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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is keep-calm-and-walk-the-dog-e1607437848982.jpg

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is i-see-your-fear-meme.jpg

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part I (Setting the Scene)

We walked home, my cellphone clamped between my cheek and my shoulder, my dog upside down like a baby in my arms, unable to walk from the bite wound. Cars whooshed past during the more modest but no less loud flow of quarantine rush hour as I waited for the vet to pick up while admonishing myself not to panic. “It helps no one if you lose it. Do not cry.”

When the vet answered, I explained what had happened. “You need to go directly to an emergency vet if he needs stiches. Did the other dogs have their rabies vaccinations?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”

“You need to find out. You both need rabies shots if you have open wounds.”

The enormity of the situation pawed its way through the fog and settled in. With moderate success, I instructed myself to take a deep breath to try to quell the out-of-control-coupled-with-a-strong-desire-to-crawl-into-a-hole sensation that was rising in my chest.

When I got home, I tiptoed up the stairs to find my husband, hoping to avoid drawing any attention from our kids before we had a plan. In whispers I described the surprise attack, showed him our wounds. “I think I need to take him to the ER?”

I said this as a question, almost imploring him to disagree with me. As someone who works with anxiety all the time I was open to the possibility that I could be overreacting, that maybe a gaping hole on the underside of our dog’s belly was not in fact something to worry about. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the only easy day was yesterday” is the type of Navy ethos I was raised with. Which is a wild mindset to run smack into an anxious being, where the gray area between a real crisis and an anxiety-provoked one can be difficult to decipher. I know from experience that my gut instinct is actually pretty accurate, but I always do this little dance of second-guessing myself wondering if I should tough it out just a little longer.

It was late afternoon by this point. Having pulled multiple all nighters in the pediatric ER with a sick kid, I’ve learned to just go before it gets dark and all remaining rational thought goes out the window as fatigue sweeps in. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go to bed.

Sure enough, once our dog was in the vet’s arms, I felt my shoulders drop from their alert perch near my ears as relief washed over me. That’s when the uncontrollable shaking started. Through chattering teeth I confessed to a friend over the phone that I couldn’t stop shaking. “That’s just the adrenaline leaving your body. It’s normal.”

Oh.

I had always thought when I got the shivers and shakes that it was a weakness, that I wasn’t tough enough, that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just keep it together. I should know by now that what I perceive to be my unique oddities are very rarely only mine. A nearly decade-old memory of a dimly-lit, brick-walled classroom at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine surfaced. All of us patients were sitting in a circle with our eyes closed as the teacher led a guided meditation. I was rolling my eyes behind my shut eyelids, bracing myself against the “woo-woo” territory we were entering.

“You are walking down a path through a forest. There is a tree in the distance. Walk over to it. The tree is you.”

Silence (apart from my internal groaning).

“Ask the tree for guidance on a character trait you need help fixing.”

I could barely contain my snark. BUT, I had chosen to take this class to explore every avenue I could to alleviate my RA symptoms. AND I was in this room with all these other people so I felt committed to do what was asked (or at least to not be rude). I kept my eyes closed, looked at the oak tree standing tall and sideways (oddly), and asked it the question as instructed. Out of nowhere – I swear – a voice said “self-doubt.” Woah. That is spot on, but I had never really thought of it.

The room remained silent, everyone was still, but the rush of blood in my ears picked up in intensity along with the pace of my breathing. The teacher instructed, “Now ask the tree how best you can heal.” Again, this voice, intoned, “Love yourself more.”

The root cause of every damn thing that gets in my way is doubting myself. What a novel idea to treat myself with the same latitude and compassion that I give others, to stop assuming that I am in some way to blame when something – anything – goes wrong.

As I sat there at the vet I realized two things: one, clearly I still have work to do. But, two, I noticed in real time the negative messaging and suffering I levy upon myself. I noticed the flood of could have, should have, if only you had narratives that began to consume me as the adrenaline ebbed away, as if I could have controlled what happened, as if any of us can control anything more than our response to what happens to us. And those were awesome catches – historic, life-changing catches. I may be my own harshest critic. And I may be pre-programmed toward self-judgment, writing nasty headlines and elaborate stories in my head about my imperfections and inadequacies. But if I can insert awareness to those moments then, well, then we are getting somewhere. I know I am not the only person who faces these challenges. This was a major oxygen mask moment. Breathe.

To be continued….