I’ve always bombed at any game that involves obscuring your emotions, not only laying my cards all face up on the table, but screaming, “DID I WIN, DID I WIN?!” First dates with me are basically therapy sessions exacerbated with one or two beers.
Previous partners have seen my effusiveness as not only a weakness, but a flaw, and the man who fathered me once said, “Don’t let anyone see you cry.”
But now everyone sees me cry. And I’m not ashamed. If that makes a date uncomfortable, it’s not really my problem — it’s just not a good match. I know that the most compatible parters will be willing to negotiate my personality with love, patience, and grace. And I have dogs to thank for that self acceptance.
When I was a dog walker, there was this Terrier mix named Trixie. Even though I saw Trixie every day, she still barked aggressively at me whenever I entered the home. I would have to wait a few moments standing still at the door until her anxiety settled, and then she would realize it was actually her favorite time of day (walk time), and come padding down the stairs with a dog smile on her face. On our walks, she was a breeze to handle, if a little bit stubborn at times.
Gogo was an elderly Chihuahua mix who would refuse to get out of bed for her walks, but she had to walk, otherwise she’d have an accident in the house. Part of her resistance was due to age and arthritis, so I’d wait, coaxing her with treats. A snack usually perked her up, and we’d go on our way, and she would pee in the exact same spot every time.
Ray was a Poodle puppy I used to see twice a day. The young dog’s eyes radiated with intelligence and energy, and I was charged with teaching her some basic obedience. Relegated to the kitchen for her own safety, she was a bundle of excitement who would leap up on me in greeting. Even at her age, on her hind legs she was almost taller than my petite frame. Again I would wait, standing still without acknowledging her until she calmed down and sat politely, and then I would reward her with a treat. She quickly learned to greet me with more restraint, but her keen intelligence meant she never stopped trying to test me.
And then there was Ambroise, who was my favorite because we shared a unique bond. Even as my favorite, Ambroise had a terrible habit of scarfing down anything even remotely edible off the street, and there was the time I had to stick my hand in his mouth to retrieve a piece of dried-up cat poop.
Dogs have the worst poker faces. When you get home you don’t even have to see the overturned garbage to know the dog has rifled through it — she’ll usually come to the door with her head lowered and ears flat. But you don’t get mad, you just think, “Well, I shouldn’t have left the garbage out like that.” You’ll alter your entire life just to accommodate that one habit she just can’t seem to break.
While I am far more accountable than a dog for my behavior, I’ve got some quirks as permanent as the acne scars on my face — I might have prevented them by not picking, but I did pick, and now they’re here forever. What’s worse is I’ve never quite grown out of my acne.
For a long time I swallowed my emotions. They lodged in my throat and caused the acid in my stomach to bubble up, but even though I was choking and my whole chest burned, I didn’t want anyone to know I was in pain because I couldn’t let anyone see me cry — I couldn’t let them know I was emotional, crazy, and broken. Otherwise they’d take me to pound and abandon me.
People who abandon dogs because they can’t negotiate their behavior — because they didn’t want to put in the patience and effort to train them — were already incapable of love and shouldn’t have had a dog to begin with. But then someone else comes along whose heart is ready, and with just a little bit of compassion, they turn those dogs around.
There were days when I’d show up to my dog walks with my eyes red from crying in the car because I’d just moved to a new city and my heart was freshly broken and I felt all alone. And the dogs didn’t care if maybe I was a couple showers behind on my hygiene or if I looked like straight-up hell or if I stopped to cry inconsolably on our walks. They weren’t embarrassed when people stopped to stare, they just licked the tears off my face (mmm! Salty!). And when Ray once knocked me down the stairs in her excitement to dash out into the yard, I just shrugged and limped for a couple of days. It wasn’t her fault.
It’s easy to let those nasty little voices rise into a cacophony of self-doubt and self-loathing when we feel we’ve screwed up. “You’re not good enough. You’re too weird. No one will ever love you,” they say. It can be downright deafening, becoming so loud you can’t hear your real voice saying, “That’s not true.” But would you say that to your dog? So why say it to yourself?
So yeah, at times I bark at the mailman, lunge at bigger dogs, or tear up the curtains because I’m scared of being left behind, but I’ve yet to bite anyone. And just like I loved my dogs, people love me … with my quirks, acne scars, and everything. Whenever I feel frustrated with myself, or like I’m too weird, or I hear my father’s voice say, “Don’t do that, no one will love you for it,” I think of Trixie and Gogo and Ray and my sweet Ambroise, and I tell those voices to shut up. Because like I loved my occasionally difficult dogs, people love me through my good days and my bad days. And, most importantly, I love myself.
Has learning to have patience for your dog taught you to have patience with yourself? What other life lessons have dogs taught you?
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