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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Where the Wild Things Are


ONE MORNING I CURLED UP in my corner of the sofa to nurse the day’s first caffeine, as custom dictated. Animal breakfasts had been served and inhaled. The other humans slept. Roscoe, chubby sausage-mutt light of my life, climbed into my lap, as custom dictated, and reeled back to ask for a scratch.

Within 30 seconds of my fingertips grazing his soft belly, and reaching up under his front legs to rub the pits, Roscoe suddenly snarled and struck my hand in a single movement. One terrible tooth planted itself in my palm. I pulled back and dumped him off my lap. He shook his coat and hung his head in shame. He seemed not to understand what had just happened. Neither did I.

I went to work an hour later with my hand bandaged and my spirit shot. I felt ashamed; a better dog owner wouldn’t have this problem. For most of the day it was all I could do to keep from weeping. My hand was hurt, but my feelings were really wounded, which was odd. He was, after all, a dog.
The incident came as a shock but not a complete surprise. As a rescue mutt, Roscoe arrived with a lot of emotional baggage. “Fear aggression,” they call it. He behaves badly when he’s tense. I understand this. I’ve been known to snarl at people while waiting to board a plane, or if an elevator seems to be thinking about getting stuck.

Lots of stuff scares Roscoe, but our biggest problem until recently was that visitors couldn’t – can’t – just come into our house and reach down to pet the nice doggie. He’ll snap.  One needs to studiously ignore him, and after a few minutes he stops barking.

But you still can’t pet him.

Yet he is also the most affectionate dog I’ve ever lived with. He’s a face-licker, a tail-wagger, a dog with a preference for being in close physical contact with his humans. At the word “snuggle” he rubs his head against my chest. He crawls under the covers at night and plasters himself against my hip. Inevitably, this makes me think of the poor old Victorians who had only pans filled with hot coals to warm their mattresses.

Over the last few months, though, Roscoe started occasionally pulling a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine with family members when they petted him. As his main fan, I quietly believed they must have been doing something wrong and triggering his fear response. Maybe they were petting him in a sensitive spot, I thought. But there was no common denominator there. The morning he bit me I understood that if the definition of “something wrong” could include the belly rub he’d just asked for, we had a real problem.
So we’re working with a new trainer, a woman who is teaching us how to bring gentle structure to our dealings with Roscoe and our other dog, Daisy. Routines will help, she says. Roscoe is high-strung but will likely be calmer within a framework of play and behavior exercises. Though she makes no promises.
My childhood dog was a dachshund who declared holy war on the mailman five days a week. I spent hours during my youth wishing Rudy could talk. Nothing could be better than communicating directly with him, I thought. 
Adulthood has changed my thinking. I like the mystery animals present. Our friendships with them are strong in part because of the communication gap. We work and study them for clues. I suppose they do the same with us.

This new training seems to be helping, if only by giving me a distraction from my constant worrying about what is wrong with Roscoe. The specialist told us to watch for even subtle signs of tension, and so I notice if he becomes very still, or if he flattens his ears.

He has a crate, and we are trying to do fun things so that he’ll learn that the crate is a place he can go when he needs to feel calm and safe. Still, I admit that just this once it might be helpful, for the good of the order, if the little man had some words.  

 I would be a good listener. I would tell him everything’s going to be all right.

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