Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It's Not Me: It's You

My twelve-year-old and fourteen-year-old are no longer on speaking terms with each other. That is, my son and my dog.

Within the last few weeks, it seems something has shifted in our dog's brain; he now views Ben as a threat. It started when I came home with both boys from camp one afternoon. Bailey was in the den downstairs, and I unlocked the door and held it open for the boys to enter. Ben went first, said hello to Bailey, and reached out his hand to pet him. Bailey growled, then snapped, missed and snapped again, catching Ben's finger and drawing blood. I hustled the boys outside and around to the back door and left Bailey downstairs.

Maybe we startled him? Maybe we woke him up? Maybe it was too dark and he didn't actually hear us come in (his hearing is failing), saw a hand in his face and reacted? We tried to apply human logic to a dog--a dog we've owned for over seven years--to grasp what had changed. How else to calm our son who feels that suddenly, inexplicably, our dog no longer loves him?

For the next couple of weeks, the two tenuously circled each other like barely tolerant roommates. Bailey seemed fine when Alpha Dog Dad was around, and that put the rest of us at ease. Over the weekend, with his older brother away at camp, Ben gently fed snacks to Bailey from his hand with no ill effects or ill will on either side. Things seemed to have returned to normal.

But today, Ben and I went out for a little over an hour. When we returned, I opened the door into the den and entered first, holding the door open for Ben, who hung back. Bailey was there, lying on the rug with his eyes open. I said hello to him and stood waiting for him to stand up. He didn't react right away, so I addressed him again. That's when he popped his head up and began to growl, then bark, at Ben.

Ben was still standing outside the screen door, so I shut it. Bailey approached the screen and was barking and growling fiercely now, so I told Ben to take off his sweatshirt hood. He did, but it didn't help. To Bailey, he was a giant, thug-like being wielding a bat.

I sent Ben to the back door and left Bailey downstairs.

Alpha Dog Dad and I have been discussing this a lot recently. We've done research, spoken with the vet at Bailey's thorough wellness check up last week, and tried to calm both Ben and Bailey. But now we're unsure. We've read about canine cognitive dysfunction, the signs and symptoms and why they occur. But what the experts don't tell us is how to coexist with a family member who now makes another family member feel threatened. I can only imagine what it must be like for people whose loved ones are suffering from Alzheimer's. Cognitive dysfunction unties the things that fasten us to each other. It steals not just memory, but relationships, history, leaving everyone involved unmoored.

For now, we'll keep the two separated. As much as it saddens me, I don't want to force a closeness that would make either (or both) of them uneasy. Until we know more, all we can do is try to prevent any additional painful episodes.