There are dogs everywhere in Portland. Trotting down trails, running alongside bikes, fetching their ball in parks, and lounging in the sun as their owners drink local craft beers. When my husband and I bought a house, we spent six months admiring these canine good citizens before adopting our own dog, Rosie.
I found Rosie when I was experiencing a flare of an autoimmune disease I have, ankylosing spondylitis. I’d get shooting pain in my neck and back that made it hard to concentrate on anything else. She was somewhere between four and six months, a rescue dog, a mix between a black lab and a coon hound. I fell in love with her floppy ears, big brown eyes, and the way she immediately licked my husband’s hand, as if she had been waiting for us to find her. She had a broken tail, which she constantly wagged. When I was with her, I felt less pain.
At first, she seemed well on her way to becoming the model dog we had dreamed of. We took her to obedience class, and she quickly mastered the basics. We started taking her to the off-leash dog park and she bounded up to dogs and humans with her puppy enthusiasm. She went to doggie daycare about once a week for extra exercise and socialization. After having her for a little over a month, we took her on vacation to the coast, and she learned to love running on beaches.
However, as Rosie approached a year in age, some problems arose. While the other dogs at the park seemed to naturally understand how to play with each other, as Rosie got bigger she struggled to play appropriately. One day I was at the park with her and she obsessively kept running up to a smaller dog, happily play-biting at it. The dog’s owner yelled at Rosie, and as I took Rosie aside, the woman announced to the park, “that’s the worst dog I’ve ever seen.” I discovered that even at thirty years old, you can still walk home blinking back tears.
I kept trying to take her to the park when the other woman wasn’t there, but Rosie’s problems only grew. She loved to sniff, and if another dog would surprise her in the middle of a good scent, she would growl and snap at them. If she was on a leash, she barked and lunged when dogs got close to her. Another dog park regular described Rosie to me as “a real bitch.” We started getting reports from daycare that she was being put in time out for getting in fights. We took her to more obedience classes, where she also struggled to play with other dogs. The trainer told me, “we have to exorcise the hound from her.”
I felt sad for Rosie, but if I’m honest, what I felt the most of was shame. Somehow, everyone else in Portland had managed to raise happy-go-lucky dogs, while I had brought up a neurotic one. The hardest thing isn’t the situations I’m dealt, but what I think others are thinking about my situation.
We began taking Rosie to a “Reactive Rover” training class. Rosie was taught she’d get treats for looking calmly at other dogs. We practiced constantly on her walks. We kept taking her to doggie day care, but taught them about the signals Rosie gave when she was about to have a reaction and encouraged them to give her frequent breaks. As the months went on, Rosie would go from having one reaction a day, to one a week, to one a month, to one every few months. She started making dog friends at daycare. Now, as we walk down a hiking trail, Rosie wags her crooked tail and looks at me for a treat as we pass another dog.
Things aren’t perfect. Rosie will probably never be able to hang outside a crowded brew pub, but she does great if we find a quiet picnic table. We still don’t go to dog parks, but Rosie can run where there’s more space so she’s not easily startled, like an open beach or designated off-leash trail. We still don’t let her meet another dog if she’s on a leash, but we walk her every day.
I’d be dishonest if I said I’m so glad things with Rosie are how they are. Things would be easier if she got along better with other dogs. However, Rosie has taught me more than I could have ever imagined. The first lesson is that so much is out of our control. We thought we’d done everything right to raise a well-adjusted dog, but Rosie still struggled. The second lesson, paradoxically, is that so much is in our control. Once Rosie had problems, we could have responded in many ways. We chose to seek help, and give her patience and love.
I’d also be dishonest if I said now that I’ve been through this I don’t care what other dog owners think about me and Rosie. When I remember the trouble at the dog park, it still hurts to know that there are people out there who might think I’m a shitty dog owner. Now, when I walk Rosie down the street on her leash, and yell to other owners to leash their dog if they’re running towards her, I still worry that other people think I’m uptight and paranoid. However, over time, the shame has become flickers of embarrassment.
For now, I know I will still battle to not worry what other people think of me. But I also know that every night, I will sit beside Rosie, and stroke her fur. Then, I will say one of the truest things I say each day, and as I say it, I won’t feel any pain. “Good night, Rosie. You do good things.”