What can we possibly say about Louie that hasn’t already been said? What encomiums can we sing in his praise that the eternal muses have not already sung? Louie projects a calm and easy grace. Study his features, peer into his eyes, and tell me that you don’t see a kind of canine Yoda. He is just as happy to perch in a lap as he is to enjoy an outdoor frolic. I’m convinced that Louie is one of the best and most excellent dogs currently living on this planet. There’s only one problem with Louie as far as I can tell: He is not my dog.
My own dog, Baby, couldn’t be any more different than Louie. I’ve had her for more than two years now, and some days, I am convinced that she doesn’t like me at all. She’s 65 pounds of scenthound mischief. She never comes when I call her; in fact, I’m pretty sure the only word she knows, or at least chooses to understand, is “treat.” When we go for hikes, I have to watch her constantly, or risk her jerking on the leash so hard at the merest scent of a nearby squirrel, fox, or deer, that she escapes into the forest for 20 minutes at a time, only returning to me when she’s good and ready.
Baby barks incessantly and at the weirdest things. For three straight weeks during one particularly exasperating month, she woke me up at one in the morning with her barking. The first time, I found she’d cornered a baby fox. The second time, it was a baby possum. The third time, I could hardly believe my eyes when, after half an hour of non-stop barking, I discovered that she’d cornered a beetle. As you can see in this amusing video clip, once, she even barks at pollen.
Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a vicious, mean, or aggressive dog at all. She’s just young and energetic. People who are more familiar with the Bluetick Coonhound as a breed reassure me that Baby will calm down eventually; you know, in three to five years. I groan wearily every time I think about the prospect.
When I first adopted Baby and brought her home, it was under the mistaken impression that she would slot right in to the routine I’d established with my then-recently-deceased dog, Tina. I missed Tina so much and was so grief-stricken by her sudden and shocking demise that Baby’s youth and inexperience drew comparisons that were completely unfair. I would get frustrated with Baby and think, “Tina would never bite my ankles in the middle of a busy street,” or “Tina always came when I called to her.”
I wondered for the first several months whether I was the right owner for Baby at all. Then I started following fellow Dogster author, Wendy Newell, on Instagram and found a new subject for comparison, to wit, Louie. Weird thing is, Louie’s not even her dog! He just spends a lot of time with Wendy and her other canine friends.
Louie became the surrogate for all of the negative reflections I make when I think about my relationship with Baby, comparisons that used to focus on Tina. He always looks so placid and happy. Surely he would never get into any mischief. He is so tiny and portable. I could take him with me anywhere and he’d always behave.
Of course, I love Baby, and that feeling grows stronger every day. I wish I felt that those feelings were reciprocated. I’ve worked very hard to develop a relationship with her and to stop comparing her to Tina, or to Louie. In fact, though the name she has on file at the vet is “Idris,” I call her “Baby” as a constant reminder that building this relationship, or any one that matters, takes work. Anyone can tell you that working out complex emotions is never fun or easy.
It didn’t take me long to realize that in developing a dog-crush on Louie, a dog who is always only a still photograph on Instagram, I was still finding ways to critique Baby. I’ve been projecting most of the positive qualities I still miss from Tina — combined with those that I wish Baby had — onto a tiny dog that I will probably never actually meet in person. The calm demeanor, the portability, the sense of comfort and security, the sense of real, unconditional affection that is the hallmark of having a dog.
The point of all this is that I keep wanting Baby to be things that she is not. No matter how much I still miss Tina, Baby will never be the dog I lost. Similarly, every time a photo of Louie pops up in my Instagram feed, I have to remind myself that the associations that form in my mind are highly idealized, and not representative of reality. Baby is an individual dog in her own right. She’s not Tina. She’s not Louie.
Jealousy of other dogs, whether real or representational icons I see online, is, in the end, supremely unhelpful. Whether I’m mourning Tina, or coveting Louie, neither of these mental habits does anything to address the issue at hand. When I’m focusing on how Baby is different than other dogs, I’m avoiding the work I should be doing to build and develop the relationship with the dog who is right in front of me.
Adopting a dog is a massive decision, one that impacts your life and the life of the dog. Baby is not a “bad” dog. When I criticize her, even if it’s just in my own head, I am a bad owner. Whenever I use Tina, Louie, or any other dog I encounter, in person or online, to view my dog in a less-than-flattering light, it is a powerful reminder of the changes I need to make. I need to be more patient, more accepting, and more loving.
In those moments, I know that Baby deserves so much better, and I am ashamed. Have you ever made the same kinds of unfair comparisons as I have described when you see or meet other dogs? How do you cope when your relationship with your dog is less than ideal? Please share your experiences, both the triumphs and the struggles, in the comments!