I was living in a suburban area outside of Dallas 7 years ago when a very dear but very old Doberman of mine died leaving my American Pointer, Bailey, without canine companionship. An alpha dog, Bailey really needed another dog around to worship her, so we went to the local shelter and chose a timid, 6-month-old shepherd mix to join our little pack.
What most breaks my heart is that other than her barking -- which comes from a place of fear and insecurity, not aggression -- she's a really good dog who tries her best to do what's asked of her; yet after 7 years, she still behaves like she's afraid she's about to do something wrong and get beaten for it. If I ask her to stay still for a nail trim or a brushing or I try to roll her over or make her lie down, I see the panic in her eyes. Her entire body stiffens. The innate fear that something truly bad is about to happen is so palpable in her no amount of petting or soothing words can make her comfortable, even though I've barely ever raised my voice to her, let alone my hand.
Part of it is that in a wild pack she would naturally be the delta (most submissive) dog, the "whipping boy" that gets kicked around and takes all the abuse, so in a way she's wired to expect that. I've tried to elevate her role by encouraging her to do small things such as walk beside me instead of behind me, by putting her food down first, and by giving her special privileges the other dogs don't get -- to no avail. With her, nature seems to be winning over nurture.
I often wonder how it must be to live in such a state of anxiety and fear. I prize few moments more than those when Ginger simply relaxes with me. Mostly that happens in the early morning when I reach over on the bed and wake her up by rubbing her belly. She'll roll onto her back and let her body go limp, enjoying the feeling of security and contentment. I touch her and kiss her often throughout the day, and she always responds with a return kiss and a tail wag -- but she's always just a thought away from cowering in fear at anything out of the routine.
|Loki and Ginger (Angel in background)|
Whether they happen to our real kids or our fur-babies, neuroses and other conditions such as autism or ADHD are often as exasperating and frustrating for the caregiver as for the caree. Seven years ago I was sure it would take only weeks -- maybe a few months at most -- for love and patience and constant encouragement to completely cure Ginger of her anxieties. The hard reality is, no matter how good my intentions, I'm not a miracle worker. I can only provide her the safest environment possible to deal with her persistent condition, encourage her to push her boundaries, and rejoice with her in small progresses as she makes them. The rest is out of my hands.
Still, in its way, it's also the most freeing counsel I've ever received.
For me, someone for whom failure has never been an option, it's the great truth that drives me to try the impossible, that gives me permission to fail, and that still allows me to respect myself in the morning.