I left my dog Bodhi alone today. Twice. And both times, she didn’t scratch at the door, leaving a scattering of paint chips on the floor. She didn’t bark and howl. She freaked out, but only a little, and it’s an improvement. My journey in rehabilitating this dog, in helping her trust the world again, has worn on me in the last five months. In the last month especially, since I’ve had a regular babysitter come to the house who takes Coraline for walks, in turn leaving a helpless doggy mommy at home in a panic. I didn’t know this was a nightmare for her until it was too late, and we’ve had to start almost completely over in separation anxiety training.
I admittedly lost a little empathy for her then. Sometimes quite a lot. I’d get ready to leave, and she’d start panting and whining, and my first thought was, “Really? You’re really stressed again? Haven’t we been through this? Aren’t five fucking months of me coming home after I leave enough for you?” I’d get frustrated, and stopped calling her to me. Stopped petting her, when that was probably the time she needed it most.
What has interested me most in this process of getting to know Bodhi and in turn learning how to reassure her, is I find myself reflecting on periods in my life when I, too, recovered from trauma. I’ve gotten wise to the causes, and now live what most would call a solitary life, minus the two kids and scatterings of good friends. But at night, when I sit down to eat, when I have happy or sad events hive five me, or hit me in the arm or gut, I am the only one there to share them with.
These are the lonely times.
I’ve known Bodhi’s panic. I know what it’s like to watch the door close, the headlights shine through the windows and fade out of sight, and leave you in the dark. I know that panic of not wanting, not trusting yourself to be left alone. I know that feeling of complete loss of control. I know how she feels. I mean, as much as I can imagine, not being a dog and all.
But how do I tell a dog in human ways that I understand her? How do I tell her I’ll be there again in just five minutes because I need to run to the fucking store?
Maybe the training books have it a little wrong. The method’s not in trickery, confusing your dog so they never know if you’ll be gone for five minutes or fifty. It’s not in distraction of treats or toys filled with peanut butter. Maybe what needs to happen is confidence. My dog’s on Prozac. She’s on Prozac because she acts like a woman recovering from years spent in an abusive relationship would act. She watches me for signs, trying to read my movements to give her a hint as to what I’m doing. She flinches. Hard. She constantly seeks attention, even when I’m mad. Especially when I’m mad.
When I first started reading up on separation anxiety, one website said to disengage yourself from your dog, to halt the connection, and possibly lessen it, so your absence won’t be such a loss. I tried this for a while, mostly because I tried everything, other times because I needed a break and couldn’t get one. This could be the worst advice I’ve come across. A dog who panics when you leave doesn’t need less love, she needs more. So much that when you’re gone, she still feels it, and maybe even starts to love herself a little, too.
That seems to be an important place to point to, and possibly the one we can pull from our memory and say, “This is when I learned how to be alone and that it was okay.” I can’t tell you when mine is, though. I’m still not sure if it is okay.
Because today I watched Coraline meet her paternal grandparents. They welcomed her with such love and joy and acceptance, and were so grateful that I brought her there. They followed her around and made her smile and whenever she walked on unsteady ground, a hand came out, just ten inches away, to catch her if she fell.
How better can family be illustrated than that simple gesture?
Instead of “What now?” say “How can I help?”
Instead of “What is wrong?” say “Here, come here. Do you need a hug?”
Loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety are the most primal of feelings, even in the family dog. Maybe especially in the family dog.
Bodhi has nightmares. She’s having one right now and I wonder what they’re about.
Maybe I don’t want to know.