How My Relationship with Dogs Evolved from Controlling to Loving
Hint: I'm more mature than I used to be
I used to antagonize our family dog, Reggie, on occasion. I would barricade him behind a wall of chairs in the kitchen until he snarled, growled, and barked at me. He didn’t like it, but that was the point.
Reggie's full, tongue-in-cheek name was Reginald Van Delaney. He was a standard poodle with “pewter” colored hair, as my mom called it. He lived to be fifteen until hip dysplasia made it impossible to climb the garage steps without help.
You may ask why anyone would want to provoke a dog. My brother wondered the same as he happened by on one occasion while Reggie was behind a blockade of chairs. “What are you doing,” he asked. “I’m just having fun,” I said, trying to hide my embarrassment. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t look like he is.”
My behavior was immature and borderline worrisome, and I knew it. At the same time, agitating our dog felt empowering, even justified.
After all, this dog bit my hand in first grade while I attempted to rescue a flank steak from his mouth marinating in soy sauce on the Formica kitchen countertop moments before. He was the dog that helped himself to food from the refrigerator, the one that looked down on his caretakers.
I irritated him by rattling a chair like a matador goading a bull with a cape. The dog would soon become distressed, and I would let him go. In those moments, I was the little boy reclaiming his power from the helplessness he felt years ago.
I was the youngest of four children. That meant the pain was passed on from my parents to my oldest sibling and eventually down to me. Being the youngest also meant I had no one onto whom I could dump my frustration. Without an outlet, I turned my anger inward but occasionally toward my brother. That only made life worse.
That’s where the family pet comes in.
A friend once house-sat for a daughter whose parents went on vacation. My friend warned me that the girl had “accidentally” dropped her guinea pig earlier that week. I was skeptical until I saw the guinea pig slowly being swept off the dining table and onto the hardwood floor, letting out an unsettling shriek.
Though horrifying, I wondered how much attention her parents were giving her. After all, they left her alone in a big house on the hill while vacationing overseas.
I was an angry kid, partly because I felt I had no say in or agency over my life. To compensate, I attempted to control my surroundings, including neatly folding my clothes, cleaning my room obsessively, and exerting control over our dog. Finally, I had power over another being onto whom I could discharge my frustration.
As mentioned in a previous article about a dog that died, my partner, Kie, sits dogs. Some come for daycare, while others stay weeks at a time while their families travel or work overseas. The dogs are like family, and we get to know each of them intimately. They bring tremendous joy to our lives, but like humans, none are perfect.
Since starting eight months ago, we’ve hosted about fifty dogs, often several at a time. As you can imagine, walking, feeding, and keeping the peace can be challenging. But Kie grew up with dogs, enjoys them immensely, and has the skills to handle them.
When I was younger, I believed dogs were beneath humans. Nonetheless, it hurt that our dog, Reggie, adored my mom and oldest sister while seemingly caring little about me. I wanted him to obey me, and I resented him for not following my commands as he did my dad. Today, my stepson saying “Sit!” or taunting the dogs reminds me of when I was a teen and didn’t understand them.
Now I respect dogs and am deeply moved by them, each with their endearing personality. I meet each dog where they are, loving them and even massaging their tired muscles because who doesn’t like a massage? Dogs are fun, playful, attentive, and lovable but sometimes independent and aloof. Above all, they are always and forever in their dog nature, just being dogs.
Of course, their behavior can be frustrating at times. Like when they pee on a bookshelf, poop on the carpet, or snatch a bamboo spatula off the counter, only to have it chewed down to a nub by another dog. I hope it tasted good. But even their shortcomings eventually transmute into qualities that could nearly charm a taco out of my mouth.
On occasion, we try to modify their behavior. Virginia, discovered on a backcountry road in her namesake state, is fond of snatching food off the counter, including dragging a five-pound frypan with two cooked eggs off the stove and onto the floor once. We spray her with water, but she doesn’t care. What’s a little water when you grew up on the street?
My relationship with dogs is different today because I’m more mature than I used to be. No longer the angry, disaffected youth, I’m kinder and gentler with dogs because I’m more thoughtful and more peaceful with myself. I no longer try to control them because I no longer try to control myself or my surroundings.
Today I accept myself, and my relationship with dogs reflects how I relate to myself, then and now.
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