Thursday, May 14, 2015

one more time

When I met Maya, we were such strangers.  Our first attempts at communication were rudimentary, at best -- Maya seemed not to have any meaningful experience of living with human beings, and I was just beginning to discover how overwhelmingly ignorant about dogs I really was (really, completely, totally, damagingly ignorant).

On the second or third day that Maya was home, I pulled out a clicker and some cheese.  I tried to "load" the clicker -- following clicks with little cubes of cheese.  Maya was so overwhelmed that she could barely eat the cheese.  In retrospect, I can see what complete insanity she must have found those first few days or overwhelming, and scary, and incomprehensible it must have been.  With this cheese, she'd take a piece in her soft puppy mouth and let it dribble out the side and fall to the floor.  Her eyes were huge, her body constantly in restless, overstimulated motion.

Using one of those pieces of cheese, I lured her into a quick sit, clicked, and popped it into her mouth (she swallowed that one, I recall).  She instantly popped up onto all four feet again, so I repeated the process once or twice.  Then waited.  Maya sat, maybe randomly, and I clicked and gave her three pieces of cheese in a row.  She danced to her feet again, and I waited.  Then her face stilled for a second, and she stared into my eyes for a very long time.  Thinking so very, very hard.  Ever so slowly, she lowered her back end to the floor and sat, and I beamed with pleasure, clicked and held more cheese to her fuzzy lips.  Ignoring the cheese, Maya leaped high into the air, her eyes shining with a look I was seeing for the first time, and let out a huge, shouting bark of pure joy.  Maya had figured out that communication with a human being was possible.

Unskilled and uncertain on both our parts at first, Maya and I began a conversation that ended up lasting her entire lifetime, becoming more nuanced and meaningful with every moment we were together.  We started out so far apart, so anxious and uncomfortable, and we grew together until there was no space between us at all.  Maya knew what it meant when I took a deep breath before standing up, I knew what it meant when her breath caught for a second and her whiskers tilted forward...she's react to me standing up before I moved, and I'd react to her shift of attention before she'd fully processed it.  I would reach my hand out in the dark to feel her sleeping side, and through the palm of my hand, knew that everything was all right.  She'd lean against me and seem to know the same.

Paying such close attention to each other was marvelously rewarding for both of us, I think.  It became something I did consciously and subconsciously, talking with Maya without words and without always thinking about it.   Until Maya died, quite suddenly, on June 16th, 2014, leaving only a vast and agonizing silence.

Maya was sick for only a few days at the end of her life.  She'd had a few bumps and scrapes before that -- a temporary limp from running headlong into a stone wall, scrapes from plunging through tense thickets, a stomach upset here and there -- but all her worst pains were emotional.  Once we worked out how to cushion her from those, she was generally a hardy, healthy, unbreakable, happy dog.  Which made the ending quite surreal, but it is some comfort to know how brief the bad part was.

She died from an infection her body could not fight off, even with all the help the veterinary hospital could offer, because her body had destroyed all its white blood cells.  What caused this bizarre, rare immune disorder, we do not know, although we suppose it was probably congenital, some genetic time bomb that was lurking the whole time.  It came on fairly suddenly, and by the time we knew what we were dealing with, the destruction was too advanced to stop.  I may never stop wishing that I could have done something more, something different, something that might have saved her.  For months after she died, I choked on unbearable guilt: I would have done anything to save her, and I couldn't.

If you happen to read this, then there is probably nothing I could say about grief that you don't already know.  It is the thing every person who loves a pet shares, at some point.  It is impossible, indescribable, unavoidable, endurable.  I went only a little bit insane, writing irrational letters to people, chasing the squirrels out of our yard with screams of fury because I could not stand the deafening silence they provoked.  Last summer was immense blank misery, with occasional razor-sharp slices of agonizing, unbearable beauty -- the sunrise turning a whole prairie golden, even though I squinted against the light to try to see the dog who should have been there with me; red rock mesas on a drive south stark against bluest skies; the anchor-weight  of my last little rat friend sleeping warmly in the palm of my hand.  Out in the world, I struggled to comprehend what people said to me, my head full of fog and dull amazement that they somehow mistook me for functional.

And then time passes, and it doesn't hurt as much to breathe.  It snowed and there were no fresh dog tracks in the yard, and the stab of pain stood out the way that beautiful moments had some months before, and I realized that life was sliding back into its normal dimensions.  And I was glad of it, mostly.

At various times, I tried to write something about Maya's death.  I wrote a few scraps, a howl of despair, a clinical examination of events, some precious memories.  I could never finish any of it.  Not because I could not write about Maya's death (I could).  Not because I could not write about Maya's life (there are not enough words in the world to even begin to tell that story).  But because I have lived with this great silence for almost a year now, and I still cannot bear to close the conversation: I cannot say goodbye to my friend.

Instead, I think of impossibilities.  I would give anything to say hello again to her just one more time.  One more chance to feel her soft ears, once more hike into the hills, one more long and wordless look.  If I could, I would adopt Maya from the shelter one more time tomorrow -- a scared, seven months old, big-eared, big-hearted brown dog, and I would do every bit of it over again.  Even the awful parts.  Even the end.

Maya liked to be close to me.  She liked to lie nearby on the floor, and then roll over onto her back and stare at me upside-down.  Her face looked very silly from this position, and I'd laugh at her, and she would wag her whole body.  This had the effect of moving her, worm-like, across the floor until she could squirm on top of my feet, still upside-down so that the sharp ridges of her spine pressed painfully into the tops of my feet.  It was a good way of getting my attention, and a good way of getting a belly rub, and just a good thing to do.  I liked to be close to her too.

She was fierce, brilliant, hilarious, and marvelous.  She was mine, and I am hers forever.  She liked to lie in patches of sunshine, even when it made her overheat to a ridiculous degree.  She liked to daydream that I'd someday give her a rat to eat, even after she'd learned to ignore them 99% of the time.   She liked it when I'd throw my gardening gloves for her to fetch, because I'd actually gone outside to do yard work and hadn't brought a proper toy, but was never able to resist her bright eyes and wiggly invitations to play.  She liked to run in huge looping circles, and eat snow, and she never did really learn what to think of water, and never did trust a single stranger.  She liked hiking, loved us, lived a whole life, and when I opened my eyes in the morning her whole body trembled with joy. 

Thanks for everything, Maya.  I had the greatest time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

catching up

What has Maya been up to recently?

Hiking, of course.  We even found some secret places where she can run off-leash, exploring and sniffing to her heart's content.

But I'm being careful about her off-leash time, because about twenty minutes after I took the above photo, we came across a mountain lion cache -- most of a deer that had been dragged to the base of a tree and partially buried.  I don't know if the lion was nearby, but every hair on Maya's body stood up and she looked utterly terrified, so I guess there was at least quite a bit of scent around.  We left in a hurry, trying to look large and confident, just in case.  I am used to hiking in lion country, but finding a large dead animal right beside the trail is still kind of thought-provoking.

Once Maya relaxed, I relaxed too.  This may be one reason people and dogs got together in the first place -- dogs are good at detecting scary things, and thus make us feel safer.  In return, people have been known to share lunch sometimes.

This is the face of a dog who knows I always share my hiking lunches.

My summer project is to teach Maya how to swim.  She does seem to have a grasp of the basics -- find water, fall in, get really excited -- but her experience is limited.  Once the lakes in the mountains thaw out, we're going to see what can be done, but in the meantime, a little wading is a good way to get started.

After wading, she gets post-bath zoomies.

Our walks around town have been nice too, but I rarely take a camera.  When we first moved here, I was a little concerned that the extra density of people and dogs would make walks more challenging for Maya, but it turns out there are plenty of open spaces that are big enough to share.  In fact, I think I'm enjoying our walks more than ever -- they are full of things that are interesting to both human and canine, and have offered a terrific mix of relaxation and training opportunities.

Maya did have a tough time for the first couple of months after the move, with some behavioral regression (separation distress, noise sensitivity, generalized anxiety, hypervigilance...all things we've experienced in the past, but that hadn't manifested in quite a while).  I wasn't surprised by it, but I was a little concerned by how long it took her to bounce back.

She's back to normal now, but it helped motivate me to find a nice vet and get a fluoxetine (prozac) prescription, just to see if we can give Maya a better buffer against life's rough patches.  Behavioral meds are something I've wanted to try for a while, and I'm happy to finally find a cooperative vet, and one with a lot of compassion for fearful dogs.  Maya was less excited about the visit, but conducted herself well -- she ate treats throughout, and the vet wrote up a little summary of our visit that starts, "Maya was a very brave girl today!"

The very brave girl surveys her backyard.

So I guess we're settling in, hanging out, and having a good time.  And before long, it will be summer!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the recovering reactive dog

We recently moved, and while talking to someone on the phone, I mentioned that Maya hasn't been out for a walk in the past week.  The person was shocked -- dogs need walks!  And besides, they added, "haven't you trained Maya out of that?"

"That" was reactivity, or anxiety, I guess.  Which I've never claimed to have eliminated with training, but it's a common expectation.  People expect training to effect cures, otherwise what's the point?  And besides, stories of marvelous behavior reversals abound.

When you are beginning the complicated task of living with a "dog with issues," inspirational stories probably help with motivation.  Stories about dogs who had serious behavior challenges, but who were helped with training, time, treats, love, medication, and so forth, and are now normal.  It is very encouraging to think that all your hard work will pay off with a cured dog.

If I crack open the pages of any of my numerous books about reactive/fearful/aggressive dogs, or go online, I can find half a dozen similar stories at my fingertips.  The details change, of course, because these are largely true stories.  People really do adopt dogs with issues and then find ways to help the dogs function normally.  Sometimes, the dogs even go on to do therapy work, help a special child, win blue ribbons, or other heartwarming and remarkable achievements.  Their stories get told because they are inspiring, because they are often beautiful, and because we love a story with a happy ending.  

I love a happy ending too, but I have come to distrust this story.  Because if these are the only stories we tell about "dogs with issues," we are being neither fair nor truthful.  And if a total cure is the only outcome that we understand as a success, many of us are doomed to perpetual failure.  I have owned Maya for four and a half years, and spent much of that time trying hard to help her feel safer in the world, but she is far from being cured. Maya can walk down a quiet residential street and appear "normal," she cannot walk up to a stranger and sniff them while giving the same impression.

I suppose it's possible that I really have failed, and am trying to make excuses...that I am simply not the trainer Maya needs, and that with someone else she would be cured.  It has also been suggested to me that Maya is a particularly challenging dog, a suggestion with at least a sliver of truth.  Mostly, I think it's just that real life is a lot more complicated than the simple "cure" narrative: there is more than one kind of journey that we take with our "dogs with issues."

Maya will never be a therapy dog, help any children, win ribbons, or otherwise fit into an inspiring narrative.  She may not ever be comfortable greeting strangers, or making new friends, but she's still a very loved dog.  She is currently curled up in a ball with her nose pressed firmly against her anus, which I'm certain is a happy ending by any canine standard.

And, for the record, Maya will get to go out for walks soon enough.  She has a huge yard, things to chase, things to chew, and an entire new house to explore: her need for exploration, exercise, and novelty are likely being met in full, without outings.  Walks can wait until her confidence rebounds and she is ready to handle a little more.