouch.
As much of a profound personal epiphany as I might be having ("I am the pitbull!") with Sam, I can barely afford his food right now, let alone $100-an-hour training sessions. In fact, ever since I adopted Sam, I've cut out seeing my regular therapist so that I can make sure I'm giving him what he needs in terms of veterinary care, special food and all his other needs. And I don't regret it at all.
For me, the conversation with the trainer was just one of many countless lessons this dog has given me.
A few of the other ones:
1. He teaches me to live in the moment, something I have so much trouble with and always have.
He is not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, he is right here, smelling that awesome flower. (OK, peeing on it.) And this teaching is so simple and profound but so hard to get through my brain. He's helped get it through. And I love the excitement he feels about every little thing. This is when the epiphanies happen. When I give my brain a chance to actually rest.
2. I've never experienced unconditional love the way my dog provides it to me before.
He shows me his love every time he snuggles up next to me, licks my face or wags his tail a million miles an hour when I return home to find him waiting for me, excitedly. The unconditional love has opened my heart and softened my heart all at the same time. He also feels like (forgive the New Agey tangent) an extension of my own inner child. I love giving him the attention and care -- and discipline -- I'm trying to give my own Little Baby Mandy.
3. He's given me a reason to be responsible.
I don't know why it's so hard for people to treat themselves as lovingly as they might treat, well, a dog. But for me, it is. It always has been. I can't tell you how many nights I could not bring myself to even wash my face or brush my teeth or make my own bed. Fuck it. That's where my brain goes. I am a master of the fuck-it's. I'll do it tomorrow.
But my dog can't take care of himself. He needs me. He helps me see that I am needed in this world in a way that so few people can when you do not have children or other dependents or even a significant other. Yes, I know my friends need me and my family loves me, but day to day, it's hard to really feel that in your bones when you are right there, alone with your single life (a glorious one, don't get me wrong, and one I wouldn't change for an unhappy compromise of a relationship, ever). I know my dog needs me. I know my dog loves me. He teaches me to get out of my own stupid brain and feel more, and think less.
4. He isn't afraid to express himself.
Yes, I do need to curb the aggression, undoubtedly, as Sam loves other dogs, and I hope that I can feel safe letting him play with other dogs regularly again so an incident of playing rough like this does not happen again. But there are times when Sam barks, and it is absolutely OK. It's OK for dogs to bark when something does not seem right to them, and I love that about him. I've swallowed gallons of grief and rage and anger over my lifetime, and there is something so primal and refreshing about watching an animal express what he is feeling. Something does not seem right to him. And he will not be silent. I don't need to be afraid either.
5. He is joyful and playful.
I consider these two of my core attributes, but they are very tired, very eclipsed attributes. Sometimes the attributes don't feel there at all, to be quite honest. Sometimes it feels like my attributes are more sarcasm, bitterness and exhaustion. But Sam is helping me bring them out more. The silliness and the fun and the play of watching his doggie exploratory spirit is inspiring. I can feel my own joy bubbling up easier and more fluidly to the surface.
In fact, the first time I took him out, right after adopting him, I had trouble even saying to him, "Good boy," without feeling stupid. Now I coo it to him, unabashedly if there are other people around, trying to use positive reinforcement, every time he is good and calm and resists those prey instincts. I love the young energy of telling him, "Good doggie," or, "What do you see there, Sam?" It feels like joy itself.
I've undoubtedly learned many things from therapy. And I hope to learn many more. But right now, with the budget that I have, I'm OK putting it on hold while I learn the lessons Sam is continually teaching me.
He is a good boy.