Lessons Learned From a Less Than Fully Functional Dog

When our fourth son, Sam, unexpectedly brought home a lab puppy I was less than overjoyed. He assured me she was house trained; I then watched in horror as she took a major dump on the family room sisal rug. I was furious.

That was three years ago and she’s still with us, though not much has changed.

In the early weeks, we observed Lola’s behavior. She loyally followed Sam around everywhere in the house. She cried shamelessly when he left her and yelped joyously when he returned. When he gave her the least little bit of attention, she responded with wild enthusiasm. When he wasn’t around, she morosely lumbered back to his room – snuggling under a pile of his dirty clothes or slinking back into her oversized cage. I kept harping on the fact that her behavior was inappropriate and bordering on offensive. Sam refused to put her on an antidepressant. “Big mistake,” I shouted at him one day. 

When Sam inquired about her behavior when at doggie day care, Sam was assured by the caretakers that she consistently was a model of friendliness to all the other dogs and regularly exhibited leadership ability, unbridled exuberance and social engagement. I found that hard to believe. My husband and I got indifference. And we got ignored. There was so little interaction that my husband and I began not-so-jokingly to refer to her as “the non-dog.”

That was three years ago and she is still with us, though not much has changed.

My husband tried many tactics. And he diligently incorporated into his behavior all the suggestions the vet offered on establishing a firmer bond with Lola: being the one to feed her; going with her on long solitary walks; playing catch in the side yard; taking her and picking her up at doggie day care. He even went as far as habitually going into Sam’s room each morning and night to lay beside her, talking softly. He was consistent in his routine dealings with her. He approached cautiously. He initiated no sudden movements. He spoke quietly. 

On the other hand, I mostly ignored her and she ignored me. I didn’t talk to a vet, read pet owning manuals, search the internet for answers. Still, I was bothered by her idiosyncratic ways. If I had friends over, she indifferently glanced at them and then meandered away. It was embarrassing. If I gave her a bone to chew on, she took it and sailed past me with nary a backward glance. It was disappointing. If I answered her scratches to be let in after being on the porch, she slunk past me as she made a bee line for Sam’s room. It was disheartening.

If I longed for anything more, I was unaware of it until I began listening to other pet owner’s stories of affectionate bonding and joyous interaction. Barking loudly and protectively in their defense. Laying at their feet on a cold winter night. Hovering close by at dinner. It was painful to acknowledge how little we were getting back from Lola.

That was three years ago and she is still with us, though not much has changed.

The other day, Sam had just left for work and I walked to the front door on my way to watering the plants. Surprisingly, Lola had not immediately retreated to Sam’s room at the sound of the garage door closing. She was waiting patiently at the door for Sam’s return – though it would be many hours. When she saw me approach, she rolled over, put her hind legs up in the air and gently placed her front paw on my arm. Instinctively, but tentatively, I began to stroke her underbelly. She relaxed further into the floor and her body went at ease. We continued in this manner for minutes. Me stroking. Her breathing rhythmically. And then I roused myself to go water the plants and she galloped up the front stairs to Sam’s room.

What did I learn from this encounter? Interacting with your dog is like interacting with your adult kids. Lower your expectations. Stop comparing. Accept their quirks. Embrace their essence. Savor the interactions. Be ready to engage when the opportunity is offered. And let the rest go.

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