We recently moved into a beautiful new subdivision surrounded by nature, scenic walking paths, friendly neighbors, and — judging from all the four-footed traffic ambling past our windows — a whole lot of loyal dog lovers. In fact, each of our next-door neighbors has a sleek and stately retriever mix: one black, one brown.
Both of these pups adore playing with children. They gaze out mildly at the steady trickle of morning joggers. They reliably, cheerfully sit on command, languidly sunning themselves on their respective driveways. My husband and I can stroll right up to these dogs, and they’ll eagerly thump their tails in amiable greeting. They’re friendly toward us, and agreeable toward other canines. And I confess that in their presence, I’ll sometimes look down at my beautiful rescue pup Grant … and sigh.
The thing is, I’ve been fostering and working with abused rescues for years. Both of our current dogs were abused before we adopted them. We rescued each one separately, and we’ve worked diligently to resocialize them. Grant, in particular, spent his younger years in a series of brutal environments. We’ll never fully comprehend the types of mistreatment he endured. But by the time we took him in, he’d learned to cope via a series of repetitive, anxiety-fueled behaviors. In fact, the day I went to visit Grant at the shelter, the rescue volunteer touched my arm and said, “Would you please, please consider taking this dog? He won’t survive another bad experience.”
I said yes immediately, and I’ve never once regretted it. Grant has brought us endless joy and laughter … and over time, he’s revealed a lovable heart of absolute gold. In fact, inside the confines of our own home, Grant is sweet, snuggly, spirited, and fun. He lets us scratch his ears, brush his teeth, trim his fur, file his nails, clean his ears, even apply medication, all without even batting an eye.
Yet once Grant is out of the house, he still occasionally reacts with unpredictable intensity toward a range of interesting elements. These include men with mustaches, people holding shovels, smokers in general, runners headed our way, and motorcycles idling at the curb. Very early on, the behaviorist explained to us: “That’s not true aggression — that’s fear.”
Sometimes, explaining the special accommodations Grant requires can be complicated. When he encounters new people, pets, or situations, he’s often perfectly sweet and mellow. But once in awhile, he’s not. The type and tone of his reaction can be somewhat unpredictable, but it almost always involves repetitive warning barks. As we continue to work with Grant, we caution children that they should never run toward him unannounced. We’ve created a predefined meet-and-greet system for neighbors. We’re careful about whom we invite into our home and about how they come through the door. All this can feel, at turns, shameful and overly indulgent. Mostly, though, it just feels like failure — representative of our inability to help an amazing dog completely overcome the cruelty of his past.
I’ve been a musician much of my life. I’ve taught kids of all ages and developmental levels, including autistic and Down syndrome children. So I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with their parents. On more than one occasion, we’ve marveled at the way a loyal family pet can forge meaningful, singular connections with these kids. Sometimes, a pet will reach and nurture them in ways no one else can.
Yet certain parents have confided to me that despite moments of genuine triumph, the urge to compare can sometimes become overpowering. “We work so hard with Jason, and each new achievement is something to celebrate,” said one mother. “But it can be incredibly discouraging to watch another child his age navigate brand-new challenges so easily. There are days I want to look at those parents and say, ‘Do you have any idea what you’re taking for granted?'”
I’m keenly aware that a canine is not nearly the same as a child — though I’ve talked with plenty of pet parents who regard their dog with the same level of protective adoration they feel for a son or daughter. But these feelings of comparison … I admit that they resonate with me. There are days it’s difficult to look into the soulful, trusting eyes of my very good boy Grant, to recognize his vulnerable spirit, to realize the extent of his unlocked potential. It’s hard to accept that a certain percentage of the world will never fully get to know the sweetly devoted pup I see every day.
And yet I’ve volunteered at numerous shelter facilities over the years, and I’ve seen the dogs who come in — the biters, the growlers, the snarlers, and the ones who’ve been returned, those who have shut down completely. I can picture them still: dejected, cowering in corners, facing the walls, trembling, anxiously pacing, circling repeatedly. None of those dogs asked to experience such pain, terror, rejection, or neglect. But regardless, so many of the most damaged, troubled, and traumatized were eventually put down. It was simply too difficult, in some cases impossible, to bring them around. They were eliminated to make space in a shelter system already bursting at the seams with abandoned pets and owner surrenders.
How impossible to forget all those faces. And so I look once again at my rescue pup Grant, resting his chin on his favorite blanket. I call him over and ask him to sit, then guide him through the repertoire of tricks we’ve learned together — spin, down, roll over, wave, paw, high-five, speak. I watch his tail wag eagerly as I reward him with his favorite peanut butter treat. Then I put my arms around him, lean against his scruffy fur, and shower my show dog with praise.
Do you have a dog who struggles with fear, anxiety, or repetitive behaviors? What are your thoughts on the subject? Share your feelings and insights!
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.