Nonfiction: Issue #6

Eventual Spaces by Anne Krinsky

 

*Image: “Eventual Spaces 2,”
Archival Digital Print on German etching paper,
by Anne Krinsky

Shelter

by Sarah Marty-Schlipf

 

Theres the new contract in a nutshell: love. I will love you; you will love me … Human emotion, meet the dog. Fantasy and ego, meet instinct. —Caroline Knapp, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs

 

On that warm June afternoon when I first laid eyes on Bently, I’d been on my way to teach a writing class at the county jail. I knew our local no-kill shelter taught inmates at the nearby federal prison to train dogs. Because I was early for work, I stopped in to see the place I’d heard so much about.

Less than a month before, my grandmother had died. A few days later, I had buried Maggie, my blind, diabetic, fifteen-year-old schnauzer—the pup I had bought with my lawn-mowing money when I was twelve. I was steeped in grief.

As I stepped through the shelter’s front door, I knew doing so would be a mistake: it would be a mistake to walk the kennels full of snuffling, wagging, snoozing dogs. It would be a mistake to take one or two out for a walk. It would be a mistake to adopt an animal, any animal, while I was heartsick.

Yet there he was, curled up in a kennel—a twenty-five pound beagle mix, sweet, a little shy, and stunningly handsome, with amber eyes and a coat the color of wet maple leaves in the fall. My heart doubled over. Oh, no, I thought.

Mistake be damned: I filled out the paperwork necessary for visiting a dog—conveniently, the same paperwork used for adoptions—and took Bently for a walk around the shelter’s wooded acre of trails. Outside, he perked up, bouncing and sniffing, occasionally tossing me a grin and a glance. We sat together in the grass. He wasn’t cuddly, but he was calm and seemed content to lie close to me, catching his breath. I returned Bently to a staff member and left for work.

At home that night I told my husband, Ben, about my visit to the shelter, ending with, “I think there’s a dog you should meet.”

My husband does not consider himself a dog person. He grew up on a farm, and over the years his family has owned a succession of great farm dogs, mostly friendly, cheerful mixed-breeds who tagged along during chores and bedded down in the barn at night. Ben has never had more than a casual relationship with any animal in his life. I am decidedly a dog person. At any given time, for as long as I can remember, my family has had one or two dogs in the house: a spaniel, a couple of rescued Dalmatians, and Maggie, the salt-and-pepper schnauzer I’d just said good-bye to. In college, my housemates and I had raised a beagle puppy. All of those animals had been treated as members of the family. We had forgiven their many neuroses, faults, messes, and offenses the way we forgave each other’s, for similar reasons: because we loved them, and they seemed to love us.

Maggie, however, had often maxed out my family’s supply of grace. She had the scruffy charm of an old-fashioned teddy bear but a devilish sense of fun. A notorious escape artist, she would lead our family and friends on gleeful, high-speed chases around the neighborhood, squirting through our fingertips like a warm stick of butter. She could be cranky with children, snarly toward men, infuriatingly stubborn. On the other hand, she provided comic relief during my mother’s battle with breast cancer, and later, quiet comfort during my grandfather’s slow surrender to bladder cancer and after my grandmother’s last heart attack.

Each time I came home from college, Maggie hitched herself to me, and when I drove away, she stood with her front paws on the screen door, watching me disappear. That dog and I had grown up together. By the time Maggie finally moved into my own house, she’d mellowed into a sweet, wiry old woman. When she died in my arms in the wee hours of a drizzly spring morning, it knocked me off-balance the way only the loss of an old friend can. I missed our relationship; I missed her physical presence.

Though I badly wanted a dog in my life again, I needed to believe I wasn’t going to make my husband miserable in the process. Maggie had lived with us only briefly, but she required great care: pills, strict mealtimes, two insulin shots a day. Ben had tolerated her because I loved her, and because it was right that she spend her last days with me.

This beagle, however, was a healthy two-year-old—young but no longer a needy puppy. Bently seemed Ben’s type: calm, cheerful, intelligent, athletic. I silently thanked whatever other breeds had sneaked their genes into his pool, tempering any classically beagle tendencies—hyper energy, unswerving devotion to smells, wandering—that made this charming breed notoriously difficult to manage. I felt weirdly, calmly confident that if Ben might ever enjoy a dog, maybe even love a dog, this was the one.

Ben was cautious, even grudging, but he visited the shelter with me a day or two later. Bently perked up when he spotted me approaching his kennel, but after a staff member leashed him, he ignored me and bounced toward Ben with an open-mouthed grin and a full-body wag. He put his paws on Ben’s thighs.

My heart twanged, envious. Here was a dog I liked instantly connecting with my husband, who didn’t even care for dogs. I should have been thrilled, not jealous. I tried to shake off the petty reaction.

“It’s like he found a long-lost friend,” I said. “What do you think?”

Ben scratched behind Bently’s ears and then nudged him off. He was smiling despite himself. “Nice dog.”

Together, we took Bently for a walk. He followed his nose along the trails, and we walked behind, sometimes chatting, sometimes silent, holding hands.

“So?” I asked.

Ben shrugged. “He’s a good dog.”

Sunshine, quiet woods, the man I loved, a good dog—for the first time since Maggie’s death, I felt my sadness loosen slightly, like I had unbuttoned a heavy coat.

After a half hour, we settled down on a cool patch of grass. Bently panted, and I tipped my water bottle so he could take a drink. He flopped next to Ben, who ran his fingertips over the dog’s silky auburn head. We rested for a while and then walked until it was nearly time for the shelter to close. Bently finally trotted away with a staff member, and we headed home.

“That,” said Ben, climbing into the driver’s seat, “is a very good dog.”

***

The week after we brought him home, it began: one minute, Bently would be trotting beside us on a leash, jaunty as could be; the next, he’d hurl himself at a dog or car or jogger. Maybe it’s stress, we said, massaging our wrenched appendages—that shelter environment, this new town, those past experiences, possibly traumatic, that we could never know. Or maybe, like any dog, he just needed some rules.

We enrolled in a beginner’s class at a nonprofit dog-training center nearby, a cavernous building with rubber floor mats and a collection of curious equipment lining the walls: folding gates and fabric tunnels, ramps and see-saws. That first night, volunteer instructors handed each student a leather leash and a gleaming choke collar, then spent the next eight weeks teaching us to elicit good behavior from our dogs with a combination of verbal commands and happy praise. When those failed, we learned to deliver a well-timed pop on the collar. Because I couldn’t attend every session, Ben would be training Bently this time. Each night, I sat in the bleachers, chewing my nails, and watched with a mixture of pride, chagrin, and unease as our dog trotted the perimeter of the facility—glancing at Ben for direction, lunging sporadically, executing the perfect sit-stay, ducking the touch of a trainer. Progress, regress, repeat.

Next Bently began to guard his favorite things. He nipped a friend’s toddler when she reached for his chew toy; he snarled when I approached a rawhide he’d abandoned on the office floor. Early one morning I left and reentered our bedroom to find him standing over Ben in our bed, hackles raised and eyes glittering, guarding my sleeping husband from me. Shortly after, while we were playing with a red rubber ball, he bit me.

“You need to handle that now,” said one instructor, a grim-looking older woman, when I asked her for advice. Resource guarding was a serious problem that would only get worse if I didn’t let my dog know that I, not he, was the alpha in our home. How?

“Tie his leash to your belt,” said the instructor. “Make him follow you everywhere.”

“Keep his training collar on,” said another woman, “and give him a solid pop on it whenever he shows you teeth or growls.”

Two of the male volunteers took me aside and told me what they’d do: “I’d take that dog by the scruff and put him on the ground so fast

I didn’t want to put Bently on the ground. I didn’t want to yell in his face or tie him to me. But neither did I want to be snarled or snapped at. I cared about Bently, but from these trainers’ perspective, misguided soft-heartedness was keeping me from truly taking care of him.

“Honey,” said Tom, a gruff old bear of a guy but truly kind, “you gotta remember there’s a reason he was at a shelter.” He meant, there was a reason someone else didn’t want this dog.

***

When you adopt an unwanted animal, you become part of a redemption narrative: you are praised over and over for your goodness, made to feel like a hero for saving a life. For that, you’re told, the animal will reward you with a lifetime of “unconditional love”—a promise that’s practically gospel among dog-lovers.

But in giving Bently a new life, I felt like I was losing my own. He was smarter, more sensitive, and, I was discovering, more damaged than any dog I’d ever known. Managing his behavioral and emotional issues began to feel like a game of whack-a-mole: when a new problem surfaced, we’d handle it, and just as we’d begin to feel a measure of ease, another problem would pop up.

Ben and I held out because we wanted Bently, and we wanted to help him. Surely all of our effort would lead to the kind of redemption story we rescuers need, and eventually, I hoped, to that unconditional love everyone craves. Bently’s behavior gradually improved. But despite our hard work and my wishes, my dog didn’t love me. Even on his best days, I wasn’t always sure he liked me. On his worst days, he seemed nervous all the time, especially in my presence: ignoring me, ducking my touch, staring me down, or flashing his teeth.

It wasn’t personal, I reminded myself. Other people in other places had failed this dog. But I was stunned by how much Bently’s affection, not just his wellbeing, mattered to me. Each real or imagined snub chipped at my ego: maybe he’d sniffed out my inadequacies; maybe my issues, not his, were the problem. When it came to love—what it is, how to give and receive it, whether or not I was loveable—my dog pressed on every bruise that had never quite healed.

***

As we trudged into winter, a series of old memories flickered into focus. In the first, I’m sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor. My mother is perched above me on the lid of the toilet seat, yanking a brush through my long, snarled blond hair. I am four or five, maybe even six, and I’m hollering. Mom has accepted that her difficult daughter is a tomboy; she understands that I’ll come home dirt-smudged, scrape-kneed, and sunburnt after a hard day of playing outside, that I’ll probably never be a little lady. But my blond hair is beautiful, and occasionally, she’d like to see it tamed into a ponytail, shining. I have a sensitive scalp and zero patience, and after a few minutes I call her the worst name I can think of: Ursula, the sea witch in my favorite movie, The Little Mermaid.

It’s funny, and it’s not. Because my mother also understands that her intensely imaginative five-year-old lives in stories, that those characters are a real and present part of my life, and that if I’m calling her Ursula, then I’m serious: in this moment, she is the villain.

The summer before I enter second grade, Mom drops me at the house of a friend who does hair. The lady chops my blond mop into a bowl cut, and I go home satisfied, looking like a cherubic little boy.

But that isn’t a truce—I keep giving her hell. Once, when I’m eight or nine, when she and I are facing off in the kitchen over something unremarkable, I call her a bitch. Maybe she understands that bitch doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s just a word I heard somewhere and am testing on her. Still, she slaps me across the mouth with a wet dishrag. It’s the first and only time she will ever hit me. I leave the room stunned and stinging, and my father, who usually avoids confrontation, takes her aside and says never again.

My mother loved me, and I loved her. She was proud of me. There were moments we made each other truly happy, and sometimes we even had fun. Yet parenting me required emotional strength I couldn’t comprehend then. It meant cutting off all my hair rather than fight, or handing me hammer and nails to fix the doorframe I’d cracked in a rage. It meant simply sticking around and waiting out the worst of me, whether she liked me or not.

***

Late one January night, Bently bolted up the stairs and skittered into our bedroom, where I was perched on a folding chair, painting the walls. Ben was sprawled on the carpet, rehashing his workday. Bently curled between Ben’s legs, looking haunted. Then his entire body tensed and quivered. He went bug-eyed, spilling drool and leaking tears. Seizure, I thought, and calmly dropped my brush into the bucket of plum-colored paint. I knelt beside Ben and stroked the dog softly, cooing his name, calling him back. After one vast, airless minute, Bently’s muscles relaxed, and so did we.

Our vet suggested we observe Bently before she prescribed drugs. We took notes on each seizure, trying to identify patterns or triggers. The attacks grew in frequency and intensity until one morning in March, I glanced out my kitchen window and watched as Bently squatted to pee and lost control of his back legs, bladder, bowels, and stomach.

The vet gave us phenobarbital, an anticonvulsant medication. Bently’s seizures disappeared and took some of his anxiety away with them. A measure of peace descended on our house. He was doing well—so well that we enrolled in an intermediate obedience class, hoping to learn skills that would allow us off-leash fun.

But this time, with me as his handler, Bently grew more reactive, not less. Our instructors told me my corrections were weak and ineffective; the choke collar wouldn’t hurt the dog, but my lackluster leadership would. My spirits sagged with every week.

“Leave it!” I snarled one night when Bently lunged yet again as we passed a sweet young golden retriever. I jerked hard on his collar and kept walking. He snapped to attention and heeled perfectly.

“Good correction, Sarah!” a female trainer said, applauding me.

My dog had done what I’d demanded. I was showing strong leadership. Whatever it took to be an alpha, I had it in me. So why did I feel like the worst version of myself?

***

“I can be patient if I know what I’m doing is right,” I told my neighbor Jen one morning. “It’s harder to be patient when I don’t know if what I’m doing makes this dog’s life worse or if I’m harming him somehow with my actions, however well-meaning.”

Jen had been a dog handler in the Army. She had two West Highland Terriers and two kids, and had watched our little family’s saga with an unemotional eye. She shrugged. “Welcome to parenting.”

I flinched. Ben and I are in our late twenties. Though our life is brimming with kids who are precious to us—nieces, nephews, the children of friends—we don’t want kids of our own yet, maybe not ever. We had adopted an adult dog because I wanted a companion, not a baby. When we brought Bently home, people had winked and reminded us what good parenting practice he would be. He’d need guidance, leadership, protection—everything parents provide.

I rolled my eyes. I was nobody’s parent, I insisted, as I struggled to provide guidance, leadership, and protection for my dog.

***

One afternoon, less than a week after his intermediate class ended, Bently lay in the backyard, basking in the sunshine. I had no idea that he’d taken his Kong toy with him, no idea that it had a tiny treat lodged inside. Barefoot and lost in thought, I shuffled outside to toss coffee grounds into the garden and stepped close. Bently bared his teeth, and when I gave him our standard, stern verbal correction—NO TEETH—he leapt at me. His teeth raked across my upper thigh, his eyes hard and flashing. He’d gone someplace I couldn’t follow.

Stunned, I smacked him hard across his snarling mouth and growled into his face. I’d never hit him before. I’d wanted to startle him back to the present, back to me. But I felt instinctively that with one blow, I’d lost him. He was still snarling, but his whole body quivered when I bellowed at him to sit, then lie down. After a moment, I led him inside and put him in his crate. Weak-kneed, I stumbled downstairs, called my husband, and burst into tears.

***

After Bently attacked me, Ben and I enlisted the help of Ann Goyen, a behavioral consultant who specialized in rescue animals. A tiny woman with a halo of silver-blonde curls, she’d worked with a variety of community organizations, including our no-kill shelter and the prison dog-training program. Ann came to our house for an initial one-hour consultation and stayed for nearly two, observing and interacting with Bently. She concluded that he seemed to live in a near-constant state of anxiety and fear.

We were familiar with his body language, some of which told us he was stressed, even frightened, at times. We hadn’t understood the extent to which fear shaped Bently’s behavior, though. That’s why approaching such issues with old-fashioned, punishing training methods can do profound damage: you might tamp down unwanted behaviors for a while, but you haven’t addressed and treated the core emotions fueling the behaviors. You’ve aggravated them. Animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin compares this situation to a loaded gun without a safety sitting on your kitchen table, a tragedy waiting to happen. Eventually, a scared dog will explode.

We started over: we enrolled in Ann’s obedience class, where she asked us to ditch nearly everything we’d been trained to do with our dog. We learned to study Bently’s body language, to teach according to his perspective, not ours, and to adjust our communication to avoid confusion and frustration. He’d never succeed if he couldn’t understand what we wanted, so we focused on saying “yes” instead of “no.” We discovered his pleasures—usually food—and used them to motivate him, rewarding him every time he did something good. Training became a dance of teaching and learning and real awareness. It was fun. Bently and I started to regain each other’s trust. I felt more hope than I had since his adoption.

Then one weekend I made a mistake: I allowed an older boy, our neighbor’s friend, to pet Bently. His body language was all wrong. It was too much, too fast. Bently bit the kid, leaving a nasty bruise on his thigh. I apologized to the boy, to my neighbors, to my dog, to Ben—and I blamed myself. It had taken me six months to get to know Bently, but I’d needed six more to admit that our home and our life might be unsafe for him, and for our family and friends.

The next day, Ann and I weighed the options: rehoming, breed-specific rescues, sanctuaries, continued rehab. She could help us desensitize Bently to children and other triggers, but he’d never be trustworthy around kids. We discussed the possibility of euthanasia, a solution I found  unacceptable but not unimaginable. At best, it seemed like giving up, which had never been an option in my family; at worst, it seemed like a betrayal of both my ethics and our dog.

Ann was calm and quiet. She spoke the dispassionate language of animal science, could parse the layers of our dog’s unhappiness: fear-aggression, resource-guarding, conflict-related aggression. But she also knew grief, confusion, exhaustion, and stubbornness—the language of human unhappiness—and heard them all in my voice. “Whatever you decide,” she said, “I’ll support you, Sarah.”

I tried to steady myself between dispassion and compassion, to get my ego out of the way and consider whether or not I could give our dog what he needed to be healthy, maybe even happy. Whether this was even possible. No matter how well I managed Bently’s environment, or how vigilant I was, something would eventually slip through my watchfulness, and he might lash out—at strangers, at friends, at kids. At me. That could be the price of nurturing, maybe even saving, a troubled dog.

What might the cost of loving him be?

***

Fingers trembling, I dialed the number of the no-kill shelter where we’d found Bently just over one year before. The woman who answered was pleasant and professional. When I told her I wanted to speak to someone about surrendering my fear-aggressive dog, her tone shifted, razor-sharp.

“That would be me,” said the woman. “Are you having problems with the dog?”

My cheeks burned. Every day, shelter workers listen to people like me who, for hundreds of reasons, can’t or won’t keep their animals. After a while, we all sound the same: oblivious to the possibility that our pets aren’t the problem. We are.

I hesitated, glancing out the kitchen window at our backyard, where Bently was following his nose around the perimeter of the garden. The strawberry patch spilled past the fence line. The flowers I’d transplanted that spring were struggling through the soil. The sky was a clean, bright blue. Everything, including my dog, seemed infused with sunlight, golden and growing.

I told the woman everything: the lunging, the seizures, the bites. I told her we’d completed three obedience classes and were working one-on-one with a behavioral consultant. But—I took a quivery breath—“Given his triggers, we’re really worried that our home isn’t safe for him.”

The woman pulled Bently’s records. She shuffled papers and sighed. The shelter couldn’t readmit dogs more than a year after adoption, she said, nor could it accept an animal with a documented history of aggression—“for the safety of our staff, customers, and other dogs, you see.”

And I understood, even as my heart sank. At best, animal rescue is delicate, difficult work. Most shelters can provide temporary housing for abandoned, adoptable animals, find them new homes, and promote responsible pet ownership. It’s easy enough to appeal to human emotions and fantasies about dogs, to rebrand “doggie in the window syndrome” as “love at first sight.” A conscientious shelter considers where and with whom each animal is most likely to succeed; plenty of kennels at our no-kill shelter had contained pet profiles with a combination of the warnings No Cats/No Kids/No Dogs. Even a dog with special needs can make a good companion in the right context. But a dog that bites is virtually unadoptable. Unless, of course, no one knows that he bites until he’s good and adopted. Bently’s kennel had been warning-free.

Out in the yard, Bently stopped suddenly, threw himself down on his back, and wriggled with pleasure, his caramel coat flashing under the morning light, his cream and black and auburn tail splayed like a fan against a carpet of green grass.

I’d drawn a wild card: a stray beagle with an unknown history. A staff member from the shelter had whisked Bently from the arms of animal control, where he likely would’ve been killed. All the shelter staff knew about him is what they’d seen in their facility, his sweet temperament and sheer beauty. He’d quickly become a favorite—the dog everyone wanted, from whom they expected great things. But between great expectations and messy reality, there’s often one hell of a gap.

The kids, I stammered, gripping the phone, what about the kids: everyone in our social circle—family, friends, neighbors—had children. It had been deeply irresponsible to adopt a dog with Bently’s personality into that situation.

“Of course,” said the woman. “But we couldn’t have known that about him at the time. It sounds like you’re just more social than he is. You say you don’t have children of your own?”

“We do not.” My voice cracked. Ben and I are introverts who prefer to spend evenings at home with each other and with the dog, but our socializing always includes kids. Children are in our house and in our life. It doesn’t matter whether we’re their parents; they are our responsibility. So was Bently. There was no good way to protect everyone important to us.

“I know, I know. It’s hard.” The woman clucked sympathetically. “It sounds like you’re already pretty bonded to him.”

“I am. We are.” Was she surprised? “Bently does everything with us: running, kayaking, traveling. He’s—”

I almost said our kid.

“—our buddy. We love him. We’re just weighing the risks and costs of keeping him.”

The woman didn’t miss a beat. “Well, now, you can’t really put a price on love, can you?”

I heard Bently’s snarl, saw his hard and flashing eyes, felt the sting of his teeth tearing twin tracks into my skin. I remembered Maggie howling in the throes of a grand mal seizure, limbs thrashing on a stainless steel table, her thin ribs under my fingers. “Go easy, baby,” the vet tech had murmured as the euthanasia took effect. I wanted to wail. Instead I bit my lip and tasted blood.

I hung up, sank to the floor, and wept. With snot dripping down my lips, I texted my father. Dad, do you have time to talk to a sad daughter? He could talk right now. I blew my nose into a dishtowel and dialed.

Over the years, my dad, like my mom, has become one my closest friends. He’s a pastor too, which can be helpful, but some days you need a parent more: when you’re lost and don’t have a clue what it means to be the kind of grown-up your own life calls for.

Dad listened as I explained the events of the past few days.

“She said what?” he barked, when I described my conversation with the woman at the no-kill shelter. In the silence that followed, we both took deep breaths.

“I don’t pray much these days,” I mumbled. “I’m not really sure how to do that anymore. But I don’t know what else to do. I’d take any prayers you offer.”

And my father did offer. He prayed over the phone. “Oh, God,” he sighed. “These two have given Bently so much love for so long. They’ve worked so hard. Help them know what love should look like now.”

 ***

That night, we loaded Bently into Ben’s red ’94 Ford Mustang convertible and took a drive to clear our heads. Ben loved the Mustang. It had been wrecked when he bought it in high school, but he’d rebuilt it and driven it for the next six years—through college, through that sweaty summer after graduation when we dated, right on up until he took his first job, bought a Subaru, and moved to Illinois. The convertible had sat untouched in his father’s shed in Indiana. After we married, it moved into our garage. Over the past few weeks, he’d begun to tinker on it again, hoping it would run smoothly enough to drive this summer.

The Mustang jerked along at forty miles per hour, backfiring every few seconds. The moon hovered huge and pale above us. Bently hung his head over the side and lapped at the cool air. I shivered and smiled. The last time we’d driven this car—top down, wind whipping our hair, Ben at the wheel, grinning—we’d been five years younger and falling in the kind of love that makes people reckless. We’d lost some recklessness but gained some courage.

I woke the morning after the drive feeling hopeful. Ben, usually an optimist, woke with tears in his eyes. We sat on the patio loveseat in the early summer sunshine. Maybe it was foolish to keep the car, he muttered, a waste of money and effort. I nodded. Maybe. But driving the Mustang made him happy. There was meaning and value in the work involved. How much was the possibility of happiness worth to him? Ben rubbed his eyes and sighed. Bently, our other foolish project, leapt onto the loveseat and tucked himself between us.

***

“Did you ever think you’d be doing all this?” Jen says, eyeing the container of chopped chicken in my hand. We’re standing in the middle of my backyard while Bently bounces between us like a Ping-Pong ball. He knows and likes Jen, but when she crossed into our yard just now, he lunged at her, barking wildly, hackles raised.

Every time he approaches her, I say “Yes!” and feed him a small piece of chicken. This is classic counter-conditioning, part of the training intended to reengineer his emotional response to things that scare him and trigger aggression. With precise timing and patience, every scary thing should come to predict something wonderful. Like chicken.

“Nope,” I say, then “Yes!because Bently has tapped Jen’s leg with his nose. I feed him more chicken and feel the familiar creep of insecurity. The most devoted parents I know would consider my behavior coddling. Why spend so much time and energy on the emotional wellbeing of a dog— “just a dog,” people remind me? What do I expect to gain from my investment? Part of a culture obsessed with results, I struggle to answer: what is my payoff?

One night as we pack up after obedience class, Ann listens to me vent these anxieties. “It’s just hard,” I groan. This is not the way I want to have a dog. The dog I have isn’t the one I thought I was bringing home. None of my other animals had issues like his. This is all new to me.

Ann cocks an eyebrow. “That’s fine,” she says. “So this dog will teach you a lot.”

***

Animal cognition research tells us that dogs have emotional lives startlingly similar to our own. Though their brains are more primitive than ours, dogs share our core emotion systems: they experience rage and frustration, fear and panic, curiosity and desire. Also caring, and maybe even love. But probably not unconditional love—that “nonjudgmental positive regard” we crave so fiercely—because dogs are amoral creatures. There’s no judgment, good or bad, and no right or wrong; there’s mostly what’s in it for them. When I present Bently with choices, he’ll probably choose what’s best for him whether it pleases me or not, whether he loves me or not. At our best, however, humans will disregard our own interests and choose what’s best for someone we love. Ask my mother. Ask any parent.

***

One night, I drive to the training center to observe Ann’s class. Her dog Howie leans against me while we watch the other students practice loose-leash walking. I stroke his silky black ears, marveling at his bulletproof calm. When Ann crouches near us, Howie moves to her and ducks his head under her hand. Does this dog hold this human in nonjudgmental positive regard? It’s doubtful, even unfair to assume that he does. But Howie displays so much trust in Ann that, watching them, my chest aches. I drive home, where Bently greets me at the door, tripping over his feet in excitement, and I remember my dog and I are moving in the same direction.

Bently breezes through Ann’s intermediate class. He doesn’t ace the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, but he comes pretty close. He learns to tolerate a Gentle Leader, a head halter that helps redirect his focus if something scares him on a walk. Soon we’ll desensitize him to a muzzle to wear when we’re with kids. He still flinches sometimes when Ben or I reach for him, but he’s learning to leave uncomfortable situations instead of lashing out. We manage his environment to minimize stress and confrontation—with plenty of help from chicken, Prozac, and remarkably supportive friends and neighbors.

“You can’t get rid of your dog!” says the mom who lives behind us, who has three small children.

“Stuff happens,” says the mom next door, raising two kids of her own. “Let it go.”

They remind their children not to dash through our yard or to show up at the house announced.

Every few days, the oldest boy and girl in the neighborhood deliver stuffed Kongs for Bently or toss chunks of meat to him while he stands behind a baby gate in our office, wagging his tail. Adult friends offer him treats when they walk through the door. Ann visits occasionally to gauge Bently’s progress and offer new exercises. It does take a village.

Then there are days when we reach to scratch behind Bently’s ears, and he bares his teeth. There are bad nights, when every flicker in the dark, every creak of our old house, leaves him bug-eyed and barking. There are times when he snaps at the vet tech, whom he hates, or the dog-sitter, whom he adores. Once in a great while, when my dog’s demons leave me feeling trapped or exhausted, I finger the blue bottle of phenobarbital pills and consider how simple it would be to give up on him. Peace, even at that price. But the feeling always passes. Then I get back to work.

***

Sometimes I wonder if my parents ever wished I were different. In the aftermath of a screaming match, did my mom long, even briefly, for a kid-swap? I pass the dog park on my way to work and let my eyes linger on the menagerie of happy, open-mouthed canines romping around, and swoon a little. I fantasize about trading Bently in and coming home with a one-in-a-million dog, a best friend, like journalist Ted Kerasotes’ mutt, Merle, or ethologist Patricia McConnell’s border collie, Coolhand Luke. The Lassie most people imagine is more unicorn than canine—magical, mythical. The dog I have is flawed, but real.

Bently has developed my patience and empathy and helped me, a teacher, better understand the science of how we do and don’t learn. He reminds me that success, like love, is elusive—and sometimes eclipsed by rejection and disappointment. That we won’t always like those we love. That sometimes, only commitment can keep you stumbling forward. If unconditional love means holding someone in nonjudgmental positive regard, then few of us are up to the task. If it means loving someone without demanding anything, especially love, in return, then I’m learning how to love like that: progress, regress, repeat.

***

I take Bently out for our daily run, and he spends part of the time playing off-leash near a fenced-in lake at the edge of our tiny rural town, stalking geese and sniffing out baby killdeer and, eventually, coming back at my whistle. His mouth is open and his tail wags, and I want to believe it’s because returning to me is a pleasure, not a punishment.

Is Bently happy? I don’t know. Do I care? Very much, and selfishly so. My pleasure has become bound up in my dog’s hard-won pleasure: he flies around the perimeter of the lake, gleaming in the sunlight, and screeches to a halt to sniff. Later, he trots to my computer carrying a frayed rope, flirting with me for play. He curls against me on the futon, snoozing. In these moments, he seems happy—at least content—and joy swallows me whole.

Ours might not be a redemption story. Not today, not tomorrow, no matter how badly I want one. But it is a love story.

Sarah Marty-Schlipf

Sarah Marty-Schlipf’s essays have appeared inBellingham Review, BLEED, and The Rumpus. She lives in rural central Illinois, where she writes, teaches, makes art, and makes mischief with her husband and two ornery dogs.

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