Through the Looking-dog

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I’m seeing myself through my dog’s eyes. Sometimes it is just a revelation of the importance of kindness and the unimportance of aesthetics. Sometimes it is profound.

Over the past few weeks I have had a couple of dissociative swings, which leave me hunched and still, silent and inexpressive. My mouth does not break upward for even the cutest face or funniest film.

Mutt has found it hard – much harder than I thought he might. I had lofty ideas that he would nuzzle up to me, tenderly leading me back toward the world. Instead he turned away from me and acted like a spurned child. Miffed and a little accusatory.

While I was stuck behind my darkened glass, watching the world on the other side, I watched my little Mutt.

The sight of his woebegotten slouch in mimicry of my own shot a pang of guilt into me. I realised that he was a Looking-dog, mirroring my horrible illness.

Each time I returned to myself, Muttable sensed the change and shook himself from tail to ears. 

He does this regularly. If he is stressed or tense, overly excited or worried, he throws off the mood like it was so many droplets of water. His tail starts wagging and he trots off in search of the next loving hand or exciting adventure.

I wondered whether one of these days he would just give up on me.

So, I vowed to look at things a little differently.

I wondered whether I could shake my mood off – or whether I could get through the Looking-dog to the other side.

Some of it is beyond my control. My face looks stuck and cold because my heart is frozen in a paroxysm of fear – fear about the world, its leaders, its germs and geology, my family, the air, the plants and trees. It is endless and I wish in those times that I could press a button and disappear into the void.

But I can still move my arms and legs. It’s harder than usual – everything feels like varying densities of treacle pushing against me – but I’m not entirely without motion.

No matter how small the spark, I believe that we always have a pilot light of free will within us. Sometimes when the world is darkest, that’s when we feel it: warm and fluttering and asking to be asked. Like a bouncing loving dog, it wants to love us and to lead us toward ourselves again.

The last time I felt the heavy waves drop around me – my depression following like a tide lapping gently at my skin and bones – I grabbed dog and lead.

We went for a walk. Then we went for another one.

I began to calibrate my mood through my reflection in Muttley. If I saw him looking worried, I gave him a cuddle and a game of tug. If he withdrew from me, I took him for a walk or played fetch in the garden.

I may not have been smiling or talking, but I was connecting. He was my early warning system, and my lighthouse home. And soon – sooner than normal – my face came back, my voice came back, I came back.

I wish I had learned this years ago.

“Oo’s a loverly boy, then?”

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I’ve always prided myself on being the kind of person who could ruthlessly make the right decisions in a post apocalyptic wilderness. I would be the one who could cold-bloodedly pull the trigger, killing the weakest of our group so the rest could escape. I would make sure that the dead remain dead by calmly approaching (not too close) and putting another bullet/spear/butter knife in their brain.

So what has happened to me?

I’ve become enslaved to Muttley’s big brown eyes and waggly tail. (Actually as a point of interest I’ve become convinced that his bum is the wriggly article and his tail just hangs on for dear life.)

At bed time, for example, we’re standing in the kitchen as I prepare to sweep imperiously out of the room, close the door behind me and climb the stairs to my gloriously empty double bed.

I make the big mistake. Eye contact. He lowers his head submissively and his tail twitches pathetically. Hopefully. As I watch, his tail picks up speed – self-aware as tails are, it knows I’m watching it – and I feel my chest swell and a smile break over my face.

A blink later and I’m persuading my enormous monkey-dog to budge up, budge over, move yer paw, no not that paw!

I’m also engaged in baby talk (something that was literally verboten when my daughter was growing up). I stride off happily down alleyways and footpaths, yanking muttles after me saying “We’re gonna have to get that wittle tum tum feeling better aren’t we? Yes we are! Poor old tummy-kins!” Out of the corner of my eye I see curtains twitch and people hastily change direction to avoid the nutter.

This morning, once the wet pawsy-wawsies have been chased, caught and rubbed vigorously on a towel, I organised breakfast. His, not mine. The survival of Muttley is assured in any post-apocalyptic scenario. Me? Not so much.

Don’t think I’m a pushover though. I can make him stop and sit to within an inch of danger, and I am the Queen and Mistress Total of all food in the house (which is strictly withheld from Lord Licky unless it comes in kibble-form). The sofa is my territory, consistently defended from wet-nosed interlopers except when I issue an invitation for poochy-woochy to come and cuddle mummy.

Ew.

I feel emotionally torn between the huge responsibility of being a good person for him, and pangs of jealousy and pique as he pays attention to everyone but me when we are out.

He would run off with anyone else in an instant. Bum waggling madly, showing them all his tricks. I would be left gazing after him forlornly, dumped by a Cockadoodle-didn’t.

This envy drives some of my decisions. I want him to think I’m wonderful, so much better than anyone else.

I remember feeling the same way about my daughter when she was very small. I was jealous that she loved her deadbeat dad so much and would drop every emotion in her little body if he would only pay her some attention. I think I over-compensated, trying to be more understanding, more forgiving, more fun, more anything. It wasn’t a successful tactic. In fact the only thing that finally worked was time and age. Now she is an adult, I finally feel that I don’t need to compete with her dad.

Wow, Muttley. I should pay you by the hour. A furry counsellor with bad breath.

In addition to these emotional revelations and connections while we mooch down byways and across puddles, I feel waves of anger while on our walk. There are big signs at the recreation ground: “Keep dogs on lead”. Clearly the dog owners near me can’t read, because I’m always having to give Muttley a quick al fresco therapy session as he wonders why THEY can run free but he can’t. ‘Is it me?’ He gazes up at me, brown eyes quivering.

And a quick, totally arbitrary and un-rigorous assessment of the owners tells me it’s the rich ones that think they can just flout the rules. “I have total control over my Tarquinius at all times,” they bleat in my imagination.

And what about the signs reminding dog owners to pick up the poo? Is it so difficult to keep bags in your coat pocket? Is it such a hardship to walk an extra 20 yards to the bin? What do you think is going to happen as you leave your bag of poo by the roadside or – hold me back! – tie it to a tree branch?! Do you think some serf is going to follow on behind, cleaning up after you

Mutt-tastic is prone to picking up giardia, which is a parasite carried in dog poo. I have to run point at every green patch to identify offending lumps of kryptonite and steer him away, yanking his head collar while yelping “No! No! No!”. At the end, my dizzy pooch staggers gratefully onto the pavement.

How dare those offensive and offending owners be so self-absorbed? I’d like to take my lovely Mr-scruffly-poo round to their house and leave a little party bag in their garden.

Double-oh-muttley: License to maim

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It’s deceptive, isn’t it? That air of harmless cuteness my dog is vibing in the photo.

Last week, El Horror leaped. The lead was loosely in my left hand at the time. As it unspooled, the loop caught on my ring finger.

I’m now typing with nine fingers while sporting a funky purple plastic splint on my very own spiral fracture.

Muttley is unrepentant. Unconcerned. He nuzzles my throbbing finger as if to say: “Why doesn’t this work? It’s my favourite toy! Make it work!”

We are still unable to walk down the street without the idiot pulling me along. As long as we are both clear about who is in control of the pace, then we can remain friends. He is the good-natured super-dog who puts up with being attached to my annoying weight.

Somtimes I try to introduce a bit of leash discipline. I stop when he pulls and he calmly circles round to spend a fraction of a second in the sweet spot beside me before trotting ahead again and resuming The Big Pull.

At least he now knows to sit down when he sees another dog. Unfortunately this makes people come closer to comment on his good behaviour. Sigh. Not helping!

When some unsuspecting doglet comes close for a sniff, he can keep up the charming demeanour for a few seconds then POW! The idiot is back. Bouncy bouncy. BOUNCY BOUNCY! I pull him away on two legs, his neck craned round to gaze adoringly at his new best friend.

While my finger heals, my family is helping with my dog walking responsibilities. I’m a little worried that the ol’ Cuddle Monkey has noticed this shift in routine and is planning to overthrow the regime.

I would write more but my finger hurts. He’s staring at me. Time for stroking duty.

Squelchy handfuls and kibble love

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This week, the Dog has reached epic levels of Demanding Diva and Feral Child of Self-Interest. In fact, if he was a show dog, that would be his stage name. 
Gathering squelchy handfuls of chronic diarrhoea has given me unique skills. Too late I have learnt the ancient skill of not manoeuvring the handle holes to provide a Poo Vulnerable conduit to my fingers when attempting double scoops. It was a wise woman who said: better to use two bags than find yourself far from home tweezering old, dry wet wipes carefully from your pocket while Dog capers at the end of lead deciding whether to lunge and topple his Tolerated Mistress. 

In the end, the poo won. The vet agreed that despite the Muppet being woefully underweight, a starvation diet had become necessary. So for the last few days I have felt like a guard at a comfortable concentration camp. I starved him for the first 24 hours. Oh the shock! The sense of betrayal! As the realisation set in, the Hound began to desperately nuzzle, hoping for treats. 

Oh no. No treats allowed, my boy. 

In that case, he slyly replied, there will be no obedience! Ha! 

Of course some goodwill moves were thrown in – the odd sit, and occasional ‘watch me’ – but overall I was left in no doubt that our fledgeling relationship is based entirely on cupboard love. My foolish dreams of woman and hound working together for a better future crumbled into kibble dust. 

During the next 24 hours, there was a little rice. This seemed to make his mood even worse. You expect me to eat THAT?! He now began to skulk and sulk. The new regime was rejected in toto. 

I added some banana and chicken the following day which I fear was seen as a sign of total capitulation on my part as he now seemed quite cocky and full of swagger. 

We are currently in the act of gradually adding kibble to the diet and soon I hope to be able to offer treats for good behaviour. The Diarrhoea Watch begins. 

As regime changes go, I think I am more scarred by the experience than he is. He thinks I am the Mistress of Unnecessary Culinary Torture, and glowers moodily at me whenever I eat something.  

Having to collect his meagre poo over theee days and store it in my daughters old sealed lunch box in the fridge – well I think that just put the icing on the cake. 

The £90 fee for sending it to the lab for tests? Priceless. 

We know who’s in charge of our destiny now, don’t we?

This week I also managed to throw my back out while carelessly and rather unfairly trying to stop the Mutt-in-Chief from hurtling across the road to say hi-hi-hi-hi! to a terrified little Boxer pup. I have to say that if I saw Watson gallumphing toward me, barking at the top of his woof, teeth out in a psychopath’s grin and bear-like paws all akimbo – well, I think I would do a little whiz on the pavement too. 

Still, I can’t help but want to be his friend. 

Even when he gets up from his sofa snooze, stretching languorously and lifting his tail to whoosh a benevolent fart in my general direction. 

And when he decides I’ve been working for far too long, he putters around to my mouse side and rests his head on the mouse pad or my hand while gazing up at me with soulful eyes. 

Ah. 

The Stench and the Sorting Hat

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It’s been a week since my new pal came to live with me.

I’ve been in tears for much of it, convinced I’m a bad person and will never get the knack of it. Like there’s some instinct that dog owners have that means they can cope. An instinct I don’t have.

Before Watson came, I found myself thinking of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. When Harry put it in his head, he wished and wished that he wouldn’t get put in Slytherin house. I imagined Watson thinking about all the potential owners that had visited him in the shelter and wishing and wishing his new owner was going to be the odd human with the green hair. I hoped he wanted me.

But of course it’s not about me. He’s a fragile creature with a past. He’s full of hopes and anxieties and irrational thoughts.

These seem to be about the potential for cats and birds to take over the world, and his deep felt annoyance that other dogs can’t dance like he can whilst barking joyfully at the end of his lead.

“But you’re not doing it right; I want to play with you!”

Yeah, play as in the Black Terror pouncing on his prey then poking it and sniggering. I know he’s a big softy but if I didn’t and I was the height of a footstool I’d be fair boogered out of my mind to see Watson pogoing towards me.

My grown up daughter has been fantastic, and already she has helped him walk nicer so my back is saved. He is so fast to learn – way faster than me.

Waking in the morning is a joy. To hear his tail start to wag as he realises I’m awake and then to be enveloped in Muppet Monster cuddles and kisses – it beats waking up next to a sweaty man with bad breath hands down.

Although Watson is on a special diet right now and the farts are astonishing. I’m thinking of leaving some HazMat masks at the front gate for the mail man.

As much as I am enjoying spending time with the Hound of the Basketvilles (sic), I keep coming back to the problem. While he barks and lunges at the world, I can’t take him out into it without feeling dread and uncertainty.

I have to be able to take him to work – otherwise he will be on his own for too long each day and it’s not fair to him. I also want to be able to take him on holiday and to woods and fields and valleys and across Middle Earth to Mordor and beyond!

While he barks and lunges like a happy Cujo, I can’t do that.

Worse, my agoraphobia is rearing its head. He makes such a scene. Everyone looks. The owners of the other dogs judge me (well, it feels like they do). It’s my worst nightmare. All I need is to be naked, without my homework and unable to find a loo. Pinch me…?

I am getting better though. For example, I am learning to be quiet to express my displeasure rather than to stomp home in a strop. I don’t know who came home from the shelter sometimes – him or me.

The shelter have been amazing and they are sending one of their trainers out to me in a couple of hours. I think we can do this, you know it? Hope is brimming out of me and filling my muddy boots.

As I write this, Watson is having his breakfast. It sounds like mud filtering through shale into a bottomless sink hole.

I may be falling in love with the smelly Muppet.

Gallumping paws for Miss Hopeless

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The most wonderful dog has found me, and I’m just a few short days from bringing him home from the shelter.

I could go on about his comical yet wise face, his gallumping running style, his joy when seeing…. anything! I could tell you that his sense of humour is already apparent, and fits in beautifully with my off-kilter pun-loving silly mind. I could tell you all these wonderful things.

Instead, I want to tell you how afraid I am that he’s going to be taken away from me.

I have a history of things being taken away from me, things being lost at the last hurdle. Promised things, hopeful things, even deserved things.

I went to a boarding school and learnt that promises are broken, friendships are ammunition, and nothing is fixed. Promised weekends at home evaporate, promised rescue disappears.

If something wrong was done, I got the blame for it. Those little girls told lies that would shame the devil. If I WAS involved, my co-conspirators escaped or gleefully got me in trouble, redrawing lines of allegiance at a dizzying speed. The territory shifted around me yet I was always somehow on the outside.

This was no Bunty adventure. It was a cold, confusing, heart-breaking boot camp.

Years later, fighting with a husband, the emotional memory recurred. Life is unfair. Unjust. And I can’t do anything about it. My reactions are all wrong, learnt in the topsy-turvy world of that school. Push away what you want, draw in what you’re afraid of. Pretend it doesn’t matter. Pretend. Pretend.

So as I think about this gorgeous dog, I find myself trying to step back.

“Don’t get too attached”, my inner too-wise child says gravely. “It might not happen. They’ve probably got it wrong and he’s promised to someone else.”

“Prepare yourself for disappointment,” says my inner beaten woman, lost long ago by the indifference of the medical community. “You don’t deserve something so amazing, and someone’ll notice soon and put things back the way they should be.”

“Stuff goes wrong,” my inner teen chimes in. “You’re going to have to pretend you’re cool and you knew all along.”

I’m making small preparations around the house, trying not to imagine how wonderful it could be to be greeted by that happy face and to watch him gallump around the garden.

I think that even if he gets as far as coming home with me, he won’t love me. How could he love me? I have proven over and over again in my life how difficult and selfish I can be.

I hold this idea in my head whenever I feel like I am slipping into excitement and unwarranted and unsafe hope: I say to myself that it won’t be like my dream; I tell myself that I will still be alone.

Because after all, isn’t that the biggest hope of all?

That his happy face will intrude into my dark and glum little world and I won’t be alone any more.

Doggy themes and VHS screams

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I’ve not been too good this week: I’ve felt a lot of fear and panic inside my own house.

It’s hard when your own home feels as unsafe as a dark alley. I’m terrified to sleep because every noise is an intruder.

When I come home from work, I panic on my doorstep while I’m trying to fit my key in the door. I imagine someone coming up behind me. Once inside, I run to turn on all the lights. I check the rooms of my house over and over and sit on my stairs shaking, telling myself I am safe. I am. I am.

I’m on the best meds I can be on – this is just my brain over reacting to threats that aren’t there anymore. Like a faulty VHS tape that keeps spitting out scenes of scares from the past. I want to stop watching it but I can’t help myself and I get scared all over again.

I can relate to the dogs who’ve been abused and who startle at everything. Just like them, as long as I continue to get afraid, then I will not be able to get better.

I need a dog who makes me feel protected and not alone. Who is patient and kind with me. Who can build up my confidence with positive experiences. Sound familiar? I’m the one looking for a forever home it seems!

So I’m sending out a special Christmas wish that a loving protective crossbreed with a guide dog’s instincts might find his way to me in the New Year and help me start living again.

Searching for an assistance dog: no tail wags in the Gulag

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It’s been six weeks and I have looked at photo after photo of cute little wagglies, reading their little dating profiles to glean a sense of whether they are a soul mate.

It’s disturbingly like online dating, except thank god there are no bearded role-playing office creeps (with body odour you can detect through the Wi-Fi) wanting to know if I wear white undies and have access to a Jiffy bag and a stamp. The worst experience I can get physically from my visits to the dog shelters is that slobber-sticky feel on your hands and a damp musty smell to my coat. All part of being a dog owner I think, and amazingly, my OCD doesn’t mind a bit.

Now I am an experienced dog-seeker I know better than to trust those little snippets of info on the shelter websites – I go straight to the source and chat to them directly. What’s the history? Are there any medical exclusions? It’s a whole different story from the one the website tells you.

So now I have people at some of the big well known shelters who are looking out for what we think I need.

The next stage is “the Meet” and here is where I’m getting dejected. The hope on the way there, already planning how the pal in the photo might look in my kitchen, thinking about the big list of goodies I need to buy. And then the reality, and a crushing sense of panic about making the wrong decision.

Most recently, I travelled 40 miles to walk a cocker spaniel who acted like she had never seen trees and leaves before. At one point, I shuffled some dry leaves and she became hysterical with delight and began bouncing up and down, eyes rolling and mouthing anything she could reach. She had to be calmed down with lots of soothing crooning noises and careful stroking. My heart rate went through the roof – luckily my daughter was there and did the emotional heavy lifting while I just tried not to freak out.

The decision? I made it instantly – no. I ran through all the possible scenarios and kept coming back to the same thing – I would be scared of her. I would walk on egg-shells around her. Yes, she might calm down eventually, but not likely with me around trying to be brave but giving off the “oh god” pheromones like a fire extinguisher.

Before we left we had a stroke and fuss with a Saluki who was virtually catatonic. Here now, I thought of waking in the night, sweaty and upset from one of my PTSD-moments and in need of doggy reassurance. Looking around for a concerned but silly face, grinning and saying “Hi mum! everything’s fine – tickle me!” This dignified, placid Saluki would just stare at me with her limpid pool-eyes saying “you tell me… are we doomed?” before yawning and going back to sleep.

The following day (ah the weekend of a rescue-chaser) I travelled 80 miles to a different shelter to register my details with them and ask about a Doberman-cross who sounded lovely. I filled in the forms and looked around the showing area.

I admit, I was a little freaked out. Far from being the outdoor, functional but friendly kind of area I had seen in other shelters, this was a whole different wag.

The floor was tiled throughout in serial-killer-friendly white tile. If Dexter went to Topps Tiles, this is what he would have picked. Overhead, Radio 3 played softly. The dogs were almost all in their beds snoozing or looking dejectedly at the walls. Perhaps they had all just been fed, or just come back from bouncy fun in a forest of kibble? I hoped so. I stared in at them through clear Hannibal-Lecter-style Plexiglas (little holes near the floor so they could sniff the outside people) and tried to keep an eye on all the exits.

“Sorry guys,” I whispered as the ambience finally got too much for me and I made a break for the reception again.

There I found out that the Doberman I had wanted to meet (who hadn’t been in the public area) was a neurotic mess and wouldn’t be right for me at all. I asked about some others, thinking maybe I could break one of them out. But no. The closest was an older Shar-Pei cross who had a list of medical conditions and only a handful of years left. It was heart breaking but I knew that financially I would struggle to pay for potential treatment (he wasn’t one of the dogs who get supported by the shelter after they leave) and that my heart wouldn’t cope with losing him after so short a time.

I know dogs die, but in ten years’ time my life will look quite different from the way it is now. In contrast, in a couple of years I will still be close to where I am now and that’s not a place that can cope with more loss.

A final possibility occurred to me and I asked about a little terrier that was listed on the website as a “special” dog. Turns out he bits the legs of any stranger he comes to. Ah. O–K.

It was a long drive back, and a lonely house awaited.

(Image: Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay.com)

Furry love and fearful sandwich making

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It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Busy, busy, busy. But here I am, thinking today about commitment and choice. And furry little bundles of unconditional love.

I’m going to get a dog, see. A rescue dog that can piddle on cue in the right places. A dog who can protect me from my nightmares and dark-fears. One who will gaze at me adoringly. Who will be my rock and my pal in a lonely river.

Big plans. Yes, even I can see that I’m building the little fella up a bit too much. It’ll make it easier for him to fail me. And for me to continue a pattern of relating that I had thought was limited to the two-legged would-be rescuers in my past.

Turns out I can apply this little tune to pretty much anything. I reckon I could set up a hamster to fail me. Proving myself right is after all a favourite defensive pasttime of damsels like me.

It helps me when I’m immersing myself in the baptismal chill of hopeful commitment. Putting myself under and daring to breathe. Trusting that the universe won’t let me drown again, waiting for the fulfilment of an idea, the promise of a hope, the faith in a person who will never deserve it. Who will Let Me Down.

It seems easier to be alone.

But it’s not. I’ve been alone for so long now that I can’t kid myself about that.

And my furry little friend deserves a bit of slack I reckon. When I stop and think and really start to imagine him… I can see him clearly now…

He will chew or destroy at least three things I value. He will pee on my relatively new carpet at least once before he settles. During our walks he will poo in an inconvenient stop on the pavement (ignoring the grass), leaving me scrabbling to scoop while old ladies glare at me. He will make a raw ugly spot on the brand new turf I am laying in his honour in the back garden. He will dig and find (shudder) a worm or slug and bring it into the house along with his muddy paw prints. He will be uninterested in my training attempts but instead steal food from my plate and then  wonder why I’m cross (why did you leave it on the coffee table, his eyes will grin, when it’s just the right height for me?).

But despite all that, I’m ready. I am choosing to let someone in.

I’m afraid. But I’m ready.