Four years ago, The Scientist and I adopted a dog. This is Emma, a few days after we brought her home:
Emma was a rescue. She spent nearly 3 months in the shelter system. The week we adopted her, she was featured in the shelter’s weekly newspaper ad that highlights the hard cases. We didn’t know that at the time.
When we visited the shelter, The Scientist and I agreed to walk around separately and then compare notes on the dogs that seemed like good possibilities. Emma was on The Scientist’s list; I hadn’t noticed her. Most of the dogs in the shelter come running to the door of their enclosure when a person walks by. Emma sat in the back corner, wary and watchful.
But that was okay. I understand what it means to fear change.
She fit my criteria (female, medium-sized, short-haired, not hyper or teething or a submissive piddler) so we took her out to the shelter’s backyard for a visit. As soon as we let her off the leash, she ran to the opposite side of the enclosure, as far away from us she could get.
We sat down on the gravel and waited. Eventually she came over to tentatively check us out. I didn’t realize at the time what a huge step this was for her. After talking it over, we decided to take her home.
We had no idea what we were getting into.
Shortly after arriving home, I took her out into our walled-in backyard. When I turned on the hose to water some newly planted trees, she jumped the three-foot wall and bolted.
All I kept thinking as I tried to lure her close enough to grab was, “If I call the shelter and report her missing on the same day we adopted her, they’ll never let me have another dog.”
I finally managed to coax her back into the yard. In the coming days, every time I turned on the hose she bolted over the wall. When I unloaded the dishwasher, she ran off to hide in another room. When the laser printer started up, she fled from my office like a bomb had gone off. When I picked up a ball to throw it, she cowered and hid under a bush.
But that was all okay. I understand what it means to have seemingly irrational triggers.
We took her to the vet for a check-up. One of the first things the vet said was, “You need to start socializing this dog immediately or she’ll bond exclusively with you and won’t be able to tolerate anyone else.”
At the time, I was having trouble imagining her bonding with anyone. She was content to spend her days alone in the yard. Some nights it took me a half hour or more to get close enough to leash her and bring her inside. Even when it was snowing, she preferred to dig a hole and curl up in it, oblivious to the snowflakes accumulating on her. Once I got her inside (she refused to let the Scientist get close enough to leash her), we had to lie flat on the floor and be very quiet to get her to approach us voluntarily.
But that was okay. I understand what it means to be slow to trust strangers.
She was an exceptionally good dog. She climbed on the couch once. I told her to get off. She never did it again. She never chewed up a shoe or a sock or anything else that wasn’t a dog toy. She rarely had an accident inside. What she did do–and still does when she’s anxious–is pace. Relentlessly. In circles. She also compulsively dug holes all over the yard.
But that was okay. I understand what it means to engage in repetitive comforting activities when you’re anxious.
I researched how to socialize a traumatized dog. I rewarded her for channeling her stress into her chew toys, for smelling objects that frightened her, for making eye contact. We enrolled in puppy kindergarten. For the first six weeks, we had to carry her into the classroom because there was no way in hell she was going through that door voluntarily.
It was too noisy, too unfamiliar and there were too many strangers. It took both of us to manage her during the hour-long class. We were all exhausted when it was time to go home.
But that was okay. I understand what it means to struggle with new situations, strangers, and loud noises.
I read and read. I was becoming an expert on dog socialization. One book after another emphasized the importance of routines in making a traumatized dog feel secure. A dog that knew what to expect was a happy dog.
This was not news to me.
Gradually we got to know Emma and she got to know us. We discovered that she has some scars–one of her ears never grew (it’s all scar tissue), her muzzle is scarred, and her right rear hip bone sits half out of the socket, poorly healed from some unknown injury. We don’t know her early history, but the evidence points to a rough start in life.
We also discovered that she loves to play and is very affectionate with people she’s grown used to. She warms up to friendly strangers more quickly these days. She’s still terrified of children, but has learned to politely share an elevator, as long as everyone stays on their own side.
She’s a loyal guard dog, an enthusiastic running partner and she instinctively knows when one of us needs comfort. The last time I had a meltdown, she came and laid her head on my cheek as I was curled up on the floor, crying. She reminds me to feed her if I forget and nudges at my elbow to get me to take a break when I’ve been at the computer too long.
She’s come to understand what I need in much the same way I learned to understand her in those early weeks and months.
They say dogs resemble their people–or is it the other way around?–and as you’ve probably guessed, Emma and I are kindred souls. I wonder if The Scientist picked her out because she reminded him of me.