Tag Archives: dog training

He Let Me Go

I believe that eyes are the mirrors into a dog’s soul. It sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true—if I can look into the eyes of a dog and have them look back into mine, it’s a sign of trust and true connection. A sign of respect. When a dog knows that you respect it, that dog in turn respects you. I form relationships with my dogs; it’s what makes me so good at working with them. If I can get inside their heads, I can better help them.

My life hasn’t been easy. In my thirty plus years, the greatest lesson that I’ve clung to is to focus on doing the things I love. I don’t know how much time I have here in this world; no one does. Doing what I love makes it easier to get by, and I love working with dogs. I love the moment when a dog “gets” it, whether that be something basic like  sit, or something harder, like don’t lunge and bark at that passing dog. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Last week, I had a terrifying experience. I entered a client’s home and was attacked, unprovoked, by the dog––a dog that had shown no aggression of any type prior to the moment he latched onto me and refused to let go. I know that this happens, that sometimes dogs just snap. I’ve worked with human clients that have been attacked. But I never thought it would be me. I thought I knew what to do to prevent it, but I was powerless.

“What would you do if it was a man who attacked a woman?” a different client asked me when I told her what happened, when I asked her if she thought the dog should be put down.

“Well that’s a loaded question for me,” I laughed, as I do with anything serious, “but I’d kill him. I’d kill him, if that was a choice.”

I’ve been made to feel powerless before, and I never want to feel this way again. Not by a man, and certainly not by a dog. I didn’t expect this. I never thought I’d be the person who said a dog should die, because dogs are different than men. Dogs are inherently good; they just want to please us, and because of that, dogs are what we make them. Men? They choose to be bad.

I am gifted in that I have a brain that holds on to the smallest of details, sights, smells, feels. I can remember absolutely everything and transcribe it on paper like it’s happening right now. This is the best gift any writer could ask for, but it is also a curse. It is the worst curse, because I see things when I close my eyes. I see this dog. I see myself, perched on top of the couch like a cat on a phone wire, my limbs shaking, terrified of what will happen if I fall. I see myself the last time I was that terrified, on a cold night in March so many years ago. I see this dog when I try to sleep, his teeth bared; I hear his snarl, an eerie rumble of absolute rage like nothing I have ever heard. I see all of it clearly.

It was lunchtime. I entered the apartment the same as I always did, and saw the dog lying on the couch—that wasn’t expected. The dog had been in the home for almost a month, and in that month had become gradually more destructive. Gentle destruction—a little pee here, a moved pillow there, a tipped over coatrack there—but the owner had had enough. I recommended reintroducing the dog to the crate, because that’s what I would recommend to anyone in that situation. We talked about how to bring the crate back properly, and the owner had no issues getting the dog inside that first morning. But then I came in to the dog on the couch.

I took in the scene from the door of the apartment. The crate seemed to have all the doors shut, but a closer glance noted that the door in the corner, against the wall and the couch, had been broken away—leaving about four inches of space for this large dog to squeeze out. I squatted down to see what had happened, and when I reached for the crate, the dog was on me from behind and pinned me into the metal, spitting, snarling. He had my bag completely embedded in his teeth, and I turned towards him slowly, gently tried to slip out of the bag without scaring him. But he grabbed onto my calf with his teeth, and he held on.

In that moment, every ounce of training I had went out the window. I had deterrent spray, in the bag on my back, where I couldn’t reach it. I didn’t want to kick the dog, because I loved him, because he had always been good to me in the four weeks I’d known him, because he had never been aggressive before to people OR dogs. But then he grabbed for my butt, for my back, my side. He kept coming, and I did kick him then, not hard, just enough to scramble up the couch and perch on top. He pinned me there, his lips pulled back, and this dog had no eyes—just black holes. The dog I knew wasn’t there, not anymore. Whatever was going on inside his head had erased the part of him that knew me. That’s when dogs become scary, I think. When they no longer comprehend that their human respects them. I am good at what I do because I respect them.

I tried to step down off the couch and he grabbed my boot and sank his teeth into the  thick leather. Unable to extricate myself fully, I grabbed his tennis ball off the couch below me. I bounced it up and down in my hand, hoping it might spark something inside him of the dog I’d known. It didn’t. My heart slammed into my ribs as it dawned on me that I might not leave the apartment, that I might not be powerful enough to stop this dog. Yet I was. Powerful. And I knew enough; I knew what to do. Somehow, I moved the eight feet or so to the fridge while he tried to pull me in the other direction. I got the door open, and I found the sandwich meat, cheese. I started throwing food items in the opposite direction––any item, every item. I found his chicken jerky bag and upended it, scattering the nasty smelling sticks everywhere. Finally, he let go.

In the end, the dog let me go. He didn’t have to let me go, but he did. I think that counts for something.

I have so many questions, so many feelings. What happened to this dog in the past to make him lash out this way? What hurt him so badly that he couldn’t get better, even in a happy home? I’ve tried to analyze this case the way I would have had it happened to someone else, but it’s harder being in it than looking from the outside.

I don’t think this dog deserves to die. I can’t connect him to my past, beyond the level of terror that both inspired, beyond the level of power that both stole from me. So while I’d have no trouble saying kill the man, I could never say kill the dog. I hear the saying often that we get what we deserve, but I did not deserve this, any of this, and this dog does not deserve to die. What we deserve is never black and white; it’s never easy. Yes, it was scary, and yes, it sucked. It took me a week to figure out how to approach the subject at all. But really, maybe, I’m stronger for this, like I am stronger for every experience I’ve had. Maybe this happened to show me that I do indeed know my shit.

The dog bit me, yeah. But sometime, before that, he did love me.

And, he let me go.

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Dear Sara Friend

Dear Sara Friend,

You’re my best friend. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. But don’t tell your other dogs. It would make them sad. Honestly, we all know I’m the best. But it’s okay to love other dogs too. Just none more than me. I was your first pittie love, after all. Okay, I mean, there was that OTHER pittie. But I am your first REAL pittie friend.

You always know how to make me smile. I think that we’re a great fit, you and I, because we’re the same really. Really fun, super caring. Massively socially awkward with others of our kind. I couldn’t ask for a better walker.

I might not like dogs, but I live to make my humans happy. In fact, nothing makes me happier than to see you all smile. All I want is to sit in your lap and give you hugs and get hugs back. You give the best hugs, after my mom and dad, of course.

I love it when you come way before my walk and spend all your extra hours with me. I love when you teach me new things, even though I sometimes forget them by the next week. (Sorry about that–I try really hard!) I love helping you answer emails and make all your work phone calls. I love when you read me books, especially when you read out loud and I love how you understand that I understand what you’re telling me even when other people just think you’re a dork. I would never call you a dork. I love that you spent hours and hours making me a sweater with big paw holes because I’ve always been a big jerk about having my paws touched. (Sorry again. Kinda.) I love that you taught me about aliens and zombies and everything scary, and I love that you didn’t laugh at me the first time we watched The Walking Dead together and I hid my face in my paws.

You’re my best friend.

You’re my best friend because you see when I am sad, and you always figure out how to make me less sad. If there’s a scary noise outside, you turn on the tv for me–you get that I’d do this for myself if I just had opposable thumbs. When my mom and dad go away, you make sure our slumber parties are epic and fun so that I forget how sad I am that they’re gone. You give me hugs and long walks with my tennis ball. You bring me fun stuffed toys to merrily slaughter. You keep my attention outside when there are other dogs. If I have a problem, you want to fix it.

You are one of the people who helped me to trust people again. When we walked by that greyhound today, I didn’t bark at it because I was looking at you. You helped to build my confidence. You always remind me I am a good dog, even when I forget and bark or go crazy and then feel bad. No matter what, I am a good dog. And you are too, Sara Friend. Well, not a dog. Obviously. But you know.

I never gave up hope that I had a place out there. When I found my real, forever mom and dad, or rather, when they found me, I was the happiest I’d ever been. And then you started coming to walk me, and everything was perfect. You all taught me how to fit. And because I fit, you fit too.

And so, dear Sara Friend, you must finish writing your book. I’ve taught you a lot, just like you’ve taught me a lot, and you should use that. Be brave, and find your own place in the world like you helped me to find mine. I will be here every step of the book writing AND editing process, including when there are cheese snacks. Especially when there are cheese snacks. Because what is writing without your favorite pittie to drool on your leg at every page?

Love, Tubs

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We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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The Beginning, Part Two

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. In my fantasy of Manhattan life, I imagined I’d work in a book store and write in my spare time, which I did for twelve weeks, until that book store fired me and I spent two months after in the city with no job and eleven dollars in my bank account. Desperate, I turned to Craigslist and followed up on an ad for a dog walking coming; I never expected to hear back, but somehow, three weeks later, my employee trainer was placing my first leash in my hand—Delano, a six month old tan and black Shiba Inu puppy.

“You absolutely can’t go left on Wall Street,” my trainer informed me as we reached the first intersection. “Something must have happened to him there, because he freaks out and cries if we try to go that way. Oh, and he’s stubborn, because shiba, so he probably won’t walk for you.”
I took the leash, seriously doubting my skill and ability to handle the adorable little miniature fox at my side. I had always loved dogs, but to walk and train them in the middle of Manhattan was an entirely different story than playing ball in a fenced in backyard in the suburbs. Delano stuck to me like glue and trotted next to me all the way down to the Staten Island ferry and back without issue. I remember my trainer being greatly impressed and slightly jealous that he had never walked that well for her. She told me I was a natural. I decided then and there that maybe I was. You see, I understood Delano; he couldn’t go down Wall Street because he was scared. There were a lot of places that I could never go because I was scared. We were the perfect match.

Fast forward nearly a year. I stood on the corner of Union Square at the weekly adoption drive I volunteered for, the leash of rambunctious orange-y red pit bull Georgie clutched in my hand, when one of the organization board members approached me.

“I may have a client for you. I’ve been told you’re great with this one.” She pointed at the dog sitting at my feet, his eye focused on mine. She didn’t have to say it—Georgie was crazy. “Do you remember Thumbelina? Tubs?”

I remembered her vaguely, remembered how she had always been kept at the complete opposite end of the drive from Georgie and I because we keep the reactive dogs apart, remembered that she barked at ALL the dogs, remembered that I’d never actually gotten to meet her.

“I remember.”

“Her foster parents want to adopt her, but they’re worried about managing her dog aggression. They’d need a strong walker every day. Do you think you could fit her in?”

Less than a week later, I found myself on a living room floor in East Village, a black and fawn pit bull slobbering all over my face and balancing her two front paws on my crossed legs. We were instant best friends, Tubs and I. She whipped me with her red rope toy, and we played tug in the corner while everyone talked about the logistics of her adoption. And then we went for a walk. I took the leash, completely confident I could handle whatever she threw my way. We walked down the street towards Tompkins Square Park, me on the lookout for any dogs. I wanted to see what Tubs would do. The first one approached from about ten feet out, and I decided not to push my luck with three people standing, chatting, pretending not to watch. I took a piece of chicken jerky in my left hand and turned Tubs attention away from the dog.

“Tubs, sit!” I commanded. She did immediately, as her eyes followed the treat up to mine. She held my stare and paid no attention to the black and white lab mix behind us.

Everyone was quiet, until her potential mom broke the silence. “Wow,” was all she said.

I steered them all intentionally towards the dog park. I wouldn’t dare go in, but I wanted to see what might happen if dogs got too close. I pushed Tubs’ challenge line, repeatedly asking for sits and looks, seeing how close I could get before she barked. The reaction was ferocious when it finally came, but easily contained when we backed off. She was scared, but she already understood even in the first hour of our relationship that I would keep her safe. Safety was priority one; we feel comfortable when we feel safe. I had so often felt unsafe in my life that I zeroed in on precisely the thing that would break through to Tubs—my open heart, my willingness to connect. These were the things that people had used to help me, and I, in turn, could use them to help Tubs. I could make myself new by making her new.

Her mom and dad signed the adoption papers when we got back to their apartment.

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. But I knew in that moment that I was taking a different path, that I was precisely where I was supposed to be.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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When Sometimes We Fail

My grandma bred in me a spirit of giving; volunteering is a thing I have always done and like to think I will always do. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty well versed in the land of dog via my job and my volunteer time. The volunteer dogs were supposed to be the fun ones–using the knowledge I’d learned on redirection and body language and the intricate way in which dogs think was going to be the new way that I gave back. I had training skills, I told myself. Why not use them? My friend and coworker S found this great organization, and we decided to do just that.

Enter G, a great big lovable smart goofball of a pitbull mix with a food motivated heart of gold and a tendency toward mischievous naughty acts. No one else can handle him, I was told. He was just for me. We clicked instantly. After all, I came with a pouch of treats and two hands to give plentiful pets. We were a match made in heaven. I became G’s personal vending machine.

G, I was told, got bored at adoption drives. He had an incident where he lunged at a passerby, and after that he wasn’t allowed to come out for almost a year. Having never seen the foster farm where he lived, I pictured the worst. I decided that I would be the one to fix him, and I set to work during adoption drives teaching him skills like sit, stay, wait. G and I quickly moved on to more fun commands like paw, crawl, switch, and perch on a stool like a circus animal. He looked utterly ridiculous yet still adorable–an easily 80 pound pitbull standing on a tiny plastic stool, but it was his favorite trick. People loved him, even though he only loved them if they had treats. I loved him. I like to think he loved me too. We had a connection; we understood each other.

It wasn’t until I started writing my thesis that I realized how my love of dog training and my status as a rape survivor went hand in hand. Because I was raped, I have a fear of many things (some weirder than you might expect). Because of the things that happened in the pasts of the dogs I’ve worked with, they are afraid too. The dogs I work with are weird and wonderful and wacky, but for all the fun, they’re hard a lot of the time. T, one of my favorite pitbull mixes, was left alone in her former home for much longer than dogs should be ever left alone; as a result, she was never properly socialized with other dogs and thinks they are the absolute worst. M, a little Boston terrier I walked until recently, was attacked in an elevator and subsequently feared not only the elevator but all other dogs ever. MV, an 80 pound plotthound mix, was not only attacked in the dog park this year, but was also attacked while we were out walking by a homeless man and a shopping cart. She’s afraid of everything now. I like to think that, by training them, I’m helping them. But G was different. He always was for me. I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t know what he’d seen. I tried the best I could to help him.

Today was a busy Saturday. G seemed super overstimulated when I took him from the van. We got to the drive; he got his lunch. There was a little brown haired boy in a blue coat walking a touch too close, pointing a finger at G. I was instantly leery, because G hated kids. I pulled back on the leash, holding tight, and followed the boy with my eyes as he walked to safety beside his parents. I was so focused on him, I never saw the little girl in the pink coat come up behind me. G was on her and had her on the ground before I even knew what happened. We left the drive and looped the city before coming back to give the family time to leave. G was put on no pets restriction. He was fine until a crowd came. There was so many people that another little girl got just a little too close; G went in for a bite, but I had him on such a short leash that he only got her coat. We left the drive. I was told he would never be allowed back. We looped the neighborhood for a long time, and I pondered what I could have done differently. Rationally, I knew I handled the situation as best I could. I knew that anyone else may not have been as equipped as me; I knew those kids could have been seriously hurt if it wasn’t for my quick thinking. But it didn’t make it easier to know the sad fact that I would never see G again. At the van, he went into his crate, and I watched the door close on him eating vanilla ice cream out of a dirty styrofoam cup.

One year together, countless Saturday’s, enough hours to fully earn my CPDT certification, and I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get a chance to.

I feel like I let him down.

When I was raped, the people close to me in life didn’t give up on me. They could have, sure. I was a super bitch for a while there. But it wasn’t because I’m that way by nature. I had been hurt. I lashed out where I could. They didn’t dismiss me. They tried their best to understand. To help me through it. I’m a better person for that, for the strength and the will of the people around me. I’m a strong and wonderful independent woman now. It may seem like a strange correlation, but I work with dogs because I understand them; my experiences have given me this gift that I am only just now beginning to comprehend. Totally different circumstances and species, but I wanted to be for G what people were for me. And I wasn’t that. I stopped coming out as much. I stopped really showing up for him. And, what I think happened, is that G stopped showing up for me.

You can say he’s just a dog. But dogs feel just like people. They hurt just like people. I know he always knew me when those vans doors opened. There was a glimmer, a light, in his eyes the moment he spotted me. Now he won’t know me, and I will no longer know him. That’s hard and feels weird, because I keep telling myself I could have should have done more. He’s just a dog, yes. But he was more than that to me. All of the dogs I work with are. My heart still believes I could fix him. My mind isn’t sure that’s true.

I’m standing on a C train platform right now, waiting for the next train, and when I shove my hand into my pocket it comes out coated in crumbs from G’s treats. I’ll have to give these to another dog, and that’s weird too. I bought the bulk bag–I thought I’d see him next week. I won’t. I know what it’s like to be rejected. I didn’t want to be that person, but I have to be. I was supposed to be this great handler, the best of the best, but there’s this one dog I couldn’t help. One dog that I failed.

A lot of dogs I didn’t.

I smile a little as I finger the treats, even though I’m crying, again (ridiculous, over a dog), and I realize that rather than a failing, I should try to think of my experience with G as an opportunity to learn how to be better. Right now it hurts and it’s sad, and I feel at fault. But I’m not, not really, and I know that. Whether I believe it or not, I need to tell myself this is a learning in order to feel better. I won’t fail next time if I learn from this.

So until I’m allowed to visit you, or until you miraculously get adopted, here’s to everything I learned from you, G. May you have all the ice cream and the hot dogs and the meatballs that you could ever want, and may your dreams be filled with Biljacs chicken and liver treats.

Goodbye.

 

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On Being More

Sometimes my life doesn’t seem real. It happens at random moments, different times. I’ll be walking my favorite dog client, Tubs, around Tompkins Square Park. We’ll stop at the dog park outskirts for a little redirective rehabilitation. It is bright and sunny and 72 degrees on this hazy blue day, and it occurs to me that there is a very large possibility that I’m not really here. That the last time was really the last time, that I am lying in a hospital bed somewhere in my hometown in a white washed hospital room in a coma from which I will never wake up. It is easier sometimes to think that than to think that this life I have now, writer, dog walker, extraordinaire, in New York City is really mine.

I blink, and I am brought back to where Tubs sits on the edge of the enclosure that is full of her greatest fear—other dogs—her tail wagging as she waits for her chicken jerky treats. Tubs does not speak dog. I think that’s why we get along so well; she doesn’t understand her species, and I don’t feel like I understand mine. As we’ve gone through months of working together, Tubs is learning to confront her demons by associating them with good things rather than bad. As we’ve gone through months of working together, I am also learning to confront mine. I am more than rape; I am more than abuse; I am more than any bad word ever applied to me, because I am my own construction. I am my own person.

Tubs is not afraid because I am not afraid.

I am not afraid.

I give Tubs her treat and release her from the sit, and we walk all around the perimeter of the dog park, a feat we could not have accomplished without issue six months ago. I know that it is possible to learn to be okay because I see Tubs being okay, and I believe that Tubs is okay because she sees me being okay. Our relationship goes two ways, and even though she is just a dog, I am certain that she understands this.

When I take Tubs back to her house, she doesn’t want me to leave and flops in front of the door to try and stop me. I give her a scratch behind the ears and promise her I will see her the next day, and the next, and the next. I am a natural at dog training because I let myself understand her feelings, and I know that Tubs loves me. By reciprocating that love, I have gained Tubs’ trust—it’s just like relationships with people work.

I picture that other woman as I walk to the bus stop, the one I thought I might be, lying somewhere in a quiet room, alone, and I vow to say goodbye to her because when I let myself get stuck there, it holds me back. I am not sleeping; I am wide awake; I am in this life and not the other, I think, for the very first time.

To be a survivor, to be more than what happened to me in the past, means being awake.

Tubs is awake.

I am too.

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On Being a Dog Walker

When I first started out walking dogs in New York City, it was hard. Not the dog part, but the walking part. During my training, I logged almost 25 miles of walking in two and a half days (the third abruptly cut short by a poorly planned for snow storm). The following week, my first real week, I walked at least 14 miles a day because I had my regular dogs and a handful of dogs I stupidly volunteered to help out with. I refused to acknowledge the idea that I might have a physical limit., but after getting fired from my retail job I had spent a good two months sitting on my butt in my room watching television. 14 miles a day was a lot.

*

At almost thirty pounds, Milo is pretty big for a Boston Terrier. People comment on it all the time when we’re walking. During the winter, he wore a fuzzy red puffer coat and blue snow boots, which only drew more attention to the utter adorableness that is him. In the beginning of our time together, Milo would bark at every single dog he saw, almost to the point of being uncontrollable. He’s gotten a lot better; I like to think of myself as a bit of a dog whisperer. With Milo, it’s all about the bonding.

I get to his building and get the key from the doorman, and then I head upstairs. I whistle when I step off the elevator, because Milo likes to know I’m coming—and he definitely knows. When I stick the key in the lock, I can hear him panting and scratching on the other side of the door. As I carefully open the door, he spins around and dances on his hind legs. I sit down on the brown rug just inside the door, and Milo runs away further into the apartment. He digs around in his oversized bed until he comes up with a stuffed red lobster, and then he charges at me like I’m a huge piece of steak. He skids to a stop and the game begins—he offers me the lobster, and then snatches it away from me. Again and again, he prances just out of reach, and I play like I want that lobster more than anything else in the world. Sometimes, I get a hand on it—and when I do, I throw it. Milo always brings it back. I have affectionately named the toy Mr. Lobster. Playing keep away is one of the highlights of my day, and the more we play, the less Milo reacts to other dogs.

One day, I came to the apartment to pick up Milo and Mr. Lobster wasn’t there. Milo was frantic. He ran in circles all over the apartment, digging in his bed, between the cushions on the couch, and under the dining table. He didn’t want to go outside; he didn’t want to walk around other dogs, and he didn’t want to listen. All because we didn’t spend three minutes playing a simple game with a stuffed toy before we left.

*

14 miles a day was a lot, but it was an exciting lot. I got my first unlimited subway pass, and I got to see parts of New York I hadn’t even known were there. I found Foley Square. I walked along the piers of East River. I took a selfie in front of the New York Stock Exchange. I breathed in fresh air; I was out of the house. It was a glorious feeling, and one that hasn’t gone away these last three months of walking dogs. My enjoyment of the outdoors, of being in the city, has only grown. And I’m not exhausted at the end of the day anymore—my stamina has increased. I’m getting into shape again.

*

With Teddy and Missy, the focus comes from a physical bond. Teddy and I play a game where I count down from three as I undo the latches on his kennel, and as soon as the door opens he does a flying leap into my lap and wraps his paws around my neck—a literal doggy hug. After a minute, he falls over baby-style so that I can cradle him and rub his tummy. Another minute, and he stands up to let me put his harness on.

Missy is less exuberant with her affections. I open her kennel door and she leans out. I have to be down on the floor so that she can sniff my hair. Once my hair meets her approval, she has to sniff the rest of me; I believe she gets jealous that she isn’t my only puppy friend. After the big sniff, Missy puts her head on my shoulder for a brief hug and a back scratch. Missy doesn’t like to be harnessed unless this whole process has occurred; she turns her head and tries to wander away to eat the kitty litter from the box in the corner to drown out her pain.

Missy and I walk along the East River in Chinatown. We have a specific route that we take most days so that we can encounter the maximum number of joggers and skateboarders and learn how to not bark at them. Our turn around point is this little section of pier that juts out over the only sandy strip I’ve seen on the East River. There’s a bench at the end of the pier, and we always take a few minutes to sit on it—at Missy’s insistence. If I try to walk past it, Missy stops and jumps on it, sitting down with me. Once I sit down, Missy lays down and presses against me, her two front paws draped across my lap. After a few minutes of bird watching, she takes the loose leash in her mouth and jumps down, as if to say “It’s time to go home now.”

*

I like to take new routes when I walk the dogs. It varies things up for them and for me. Sometimes I’ll go down one pier, sometimes another. One day I’ll go to the seaport, and the next day I’ll go to the stock exchange. Now that it’s spring, I see a lot of tv and movie crews filming. I saw the cast of “Law and Order: SVU” over by the courthouse, and Debra Messing from “Mysteries of Laura” picking through a staged mountain of garbage in her beige detective coat looking for clues. My life is different every day, when it used to be the same. Just like the dogs have different needs for being happy, I too have needs.

*

I went to the doggy spa to pick up Buddy the beagle puppy, my last walk on a very long Friday. He came out of the back area with one of the workers, all prancing and cute on the end of his leash. But then I took the leash, and he promptly sat down on the floor. I fumbled in the pocket of my coat and produced a piece of kibble, and moved it forward to try and get him to get up and follow. Which he did, right out the front door, where he promptly sat again. The look on his face said it all: “I’m not going to go with you.” I tried to tug him, but it was a solid no go. Buddy just stared at me with a goofy beagle smile and refused to be dragged. I ended up only making it around the block with him, me half bent over and him chasing the treats I doled out from the palm of my hand the entire way. I imagine I looked like an incredible idiot. But the best part of being a dog walker? No one cares.

*

Dogs are funny and unique creatures, and I pride myself on my ability to understand them. I was pretty lonely before I started walking dogs, and now I’m not as lonely. It’s not just because I have all these fabulous new puppy friends. It’s that I’m getting out in the world. Shaking up my routines, becoming more flexible. Learning how to make connections, how to adjust my approach for different situations. I am learning to care less, to not worry so much about what people think. And I’m better for it. The most important thing I have learned is that I need to know what my needs are. And I’m learning. 

I have the best job in the world.

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