The other night, we took a family walk after dinner. The kids zipped around on scooters, laughing and racing in momentary release from the exhaustion and stress of their first weeks back at school. The evening itself seemed to echo that release: the air was cooler and cleaner than it had been all day, large fluffy clouds clustered high above the various church steeples, and clouds and sky around them turned different shades of pink in a glorious sunset. The sky in front of us, the eastern sky, was achingly bright with the sun’s last setting flare. Just ahead of me, as I limped along with Pundit after a too-hard yoga class, my husband walked Cholula. Cholula’s leash was loose, her tail was high and dipped jauntily from side to side with each step, her ears splayed out sideways and her forehead was smooth, she snuffled and sniffed and stopped now and then to pee. Watching her–”she’s acting like a regular dog!” my husband and I sometimes call to each other when we catch her in such moments– I remembered those early days of walking her, when she pulled so hard on her leash, an automotron on a mission that had nothing to do with us, her jaw clenched, her eyes locked on the horizon, constantly scanning for the next potential threat. The more internalized stress she releases, the more she is able to be with us in the moment. One of the great gifts of dogs is their ability to enjoy the moment; I’d somehow ended up with a dog who often wasn’t able to do so.
We get these moments with her now, thanks to other moments like this: Cholula and I, on our way home from a run, passed a guy skateboarding on an empty basketball court. Cholula arrived in our lives with two major triggers to aggression: dogs and skateboarders. Mostly, we have worked on healing her relationship with other dogs–we have another dog, our neighborhod is filled with dogs, Cholula’s dog problem immediately became our problem. In contrast, our neighborhood doesn’t have many skateboarders, and so it’s been a less urgent issue to work with. This guy wasn’t skateboarding particularly fast, but as we jogged by, Cholula’s shoulders stiffened and she huffed. I stopped at the far corner of the basketball court and asked her to speak. As the guy rode past on his skateboard, she let out a squeal and a high-pitched bark. I pinched her and she barked again, louder. I called to the guy a brief explanation–”My dog has a big fear of skateboards, so I’m asking her to bark at me to get her fear out,” and he said, “Cool,” so I continued. I looked her in the eye and demanded that she speak. It was as if I’d turned on a faucet: she released high-pitched squealing bark after bark, the barks gradually getting deeper and more resonant. A couple of times, she broke from my gaze and lunged briefly at the skateboarder, a bouncy lunge, not her full-on-crazed aggression lunge, but a break from her focus on me. I had her on the choke chain and so she bounced right back to me and I pinched her neck to re-focus her energy on me and demanded that she speak. I wanted her to bark right in my face. It would have been impossible for her to do this when I first got her two years ago, but this time, a torrent of barks came out, a lifetime of repression being released in barks that cascaded and crescendoed and then, finally, quieted. The guy came over to ask me if I knew where any skateboard parks were. I directed him to the one I know about a couple of miles away as Cholula watched us calmly. And then I said, “Come on, girl,” and we ran home.
When you finally get a repressed dog to bark on command and they’re barking at a real trigger (a dog or a skateboarder in the case of Cholula) I’ve found that it’s sometimes shocking what will come out. I’ll see what looks like a minor tension in her body at the site of a dog across the street and tell her to speak, at which point she might release a half-hearted moan, she might give a clear bell bark that lets me know she already had her reaction under control, or, occasionally, she makes a noise that is so hostile, so filled with aggression and fear, that I’ll think, wow, that was what was in her at the sight of that dog. If I hadn’t been able to get her to bark, I would never have known; that vicious fear would have remained inside her, repressed but closing her off from us, when we came home.
My father recently told me, “When you first got Cholula I thought she was incredibly stupid. Now that she’s so different, I realize she’s not stupid at all; she was just deeply depressed.” It makes me wonder if I spoke into my fears, one by one, really barked right in their face, what would come out. And what would be left.