Let me start by prefacing, this is the second time in my entire life I’ve cried in front a stranger. And the third time, in my entire life, I cried in front of a person who wasn’t a close friend or family member. I am NOT a crier, people. I am cold-hearted (or so I’ve been told based on outdated ideas of what being feminine means and how perceived masculine traits makes a woman an “awful person”). This is not my norm.
I love Gus. (Gus is our dog…if for some ungodly reason you aren’t already aware that he’s the light of my life). I can’t think of any living being I’ve ever cared about more than him. And it’s partly because he has so little time on this earth (uh…just because he is a dog, not due to any current health issues). And, it’s also partly because, there is no other living being on earth who spends so much time with me. There are several people I love deeply still living in the world, but Gus is the only one who actually wants to spend every waking and sleeping moment near me. It’s surreal to be loved so deeply, a kind of love I’m not sure people have the capacity to understand.
To Gus, Tyler and I are his whole world. (Well, also my parents, who so kindly watch him every so often when Tyler and my schedule’s clash). Knowing that his whole life is focused on our walks and the time we spend together at the house makes me take his routine very seriously. How incredibly lonely and scary it must be for a dog (or any pet) to never know what’s going to happen or what to expect.
When we first brought Gus home, he had some pretty strong anxiety. Strong enough that he would hurt himself. Throw himself against a window or door, scrape his paws on glass and wood, chew through a chain link fence and get his head stuck in the resulting hole, knock all the food out of his bowl and refuse to eat it. It was devastating to watch. For the first six weeks, I thought we were going to have to give him up. But he came around. He learned to trust us; he began to feel comfortable in our home and learned we weren’t going to leave him. He cares so deeply about his schedule, that if it is altered (in the slightest), he tells me.
The only thing that is still a struggle with Gus is his dog on dog aggression. (And dog on bicycle aggression-but I don’t feel badly for speeding bicyclists getting surprised or scared by Gus, bicyclists are the WORST people on our trail system). For whatever his history or tendencies or my lack of good dog parenting, is very reactive to other dogs when he is on a leash.
He jumps, he barks like he is furious and ready for a fight, he scares other dog owners.
When it’s just another dog on a leash, I can hold Gus back (despite the fact that he’ll posture and act like a brute). When the other dog is off-leash, all bets are off.
His favorite move is to give a light butt bite to a dog that gets too close. Or, if a dog comes at him growling, he’ll go for a paw bite. He never goes for the face or neck of another dog, and he always tries to run away first. But he doesn’t take any shit, that’s for sure.
And he’s strong. So for me to hold him back when an unsuspectingly kind dog approaches, I have to pull. And to walk around and out of the way of a dog trying to get near us, I have to pull. To stop him from running up to a barking dog, I have to pull. The only times I’ve been able to subdue him was by literally throwing him to the ground and throwing myself on top of him. Or by pushing him with my legs into a corner of trees or behind a car. And that only works if the other dog is on a leash. Heaven forbid, we are approached by an off-leash pup.
I spoke to a doggy daycare once about getting him acclimated to other dogs. They said I wasn’t allowed to be present and if he showed aggressive tendencies he would be isolated in a kennel by himself until I could pick him up.
Because this kind of behavior freaks people the hell out, I often try diversion techniques. Like making a wide course around another dog, or running, or crossing the street. And yet…it doesn’t always work.
I’m afraid Gus has a reputation in the neighborhood. And I’ve given up trying to dispel his “tough guy” facade.
With all the dogs and people Gus scares, I’ve started just switching directions whenever we come across another dog. I also try to walk him at times when, and in places where, we are less likely to see other dogs. I’d say we run into dogs on weekday walks less than 5% of the time. But the weekends…? And on summer weekdays? Double whammy! I’d say we run into dogs on weekend walks and summer weekdays 80% of the time. That’s just not enough practice approaching other dogs to get Gus locked into any sort of routine.
And it’s how I recently found myself crying in front a complete stranger.
On a Sunday late afternoon walk, I took Gus towards the trails past our acreage and quickly saw a cute little white puppy walking towards us with its owner.
So I switched directions and took Gus from the trail down a residential street. Residential streets are always a crapshoot. Lots of people have dogs and have them out on a nice afternoon, but I knew Gus would be a type of Petronius to the owner of the little white dog and didn’t want to start off our two-mile walk with a close encounter.
When we got half way down the residential street, an off-leash (very calm and nice pup) approached us. I hadn’t seen him in time. “Damnit.” I thought. “We’re boxed in.”
I turned back around to walk away before the dog got too close but Gus was already triggered. He got his leash wrapped around a pole as I tried to give the other dog space by walking through a yard. Then Gus did it. He dove in to bite the other dog’s front leg when it approached him. I ended up pulling and tugging Gus away from this other dog who was just trying to say hello. Embarrassed. Wondering if I shouldn’t have just taken my chances with the little white dog instead of this off-leash dog.
The owner of said dog was outside and giving his dog commands to get away from Gus. His dog was mostly listening, but the attempted bite did cause some tension in him as well.
I walked away as quickly as possible to diffuse Gus’s aggression and get back to the trail away from the residential area and possible other dogs. I had to pull the leash (the number one thing Cesar Milan the dog whisperer doesn’t want you to do in these instances) to handle the strength of Gus pulling towards the off-leash dog.
Once I had pulled him back to the trail, I heard a loud yell asking me to stop. It was the other dog’s owner. He had followed me down the street as I tried to escape with Gus.
“Shit.” I thought. “Gus hurt the other dog and this man is pissed.” I was dying of embarrassment as I braced myself for whatever would come next.
Well, dear reader, he wasn’t pissed. He wanted to check on me! Can you believe it? He said that he’s noticed me before and that my dog struggles meeting other dogs. He wanted to give me advice about how to hold the leash and approach other dogs.
I started to try to explain. All that I’ve explained about Gus’s dog aggression. About Gus not being socialized, about the doggie daycare letting me know they’d have to isolate him in a kennel if showed any signs of aggression. Of the other dog owners who gave up trying to help Gus learn to socialize. Of the number of times Gus has been attacked by off-leash dogs (about six or seven). About the recommendation to stick with a strict schedule and walking routine to combat Gus’s anxiety.
“Just practice with other dogs, he’s needs more interaction with other dogs.” He tells me.
I started bawling. Just bawling. That red face, blubbering, small child type of bawling. And while the tears were running down my face I sort of croaked out, “But no one with a dog trusts us or Gus. We can’t leave him anywhere. He scares people. People don’t want our dog around their dogs.” And honestly reader, I don’t know if half of what I said was intelligible or if this unassuming man could even follow my tear soaked words. At that moment, all I knew was that I was overwhelmed and felt very much like a failure of a dog owner. That I was the parent of the neighborhood bully.
The man reached out his hand and introduced himself. He said Gus could come meet and learn with his dog anytime. That his dog was so tame he often carried around live chipmunks and let them crawl all over him. He said, “Don’t avoid our street. Come by. Walk him here everyday, even if it’s not a good day. Sit down and say hello. We’ll introduce the dogs. If it’s a bad day, we’ll stop and try again.”
I can’t exactly remember how the conversation ended. My tears were so hot in my eyes that they fogged up my sunglasses. I hope I thanked him for being so understanding. I know I spent the rest of the walk with tears streaming down my face. Tears of thankfulness at how nice the man was, tears of sadness over my failure to stop Gus’s aggression, and the general tears I often cry from being overwhelmed when Tyler is gone for an extended period of time (he was gone for three days) and I feel like everything rests on my incompetent shoulders at the house.
After eating dinner (after the walking incident), Gus jumped up next to me and curled up into a little ball with all his paws in a pile and his head on my lap. Although I knew this would not and may never be the end of his dog aggression, feeling his whole body relax against my leg reminded me that we have come very far as a duo. And I’m proud of his perseverance and how he has learned to trust again.