It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part II (Heel!!! Or Heal?)

My dog is okay now. He is back to bouncing around the backyard like a pinball and leaping and jumping for joy. We went to the vet 5 or 6 times during his convalescence for various issues that arose. He received stiches, two courses of antibiotics, two pain medications maxxed to the highest doses allowable, and laid low wearing the cone of shame for two weeks. It was ruff. But he has healed. Physically. Mentally, the jury is still out.

After the attack, I knew he would have some trauma and anxiety to work through. What I didn’t expect is that I may be in worse shape! And I have been noticing that I am prone to avoiding dealing with it. As in, in general, avoiding things that make me uncomfortable. In this case, I attempt to avoid other dogs like the plague. My dog? He just barks his head off. Meanwhile, I am cringing and telling him in the not-so-gentlest of tones to stop it. Stop it. STOP IT. Why must he call more attention to us?

I started working with a dog trainer to help get us through this period. I called her in to help me get his barking under control. We have spent a lot of time working on “heel,” helping him to understand that his job is to stay focused on my leg and to follow me wherever I might lead. He doesn’t need to worry about the dog up the path or the squirrel in the bushes. Just focus on my leg and let me lead.

For my part, I need to be a competent leader. As we walk, the trainer honestly spends more time working on me than my dog. She tells me, “Relax. Loosen your grip on the leash. Stand up tall. Breathe.” And she keeps saying it. Over and over again. I can’t be cowering in the corner and high tailing it in the opposite direction every time I see another dog and expecting my dog to “just relax.” I recognize now that it doesn’t exactly set the right tone when I see a dog up the trail and say, “Oh, God. Here comes another dog.” At first I didn’t even consciously hear myself saying it. But even if that message wasn’t said outloud – which it has been – it was definitely the energy I was presenting with. Everything out there for a while felt like a threat. And whatever I feel translates right down the leash to my poor pup, who is looking for reassurance from me.

These days, we actively seek out other dogs on our walks so we can practice. I would have preferred to stay in the backyard or choose a quiet, untrod path. My favorite walks, by far, remain those when we run into no one. The dog trainer tells me I need to breathe and relax and face it.

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I’ve heard these messages before. I’ve practiced a lot with facing my fears. I see a therapist every few weeks, I’ve taken meditation classes, listened to podcasts. And I keep forgetting. Or, more, I am who I am and I go back to my basic instincts. And, then, THEN, all the work kicks in and I notice the feelings and the narrative. And that means I can pull it back. Then I remember that I have to face into the fire to extinguish it, not run the other way. Pema Chodron explains it so well in her talk “Getting Unstuck: Fear and Fearlessness.” Writing this post was a great reminder to watch it again. “It’s a process of being here all along, not just when we like how it’s going. Instead of that making you more self-absorbed, it makes you very decent, very sane, and very open to the world and other people.”

Every time I hear myself say “heel” to my dog, in my mind I think “heal.”

Life keeps on giving us opportunity to practice. Keep facing into it and keep going.

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