Sammy came to us as a shy, withdrawn, and quiet dog. When she first came to live with us, she approached our home with such caution, her eyes filled with apprehension and a sense of “wtf just happened, what is this place and who are these humans?” Despite her initial reluctance to settle in, she bonded fairly quickly with me, as I was in the midst of my career change and still hanging out all day at home in my pajamas like a hopeless bum.
As we continued to spend a lot of time together, we naturally had our ups and downs. Adopting a rescue dog comes with a host of unknowns; unknown origin, unknown pedigree, unknown upbringing. I can only know a glimpse of what her former life might’ve been like from hearsay: she was an outdoor dog that roamed around with several other dogs on a reserve, likely treated not so nicely by adults but adored by little kids. She was probably more used to foraging and scavenging for food than eating regularly scheduled meals from a metal bowl in the kitchen of her guardians.
Still, she is nearly perfect for our household. Fully house-trained, not a lick of destructive tendency in her personality, quiet (I’ve only heard her bark a handful of times), fine to left alone at home, with a sweet and gentle disposition. Happy to sleep all day, but also up for an adventure. Gets super crazy excited when it’s food time (her happy dance is the cutest). For first-time dog owners, she’s 99.9% the perfect fit.
She’s very much part of the family now that she’s been with us for several months. But the same as human family members, misunderstandings happen. Add in the element of being a completely different species and it can end up in tears (always mine).
Many times I felt like a terrible owner because I would lose my patience with Sammy; these moments usually happened outdoors. It would show up in a harsh tug (or many) on her leash to get her to move where I wanted to go. Or it would show in the sternness of my voice. One time after a particularly trying walk, as soon as we got home I yelled “F*CK!” so loud that she cowered and hesitated to come near me.
Perhaps it was because I was sensitive to her past that I felt my harsh reactions would further “damage” her. In the heat of the emotions boiling up, however, it was like I couldn’t help myself. And then the instant regret would set it.
But if I look back on those harsh tugs or the times I sternly called “Sam!”, she moved past that moment quickly and continued on with her day with no issue.
Like they say, dogs live in the moment. They’re not wired to dwell on things like humans do. They simply lack the cognitive ability to do, which is probably why they make such excellent pets. Imagine if they were like humans, holding grudges and keeping count of every time their human was mean to them or did something they didn’t like. They would basically revolt and refuse to be our pets.
Unlike Sammy, I have an unfortunate habit of dwelling on things much too long and holding onto things – especially negative – and playing the moments over and over again in my head like an endless nightmare loop. The guilt got so bad that I went to talk to my psychotherapist about it after months of not having to see her (I’d been feeling pretty okay with life in general). She reassured me that even the most skilled of dog trainers and behaviourists get frustrated at their dogs; it’s perfectly normal, especially since we must go to great lengths just to communicate with each other.
What also helped was to see that I was viewing Sammy’s behaviour through human eyes and basing my expectations on my own human perspective. I don’t believe that she does anything out of spite or to be deliberately stubborn. What I interpret as a look of defiance and “I don’t want to listen to you” may simply be her way of communicating “I smell something nice over there and want to investigate!” By stripping away any expectation of her to read my mind or assuming any ill intent behind her behaviour, I began to see that she is simply a dog – which is a wonderful thing.
Sammy readily forgave me for my missteps. Every harsh tug and stern word has been forgotten. If she remembered every moment that I was not-so-nice to her, then she might possibly be plotting my death as I type this. But she’s not (I hope) because she’s a wonderfully forgiving, endlessly patient and resilient creature.
I often wish I had the capacity to be as forgiving as Sammy, especially of myself. I still dwell on all those not-so-nice-to-Sammy moments. Just this morning, I didn’t respond quickly enough to her desperate attempt to tell me she needed to go outside, so she ended up vomiting on the living room carpet. Could I blame her? She tried so hard but I was too busy eating my damn bacon and eggs to pay attention. I felt so badly, like I’d failed her. So all day I’ve been saying sorry to her, even though she’s unable to comprehend my apology.
When Mark came home from work, I was petting Sammy and telling her “I’m so sorry for this morning, sweetie,” and he said, “you’re still going on about that?”
I dwell too much.
Even though we may be the more intelligent species with incredible cognitive abilities to comprehend the complexities of life, there’s much to be learned from dogs. My biggest lesson from being a dog owner is becoming more like a dog in the sense of living in the moment and learning to let go.
If a dog like Sammy, who has experienced abuse and her own heartbreak at the hands of humans in her past, can move on and accept the love of a couple of random Asians and become our beloved companion, then I think I can make it a habit to stop being so damn harsh on myself.