Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Anxiety of Influence: A Dog’s Tale

I co-own a difficult dog. He is our neurotic co-pilot. I worry that I helped morph many of his saner attributes into something no longer sane, all the while trying—with patience and persistence—to quell his interest in barking at humans, pigeons, dogs and plastic bags. I wish I knew his before-us time. Then I could chart his course in the last year and rest assured that our training is doing him some good.

I should first credit Monte with his lovable qualities before I proceed to sully his reputation over the interwebs. He is an amazingly intuitive and courteous dog. He will can jump up to my lap and place his paws on my arm when he senses the twinge of existential despair. He knows what’s up and how to fix it.

Monte will gladly accept visitors into our house, even the dog trainer who came on a house to meet him. He treats our cats with begrudging respect. And he doesn’t pester the 50 gallons of water holding our fish. He won’t tear the window blinds or scratch the hardwood. He squeals in his sleep when he’s dreaming. His brown eyes will make a warm puddle of your heart.

Monte can elevate my blood pressure like nobody’s business. He is very dog reactive. It took us a while to notice this. When we adopted him, all 50 lbs. of his 2+ year old emaciated black lab mix self, we noticed he was a leash puller. He wanted to go, and he was taking us with him. He would, on the other hand, approach other dogs with the curiosity and good intentions—but elevated emotions— in much the same way a kid might approach the ice cream truck. There would be tail wagging but an eventual paw swipe at the smaller dogs or a lunge at the larger dogs. Now, during walks with our numbnut, this behavior is more than I can handle. Has our discouraging his dog greeting (because he gets overwhelmed) reinforced his belief that all dogs are bad and that, when we tenderly try a meet-and-greet, he believes it appropriate to jump and swipe? Oh Sisyphus!

Above all else, it is embarrassing to have a dog that is inhospitable to some of our neighbors, while he slobbers and wags his tails at others. He adores the soft-spoken, aloof neighbor, who memorized Monte’s name, birth marks and habits before he could recognize my face or before I could even learn his name. Monte loves the children that play in our courtyard, who kick the soccer ball and proclaim their bravery in the face of slobbering dogs. He likes the constantly revolving line of fans at our local RedBox. He is angry at anyone who might be banging around under the hood of their cars or watering their lawns when we walk by. He doesn’t like if someone is listening to headphones or on their bicycle. He is angry when someone comes out from around a corner. He is elated at squirrels. He cowers at thunder and if someone slams the door downstairs. His agoraphobia has manifested itself not as the inability to leave the apartment, but rather with the inability to manage the barrage of sensory information he encounters outside. And I thought walking your dog was supposed to be calming and regenerative.

So we enrolled Monte is a Growl class. And he was a super star. I was not a super star. I was a blubbering fool, disappointed when Monte wouldn’t make eye contact and felt like jumping up and down at other dogs. I was a mess simply because I couldn’t stand the anxiety of holding in my anxiety enough to make sure Monte didn’t see that I was agitated. Turned out, I needed a Growl class for humans and Monte needed to stay home and eat bacon and watch Days of our Lives. I think that this human class I need to go find might be filed in the yellow pages under “therapy” or “support group”.

In Growl, the dog trainers told us to sing “jingle bells” to ourselves when approaching another dog, so as not to transfer the anxiety or tension through the leash to our dog. There’s a lot of talk of the leash being the emotional tether—the only thing “connecting” you to your dog. My tension tells Monte when to be tense. My relaxation tells Monte when to relax. My tension is high when I’m tense about making sure I relax enough. The trainers wouldn’t be able to help me if they knew I’m too worried about singing jingle bells and sacrificing one small bit of my attention from him to even remember why I’m supposed to be singing jingle bells in the first place.

It’s been 9 months since we adopted Monte. With excellent precision—if I have the timing right—I can navigate the most stress-inducing dog walk-past on the narrowest of sidewalks while Monte maintains eye contact and prepares to receive a treat. Food motivates. But motivational slogans and commands and food-giving is both exhausting and habit forming. Sometimes it doesn’t even work. Will Monte ever not need treats to walk like a reasonable, obedient and calm dog? Will I ever trust the dog? Will he ever trust me?


grrlpup said...

My dog Louie went to growl class, and it was definitely more for the owners' skill development than for the dogs'. It did teach me that managing his life to avoid conflict was okay, and that doggie freak-outs didn't have to freak me out too.

Louie hated that class, though. He never got great social skills and walks still have a video-game aspect. But he mellowed with age for sure. He ignores stuff that would have sparked a fight in the past. Now he's 14 and about eighty percent snoozy-adorable.

So, accept your guy and hang in there... he's still great even if he isn't a Disney dog and people don't understand him. (So many people have this weird good dog/ bad dog dichotomy in their minds that is NOT well informed.) I still yearn for a dog that's safe with cats, little kids, traffic, and so on... but it doesn't embarrass me anymore that Louie's not that dog.

Anonymous said...

For the record, let it be known that Monte is a saint.

Trina said...

Dude, the look on his face in that picture...he's totally like, "Laurie, chill-ax."

Padraig just turned 3 yesterday. I'm sure you'll remember those early days of him chasing cars and bicycles, pulling on his leash, and generally being a menace. Eventually my stress levels regarding his behavior peaked and now I just don't care about anything anymore.