(first published in 2014)
I never had a dog before. Animals were fine but I never really, “got,” them, at least not in the way other people seemed to. I’d met some Scottish terriers in South Africa and thought they were great but owning one, no, not really me.
My wife is wise. She knew I was ready. I didn’t. She found some puppies not far from where we live, showed me a video online, then asked if I’d like to get two. “Yes,” I answered, in what sounded to me like the voice of a five year old kid who was just asked if they’d like to sit on Santa’s knee.
The picture above was taken the day we brought them home. I named them Kirk and Scotty, of course. My eyes are half closed not because I’m sleeping or meditating, but because I’m panicking. I hadn’t a clue.
That was nearly a year ago. Since then I’ve learned a lot from Kirk and Scotty. Here are some of the things they taught me.
1. Dogs Use Social Media
Whenever we go out for a quick pee in the garden,
the dogs not me,
there is always furious sniffing,
again the dogs not me.
Not everywhere is sniffed, just specific places. After a while I realised they were reading something from the wee messages left by other dogs.
Once the sniffing is complete, the head comes up, there’s a pause for consideration, deciding what to say, I think, then they leave their own little squirty message in response. This is doggy twitter. One dog tweets, another dog responds. It’s quick and random and rarely in the same place.
Then there’s doggy facebook, this is a particular spot in the garden, it doesn’t look any different to other spots to me but for Kirk and Scotty it is compelling. They would spend twenty minutes there if I left them to it, which is about 2 weeks in dog time. I know it’s doggy facebook becasue they have the same vacant look that people in coffee shops or on the train have when they are caught in the thrall of facebook. Here, but not really here.
2. When In Close Proximity To A Large Predator – Don’t Run
In the wild some animals are prey and some are predators. Scottish terriers are a hunting breed, so for Kirk and Scotty everything is fair game. Oblivious to their own physical size they have big time hunting swagger. Whether you’re a piece of plastic or a semi trailer, once they lock onto you, you’re going down, in their minds at least.
Did I mention we also have two cats . I’m using the royal ‘we’ because I think of them as my wife’s cats. She had them before we met, they’re like old boyfriends but without the resentment, me, not the cats.
Sometimes one of the cats will be outside sunning themselves when Kirk and Scotty come around the corner. If the cat stays still nothing happens, but if they start to move or, god forbid run, the two lads are after them like the clappers.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with birds and even butterflies. Once they stay still nothing happens, but once they move, it’s on!
Without having to consult David Attenborough or anyone like him it dawned on me that it’s probably the same for tigers and lions. Trying to run for it is a bad idea. Having said that I’m not sure if I would remember this if a lion or tiger wandered into the picnic grounds. I suspect my instinct would kick in and I would start running. All I could hope for then would be to run faster than the slowest person at the picnic.
3. The Value Of Sighing
If Kirk and Scotty get agitated about something, a sudden noise, someone walking past the house, a new environment, or something like that, they will look to my wife or I for reassurance. If we pick them up they will scrumble around a bit and then take a big sigh and totally relax. That’s how we know they are over it, whatever it happens to be. Initially, I thought it was cute. “Ah look at Scotty sighing, it’s so pathetically cute.” It took a while for me to realise that it would be good for me to sigh too. I realised that the natural instinct to sigh had been conditioned out of me. It’s fine for cute little puppies but for a 51 year old man, a bit weird no?
Well no, not for this 51 year old man anyway, and I suspect any other man, or boy, or girl, or woman of any age. I don’t care what it looks like from the outside but it feels good on the inside.
There’s a famous Picasso quote that says, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Well be that as it may Pablo I think sighing does the same thing for the stresses we pick up like dust in the day. A good sigh drops a lot of it, and another one the rest.
4. Lots Of Stimuli Is Overwhelming
I discovered this when we brought Kirk and Scotty with us grocery shopping for the first time. They were about two months old. It was early on a Sunday morning and we parked in the far corner of the car park of the supermarket. My wife went to do the shopping and I took Kirk and Scotty on a little walk in the empty car park.
I thought it would be great. Not much different from walking around outside our house. I was wrong. Big time. What I didn’t factor in was number one, the smells. There is a whole other dimension of communication that goes on for dogs when it comes to smell. I imagine it is like being plugged into the internet all the time or something like that.
The other thing was that everything was new, and I mean everything. Cars, paving stones, shrubbery, mulch, plastic wrappers, did I mention cars, because every time a car came into the car park Kirk and Scotty would lose their shit, not literally, surprisingly. They were overwhelmed with a combination of wanting to hunt the big shiny thing and run away from the big shiny scary thing. And this was for a car on the far side of the car park.
My idea for a lovely little walk of discovery and adventure turned into a stop-start sprint through a hostile LZ and a hasty retreat to the relative safety of our car where they promptly went comatose from overwhelm.
I saw the same pattern repeat itself with all new experiences and I realised that there was a level of stimulation they could handle, not a lot really, and above that they became overwhelmed.
I went through the, “Ah isn’t that cute,” thing again and then it dawned on me that when I looked inside that was how I felt too and I always had. I didn’t notice it because I’m “sophisticated.” Kirk and Scotty don’t give a crap about sophistication, once they reach their threshold they have a mini doggy breakdown, they get hyper or they start shaking all over, or they run around in a circle, or start barking at nothing in particular. And I realised that I want to do all these things too when I feel overwhelmed but I don’t. I keep my shit together because that’s what I’m conditioned to do. And the spooky thing is that watching Kirk and Scotty reach their stimuli threshold I realised that for all my sophistication, my threshold wasn’t far behind theirs.
Seeing this allowed me to be a little bit more compassionate with myself and take better care of myself when I noticed I reached my overwhelm threshold.
I will add one caveat to the above, I live in the country. There is lots of space around me and not too many people. I don’t think I would have noticed my overwhelm threshold as easily when I lived in a city. City life is such a relentless onslaught that I never really had time to take the armor off for long enough to actually register the overwhelm.
5. I Take Things Personally
I’m a relatively calm person. People have commented on it. “John is very calm isn’t he.” I’m quite philosophical about things too. I don’t take things personally and it takes a lot for me to get angry.
So you can understand my surprise when, about two weeks after Kirk and Scotty arrived, I realised I was running around the house swearing about how the dogs were pissing everywhere on purpose and shitting in a mischievous and premeditated way. We had a lovely, newspaper-covered, designated area for peeing and poohing but they were peeing and poohing everywhere but the designated area!
It was pure slapstick. I would clean up one pee and while I fetched some more paper for them to pee on, which would take me less than 30 seconds, they would have peed somewhere else. I lost my mind regularly.
In my calmer moments, I would remember that they were puppies and that of course, they weren’t doing any of it on purpose. The opposite in fact they wanted to please us and do the right thing, but their brains were still puppy brains and everything was new and what was I getting so worked up about.
Ten minutes later I would be running around cursing again. Another pee, another projection from me.
They’ve got better at hitting the target as they have got older and the part of me that takes it personally has eroded over time. I still lose my mind every now and then but not for long and manage to see the funny side a lot quicker.
6. Love Is Real
Kirk and Scotty don’t know what the word for love is. They don’t know what love is as a concept. Yet I have watched them grow and flourish from the tiny puppies they were to the bruisers they are now.
Apart from the food we give them, it seems apparent to me, and excuse me if this sounds a bit sappy, but they are thriving because of the love my wife and I have surrounded them in. And it’s not just one way, Kirk and Scotty love us back too. Prior to having dogs in my life, this would have sounded like complete saccharine projection to me, but there it is, the love is tangible among the four of us.
So without the word or concept, love exists.
7. Feeling Horny Is Natural
Now this could be just me but initially, I found Kirk and Scotty’s horniness a bit unsettling. I would be scratching the underside of their neck, for example, in a friendly kind of way and then I would notice a little puppy erection that had just popped up in response to my touch. Initially, when this happened I would whip my hand off them as if I’d been scalded. I might even do a little chicken dance to try and shake off the creeps I’d just given myself.
As Kirk and Scotty grew they started dry-humping each other and again my reaction was swift and over the top. When I would tell them to stop they wouldn’t understand. God! Had they no decency?
Of course, it got worse, there was licking and 69’ing, and dry humping each other all over the place. In the end, I finally got it. Kirk and Scotty didn’t have a problem with their sexuality because there was no problem with it, the problem was me.
I suppose because they are so obviously innocent that it took seeing them just be natural with their horniness to make me realise a layer of conditioning in me that I hadn’t realised was there. You know the uptight repressed being-horny-is-a-bad thing layer.
Feel free to use that as a hashtag that if you want. #beinghornyisagoodthing
8. How To Be Calm Under Stress
I have to thank Cesar Milan for this one. He’s the Mexican/American dog whisperer guy from the TV. We used to watch his show years ago, my wife mostly. Once we got the dogs I was right into it again, recording and watching and replaying, and trying to soak up as much of Cesar’s vibe as I could because he just seemed to intuit what was going on with dogs.
His whole approach is that if a dog is misbehaving it usually has nothing to do with the dog and everything to do with the human. Naturally, I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. (see number 5 above)
I had to learn to be calm when I was out walking Kirk and Scotty because if I wasn’t calm they would reflect any agitation I had going on and project it back at me.
This was particularly true if I brought them into new situations. I remember the first time we brought them to the local park. I was a bit anxious about how they would behave so naturally they went ballistic. They were like two little black furry ping pong balls ricocheting around the park.
Now whenever we go to do anything I make sure I am calm and assertive first, and yes I got that from Cesar, and it works. The only time it doesn’t work is when I lose it.
9. Let Oppposing Forces Work Against Each Other Or Get Out Of The Way Of Conflict
In the beginning, when we went for a walk, Kirk and Scotty were on separate leashes, one dog in each hand. It wouldn’t take long before I’d start to feel like an accordion as they criss-crossed back and forth pushing and pulling me in opposite directions. I usually ended up like a human maypole in some doggy morris dance.
One day my wife was walking them and got sick of feeling like Stretch Armstrong, so she simply attached their two leads to each other and then attached a third lead to the middle. This was pure genius. It meant we were no longer caught between their opposing wills. We still controlled forward, reverse, and braking, so to speak, but Kirk and Scotty had to work it out lateral movement between themselves.
We effectively removed ourselves from the conflict and without sounding like Father Ted, there’s a lesson there for us all isn’t there? If two people want to have a go at each other you’re better off getting out of the way and let them at it so you can save your energy for steering the situation in the general direction you would like it to go, which in our case was back into the house for a nice cup of tea.
This leash arrangement leaves my wife and I free to get on with being calm and assertive but don’t tell Cesar Milan because I’m not sure he’d approve and I don’t want to know if he doesn’t because it works for us. We only use it for around the house anyway for bigger tips to town, and the like, we have them on separate leashes again. Mainly because they are individuals and respond to new environments differently.
10. Dogs Love Hard And So Do I
I remember the first time I noticed Kirk looking at me. It wasn’t normal looking, it was different, and it made me uncomfortable. He was sitting on the floor looking up into my face and he radiated what I can only describe as unconditional love. His little heart was fully open and he was loving me with a level of vulnerability that frankly made me squirm.
I realised what was making me uncomfortable was a recognition that he wasn’t protecting himself in the way I had learned to. He was loving me hard. I know about loving hard. It has caused me a lot of pain in my life. After long self-analysis I had come to the conclusion that I had some serious attachment issues. The thing is I was recognising the same kind of loving hard coming from Kirk and Scotty but it would never occur to me to think they had attachment issues. That would be pretty dispassionate. Now I can extend a little of the gentle recognition I had for their loving hard to myself too.
Those doggies just love real hard and so do I.