Monday, November 7, 2022

You're Doing it Wrong (But That's OK)

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou

Having a dog again after years without one has brought up many of the same emotions I had as a new mother. There's excitement in watching him learn. There's joy in the moments when his playfulness comes out. But there's also frustration when he behaves in a way I didn't expect. You'd think I would find these feelings, as a mid-lifer rather than a young parent, more funny than anxiety-inducing. 

You would be wrong.

When Sirius chews on my computer wire as I'm trying to write, pokes me in the back of the leg with his toy while I'm walking with a cup of hot coffee, or climbs up on the furniture to look out the window, I use the commands I know he understands. 

"Drop it. That's not for you."

"No. Settle." 

"Sirius, down."

But when he seemingly ignores me or gets even more persistent, I question my ability as a dog owner. 

He recognizes the words. He knows what they mean. Why, then, does he sometimes obey and other times not? I mentally review our morning. We've walked. We've played. He pooped. He's been fed. Now he should be lying down so I can work. So what's the problem? What am I missing?

I'm not saying every new pet owner would feel the same as I do. In fact, I think the anxiety stems from my philosophy about caring for a dependent. As a mother, like many expectant mothers, I had read all the books and prepared as best as I could. And like many new mothers, I found all that preparation helped only a tiny bit.

Why isn't the baby sleeping? Why does he cry so much? Is he sick? In pain? Hungry? Suffering in some invisible way I can't see? I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Why isn't it enough?

What am I doing wrong?  

Did I consider the fact that this was a new creature in my house and the world, one who was learning how to be a part of our family, how to express himself and understand us at the same time? No. As a new mother, I believed the answer to all these questions was that I was inadequate.

But why? Why do so many mothers feel this overwhelming sense of inadequacy, failure and guilt? I don't think it's hormones, sleep-deprivation or lack of knowledge. Nor do I think it's because of social media, parenting magazines or random strangers on the street offering unsolicited advice. 

I think it's because we care. 

We care so much about the well-being and happiness of this new life in our home, we are so devoted to its health and ability to thrive, that it is not merely a job. Yes, it's work. A lot of work. But it's work that matters. We have a desire to nurture, teach, comfort and help this baby blossom. We want him to grow up and make the world as wonderful as he's made our lives. 

Wrongly, we think that if we do everything we're told we're supposed to do, the baby (or in my case, new dog) will sleep well, eat well, suffer minimally and be generally happy all the time. Perhaps it's because we haven't learned to think of this new life as an individual with wants and needs it can't yet fully articulate or express. Or perhaps we underestimate just how complex the role of caretaker truly is. 

As a mother, this underestimation turned out to be a good thing for me. Did that naïveté drive my anxiety? Probably. But it's also what kept me going each day, mulling the questions in my mind and looking for new potential solutions. It's what gave me the courage to keep trying, even when I felt like I was failing. It's what forced me to listen to my baby tell me what he needed, rather than insisting he take what I was offering because I'd been told it should be enough.

All change is uncomfortable. Without that anxiety, I don't think I would have grown as much as I did. Listening to the needs of my kids made me question what I could do differently, or better. It made me a more empathetic person, and a more critical thinker. It also helped me realize what I could accomplish when I really focused on hearing them, instead of just going through the motions. It convinced me that no one is a failure if they are willing to keep trying.

Now, in mid-life, Sirius has rekindled all of those feelings of inadequacy in me. Sure, I could do without the anxiety this new dynamic has brought on. But what it tells me is that I'm not done growing. I may be doing it wrong. But Sirius seems happy to help teach me for as long as I'm willing to keep trying.

It started me thinking. What if everyone cared enough to try to understand, not just babies and dogs, but each other? What if we started listening when others tell us what they need from us, instead of just giving them what we've always given them? 

As my kids taught me, respect means letting others be heard. Caring means ensuring their needs get met. We all deserve that. But it will only happen if we, and others, are willing to listen and learn.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Honeymoon is Over

It's been a full month since Sirius joined our pack, and the shields are down. The first week we had him, he was a caricature of a "good dog". He observed intently, to understand how things worked in our house. He obeyed. And when something was unfamiliar, he learned quickly whether it was allowed (dogs in the kitchen) or not (dogs on the furniture). He didn't even bark. He was clearly on his best behavior, showing us what a perfect pet he would be, if we'd only give him the chance. It felt like a first date.

Four weeks in, let's just say things have changed.

Once the honeymoon period ended, Sirius relaxed into the realization that he's here to stay. Ever since, as each day passed, we saw seen glimpses of his personality peeking through. His intelligence, for instance. His first vet visit yielded some meds he needed to take. Flea, tick and heart worm prevention began, in separate pills on separate days. It didn't take him long to figure out that these were not yummy things I was offering. Even though he knows where we keep the dog biscuits, and I put the medicine in the same cabinet, he's now suspicious of any round 'treat' I offer him. 

He's also got chutzpah. And possibly some Border Collie in him. Although he knows we are the alpha dogs, this doesn't prevent him from trying to 'herd' us on the stairs to keep us from moving away from the front door (through which he is always eager to leave). He'll bound up and stand on the stair in front of me to prevent me from reaching the top of the staircase. After our morning walk each day, I'll sit down to have coffee and check my emails. But that's when he wants to play. If he's too worked up to take no for an answer, he will repeatedly poke me with his nose or nip at my elbow and knee while I'm seated at the table. He'll also bring me a toy and nudge me with it until I respond. Clearly, he thinks I'm not very bright and need repeated training to understand what he's trying to tell me. 

Finally, if you read my earlier post about the dog with no voice, you needn't worry. He's since found it. In spades. Car or truck going by us while we're out walking? He will leap and bark as if it's a dragon trying to eat me. Another dog spotted down the street that he wants to make his best friend? He'll bark so much and so loudly that the poor owner will figure he's too aggressive and will turn and go in the other direction. Neighbor kids playing outside? He'll pull and bark to get me down there so he can say hello. He's gone from caricature to character.

I'm thrilled that he's comfortable and willing to let his personality come through. I'm happy that any anxiety he initially harbored about being passed from home to home has finally abated. But I'm worried his personality will just get bigger and stronger if I don't do something soon.

My plan is to look into training. For me. Because ask either of my kids and you'll learn what a pushover I was when they were growing up. It's because I loved them so much, and always wanted them to be happy. But Sirius has sass and strength, and he's wicked smart. And he doesn't understand time-outs. So I need to learn  how to be a good Alpha Dog, and make sure he knows it. 

Otherwise I may never get to drink another morning cup of coffee again.

"Dropped ice cream" by deux yeux is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Dog With No Voice

First day canine antics aside, it wasn't long until I was smitten with Sirius/Exeter. He was playful, smart, in tune with our body language and improving daily on our leashed walks (read: he no longer dragged me down the street, and would stop walking when I said 'wait'). Most importantly, he was the biggest, mushiest love bug. Leave it to a Mom to fall in love with all those traits. The rest of the family, though, was not fully on board with the idea of keeping him past Tuesday. 

"You guys do what you want, but I'm not going to get too attached to the dog," my 20-year-old avowed. We suspected lingering loyalties to our sweet Bailey, who we lost some 8 years ago. But I knew that, in time, Ben would come to love this new dog too, given the chance. He was not my biggest hurdle.

By Monday afternoon, my husband said, "we should probably have a conversation about the dog." His tone suggested I shouldn't get too attached either. But it was too late.

Hubby wasn't really interested in adopting a dog. I understood. Exeter/Sirius is only about two years old, which translates to a 10- to 15-year commitment, and would mean a lot of responsibility. Still, I made my case.

"Yes, he'll have to be walked multiple times a day, and I'm willing to take that on. Get my steps in, and all that," I said. And before my husband could point out that winter was just around the corner, I said, "Yes, even in winter. I'll layer."

He didn't seem convinced, and I admit I sounded like a kid who wants a puppy and swears up and down they will take care of everything the animal needs. We all know how that story goes.

"Have you noticed how much he's learned in just the past couple of days?" I asked, referring to how well the dog had adapted to our daily routine, listened to commands and loved to play whatever game we came up with to entertain him. 

My husband did concede the dog was very smart and sweet. 

"And he loves our neighbors!" I went on. "He's good with every kid and dog that he's come into contact with!" Did I sound desperate? Could he hear the exclamation point at the end of my every sentence?

"The neighbors wouldn't be adopting him, we would," he said, still not convinced.

I had one card left up my sleeve. True, it concerned me somewhat. I wasn't even sure whether anyone else had picked up on this fact, or what was causing it. Maybe it was a temporary thing, or maybe it was a medical issue. Maybe it was caused by stress or the fact that Exeter/Sirius never really had an opportunity to learn how to be a dog. But these were questions to delve into later. If the trait would help my case now, I would play it. My ace.

"He hasn't barked once, have you noticed that?" I asked. "No early morning yapping, no barking at the wind or people walking by. Not even at dogs." I took a breath. "Hon," I paused for emphasis, "he's practically the perfect pet."

My husband considered this. Sirius/Exeter was lying at his feet, one paw on my husband's slipper, as if he couldn't bear the thought of being apart from him, even while sleeping. I pointed this out as well. Yes, I was shameless.

"All right, I guess we have a dog. What has to happen ne--"

"I'll take care of everything," I said, rushing to my computer without letting him finish. I wanted to finalize things before he changed his mind. Or Sirius started barking relentlessly.

I'm kind of happy to report that Sirius did eventually bark. It was about four days after we'd completed the adoption process, and he was sitting by the bay window in the living room, sandwiched between me and my husband as we discussed something that was, for once that week, not dog-related. Sirius couldn't see the street from the window, since we're on a hill, but he could look up into the pine trees that line our property. Maybe he saw a squirrel or bird. Maybe he just wanted to join in our discussion. Or maybe he is smarter than we realized, understood everything we were saying, and was perturbed at no longer being the topic at hand.

He barked. Once.

It was short, sharp and loud. My husband and I looked at each other, stunned to silence.

"Yes? You have something to say?" he asked Sirius.

And our new Dog Star put his head against my husband's leg and licked his hand, as if to say,

"I'm just so happy to be home, and I wanted you both to know it." 

 "shh" by Kradlum is licensed under CC BY 2.0.