Originally posted 11/01/17
Apparently, I am not a dog person. This gradual realization taught me empathy for people I could not seem to understand and a greater appreciation for complex relationships. It may sound like a lofty concept, but I assure you, there is a real-world connection. Ok, here’s the situation…
Our kids have been hounding us to get a dog (pun intended) for at least a decade. We explained our refusal by providing many reasons. They were too young, maybe when they got older. We moved too much, maybe when we were settled. This or that feature of our home was not suitable for pets, maybe when we had plenty of yard space. Mama doesn’t want to clean up after it, maybe when you people exercise a bit more responsibility. The kids grew older, Honey retired from the military, and we had a conducive environment, but still no dog. There was only one (relatively responsible) child at home when we decided to finally give in and adopt a pup.
Xena (later changed her name to Delta), the puppy princess, came into our lives in the middle of July as an early birthday gift for our youngest. She’s a sweet, adorable, energetic, healthy puppy who loves to play and be with us always. Like always, always. I mean seriously, she’s my little black and brown hyperactive shadow. Not only does she follow us around everywhere we go, she stinks. And she sheds. And she’s a sloppy eater/drinker. And she’s teething. And her breath stinks. And she can’t stop biting and scratching us when she plays. And she’s much more expensive than I planned. And…
Delta reminds me of a child that follows it’s parent around, incapable of functioning without constant connection and attention. I knew there would be an adjustment period before she felt comfortable to be alone, but it’s been nearly five months already! Can I go to the bathroom in peace, though? But, Tonya she’s still a puppy. I hear you say. And you’re right. I have to concede the point. I knew what I was signing up for when I brought her home from the rescue shelter. I had dogs as a child (though they lived outdoors). I also understand intellectually that puppies are a lot of work. However, I don’t have to like it.
In fact, I dislike it a lot. I loathe sweeping and vacuuming her short black hairs five times a day. Or cleaning those hairs out of dryers, and cars and off nice clothes and coats. When I found one in the refrigerator, she was instantly banned from stepping paw into the kitchen. I hate that I have to mop constantly, because she licks the floors like a starving animal trying to gather every crumb left behind. Then her stinking breath smell rises from the floorboards in a stench that I swear I can see like a cartoonish funk cloud. I dislike the feeling of mushy poo in my palm separated by a thin layer of plastic that could break at any time. And I really, really hate that she stares at me with that blank stare and dead eyes. All the time. Everywhere I go, there she is staring. But when I try to talk to her, she doesn’t respond. It’s like trying to communicate with a glassy-eyed doll. I’m starting to get paranoid that she’s some sort of Orwellian pet device with recording capabilities, implanted to capture my every move. I have to kick her out just to get privacy in my own home. Argh!
What does my supreme loathing of being a dog owner say about me? I see so many pictures of happy dog people letting their dogs lick their faces, and all I can do is cringe thinking that dog also licks its own butt. I see friends who allow their dogs on furniture or in their beds, and I’m like “I hope today was bath day, because, eww, dirty dog germs”. I see people feeding their dogs from their plates and I’m reminded of the times Delta waits and whines for my food, which provokes me to tell her “You are not people”. I see them sharing silverware with their furry friends and I’m like “Aww, hell no!”
It’s not that I’m judging them. I just don’t want their dogs hanging around my dog, because Delta may start getting ideas. Also, it makes me feel badly, like I should love Delta more. Or maybe I should be able to get past my disgust at her shaking off shed hair and making our home smell like a farmhouse (there is no such thing as nose-blind). Really, what does it say about me that I can’t?
I can tell you that it does not feel good. I feel like a horrible person. I feel like I want as much distance between me and this thing that stirs these emotions inside of me. I feel like I lack the compassion necessary to be a pet owner. I feel numb towards this creature I do not understand and who barely understands me. We are living in the same house in distant worlds. Each time I look up, those glassy doll eyes seem to accuse me of a truth we both know—I’d rather she not be here.
It’s not that I don’t like having a dog at all. Taking her on long walks is fun, when she’s not trying to attack every squirrel and bird she sees or jumping excitedly onto human and canine passersby. Playing fetch and tug-o-war with her is hilarious because she is hyper and competitive. She does not give up easily and almost never gives in. I’ve also become used to sipping my morning mug of green tea with her warming my feet. Most of all, I love seeing her play with our youngest after school. It’s the in between times, when no one wants to play and she stares blankly, waiting for attention, that I dislike most.
One such time, I was in the middle of Max’s final soliloquy, during which he pleads for Bigger’s life, in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”. I looked up to see Delta staring at me yet again.
“What?” She stared unblinking.
“Delta, what do you want?” Nothing.
“Delta, stop staring at me.” Her head tilted.
“Stop staring at me or you’re going outside.” Not even a flinch.
“Last time, dog. Look over there.” I snapped and pointed to the other side of the room but, she kept her glassy, unknowing eyes fixed on my face.
“You’re creepy. Get out!”
I’m not proud to say that a similar exchange usually happens at least once a day. Then, the guilt came upon me like it usually does. I had just lived exactly what Wright had written—guilt and hate being two sides of the same coin called fear (I’m paraphrasing here). I don’t hate Delta, of course. Far from it. However, I understood in that moment how it feels to hate something or someone that seems incomprehensible and foreign to you. I understood the red hot shame of hating because of what it implies about your humanity. I allowed myself to feel the guilt. I did not try to push it away outside of me and disown it, as Max had accused society of doing.
Guilt is a useless emotion that typically signifies one has recognized his/her/tre wrongdoing. It’s useless because you cannot alter the past. If you did something that you dislike, learn from it and vow to act differently in the future. If you didn’t do anything to compromise your sense of self, there is no need for guilt. It’s simplistic, but I think you get the gist of it. I did nothing to compromise my sense of self, so why had I felt guilty?
Delta is here now. She is part of our family, and, for better or for worse, I am a dog owner. Instead of feeling guilt, I decide to honor my feelings. Yes, I wanted a dog. However, that does not mean that I have to devote every moment of my free time to pleasing her. I don’t have to sacrifice my sanitary standards to integrate a pet into our home. Instead of wasting my energy on guilt, I changed my mind. I decided that it was ok that I’m not in love with my dog. I am still compassionate and kind. It’s ok that Delta’s smell and shedding repulse me to the point of relegating her existence to certain parts of the house. It’s ok and healthy to have boundaries. Sometimes we all need to retreat to our own space.
Every relationship has its challenges. My relationship with Delta is complicated by the fact that we cannot communicate in a meaningful way. Maybe she is watching me in anticipation. Maybe she is some Orwellian pet spy. Maybe she’s only daydreaming of biscuits. Aside from sit, stay, no, come and give me five (paw), she doesn’t understand me. Aside from some characteristic behaviors she exhibits to signify her needs and desires, I do not understand her. I am not interested in her doggy world devoid of stimulating conversation and philosophical questions. She is not interested in anything I say or do that is unrelated to her, except when my food is involved. I do not understand her, nor does she understand me.
As humans, we tend to fear what we do not understand. That fear can express mildly as a desire to be separate from the unfamiliar, intensely as hate or somewhere in between. I can empathize with those who fear the unknown each time I glimpse Delta’s glassy stare and cannot fathom what she must be thinking (biscuit!). I see how uncomfortable one can become when confronted with the person or thing that evokes feelings of guilt. I know why it is easier to lash out against another than to investigate why one feels the need to lash out in the first place. I understand the desire to ascribe one’s guilt onto another person and claim that it is his/her/tre’s fault. It can even be tempting to list all the reasons you are justified, as I did with Delta (But seriously though, her hair was on my freaking toothbrush). The truth of the matter is that it’s not about them. It’s about you. It’s about me.
Instead of succumbing to guilt, consider what is at its roots. Decide to change the belief or behavior that does not reflect your personal sense of self. Alternatively, reconcile your beliefs and behaviors with a new perspective as I did. I shed my guilt in the instant that I spoke with a group of fellow dog owners who were surprised by the amount of time I devote and the length of my walks with Delta. It turns out that I was expecting too much of myself, and the only person judging me was me. Those eyes staring back at me were a mirror reflecting an impossible standard I set upon myself. Similarly, no one is expecting that people all hold hands singing “Kumbaya” like we are the best of friends. We only need to be accepting of each other’s differences and coexist with civility.
Delta is not my best friend, but she is a good puppy that wants to give and receive love. I attempt to keep this in mind when those glassy doll eyes are looking back at me. And when I really need to be alone, I feel no guilt in sending her outside or leaving her in her area while I sit in comfortable silence upstairs. I secretly pine for the day when she is an outside dog, fully capable and happy to entertain herself, so we can, at last, be besties.