It’s hard for me to argue with the statement, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” I’m convinced every time one lets me rub its stomach or unexpectedly kisses my cheek.
But if you’ve ever taken care of a dog, you know that it’s not all fun and games. Aside from their instincts to chew and urinate on everything you own, they also bake homemade chocolate pies that often end up on the bottom of your shoes and on someone else’s white carpet. So where do we get the patience for a four-legged diaper-less being with a full set of sharpen teeth? Where do we get the strength?
Several years ago, when I first came back home to Cow Island, my mom had a little collie, named Buster. Although his fenced-in yard was bigger than my apartment in Manhattan, I felt bad for the dog and begin walking him on a leash around the family farm. We bonded over our walks, and often sat underneath a big oak tree where I’d write, and he would patrol the area. I loved my best friend because he trusted me, was easy to care for, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
But due to an unfortunate incident, Buster and our walks were taken from me. I buried him in the backyard while fighting off the tears with each shovelful of dirt thrown on his body.
About a month later, a friend gave me a stray dog, named Redd. Her short fur is the color of her name, and although I don’t know her exact breed, she resembles a Rhodesian Ridgeback, (without the ridge). She is much younger than Buster, but the biggest difference between them is that while the little collie trusted me from the beginning, his replacement treated me like I was an enemy who badly needed a shower.
I understood that it would take time to bond with Redd, and so I patiently tried to gain her trust. First, by giving her treats and bowls of food. But not just any food. A family recipe combining the crunchy bits of puppy chow with the savory sensation of my mom’s world famous chicken stew. The tail started wagging.
Redd continued to keep her distance for several days, but joyfully ran towards me anytime I approached. Then, as if remembering pain, she’d stop and back away.
Summer was approaching, and with it, insects the size of humming birds, snakes as far as the eye could see, and sunlight that felt like it was shining through a magnified glass. Unless Redd and I bonded quicker, my dream of long mosquito-less walks through pastures with my new best friend wouldn’t come true.
So I began carrying a folding chair into the fenced-in yard, tiptoeing around landmines of dog manure, and sitting patiently. Redd seemed happy to see me, but still required a ten foot distance between us.
“You’re harder to read than a text message from a teenager!” I shouted at her on day four of Operation Sitting Dog. “I don’t know what happened to you, but you have to believe me that I’m not going to hurt you.”
A mosquito landed on my sweating nose, reminding that the clock was ticking. So I resorted to my most valuable asset once again, and heated up some of my mom’s chicken stew. This time I wore one of my dad’s old cowboy hats to block the sun, and brought along a copy of Reader’s Digest to prevent boredom. With the bowl of bribery at my side, I sat and read an article about male menopause.
By day seven, when Redd hadn’t gotten any closer to me, I began pretending that I was eating the delicious meal at my feet. She would raise her ears as if alarmed or concerned about my behavior. But the invisible wall separating us remained. So I started actually eating the stew (out of a plate, and minus the puppy chow) and would let the gravy drip down my chin.
“It’s soooo good,” I’d tell Redd as I’d clean up my face with my tongue. “You should really try some.”
Aside from a raw chin, this strategy accomplished nothing. Summer arrived, and I lost patience and interest in bonding with a dog like Redd. Her fear of something unknown pushed me away, and my fear of never having another best friend turned into anger.
On the day all of my strength was lost, I scraped some of the uneaten food on the ground. I stomped on the grains of stew soaked rice and failure, and then fed my tormenting friend a six-year old frozen Lean Cuisine.
It was over. I no longer sat in Redd’s yard, and her special meals were replaced with hard bits of Gravy Train and resentment.
After a few months, Redd ran up to the fence when I approached. She still kept her distance when I opened the gate to bring her food, but sometimes got as close as a couple of feet away.
One of these times, I noticed a scratch on her eye and some discoloration. It didn’t look good and I knew I had to get her to a vet.
So I brought a leash, cage and bowl of chicken stew into the fenced-in yard. I placed the bait inside the trap and then pretended to leave. I hoped that Redd would follow her nose, and I could close the door of the kennel behind her. But she followed her instincts instead, and went to the opposite side of the yard, let out a yawn and lied down.
I walked towards her with the leash, and she quickly jumped up and ran into a corner. Again, I went after her until we were running in circles like horses around a track. After several minutes, anger exploded from me in the form of choice words that had gotten me put on my knees during my childhood.
As if a Morse code message was sent to my mom, she appeared. While her eyes looked me over, mine lowered themselves to the ground, seeing sweat and anguish drop into the center of a freshly baked chocolate pie.
“Is there a problem?” my mom asked. “You seem a little upset.”
My sanity slowly came back to me. Shouting at Redd was not going to gain her trust. I needed to be brave and take control of the situation, regardless of the fear surrounding both of us. I had to find the strength.
Redd was in a corner as this point, so I placed the open kennel to the left of her, and her dog house to the right. I walked through the center of the triangle trap with strap of the leash formed into a lasso. The terrified dog let out a yelp that pierced my body like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. But I continued, fighting through fear until I captured what I hoped was trust, but felt like betrayal.
Redd’s eye healed quickly after her visit to the vet. But more importantly, so did our relationship. She began letting me pet her stomach and take her on long walks. She still has a mind of her own, and sometimes can’t be bothered with me. But I am grateful for what she does give me, and when possible, respect her need for distance.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is except that maybe trusting relationships need patience and distance. Or perhaps it’s about how difficult it is at times to be accountable for another living being. It could even be about how two dogs positively affected my life and gave me a story to tell. Regardless, I enjoyed writing it, and hope it will bring you strength.