May 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Dogs

He was the best of dogs, he was the worst of dogs...

I'm referring, of course, not to two canine counterparts, but to the dual natures that dwell withing my own dog, Remy. Remy is, from one day to the next, often even within the same hour, both the best of dogs and the worst.

Take, for instance, last Friday. I came home after my first emotionally wrought week back at work, and I set to work cleaning the many rubber parts of my breast pump, that horrid, bovine-inspired machine I'm forced to lug around every day. Next thing I know, the plumber stops by, the baby's crying, the phone rings, and when I return to the sink the breast pump is gone. I know Remy has probably taken it, as he is always swiping things off the kitchen counter, but I figure it must be around the house somewhere, discarded in one of his favorite hiding places once he realized it wasn't edible. After all, he couldn't have eaten it. It was a prodigious amount of plastic that was missing, and I had only been gone five minutes.

It was this much plastic.

An hour later, I have searched the house high and low, without a trace of the breast pump. Leave it to my eagle-eyed mother-in-law to solve the crime by finding a single sliver of silicone under the coffee table. Sure enough, over the course of the next three days, the culprit shat out both flanges and a rubber bulb, the latter almost whole.

All that weekend I suffered a crisis of conscience. How could I possibly keep this dog that I can't leave unsupervised in my house for more than five minutes? If you count only the items I've been forced to replace (the breast pump and two cellphones), he's cost us over $500 in the past five months. But worse than a few destroyed items are what he's done to the atmosphere in our home. When he's "upstairs" with us, he's either chasing the cat or scratching his nails across every piece of furniture we own. When he's in the basement, he's racing up and down the stairs barking at the invisible cats he hears in the walls. And when he's outside, he's running along the fence, barking at the neighbor's dog, until he's run trenches into the lawn. And this is all day, every day. As soon as I let him out of his crate each morning, I can feel my blood pressure start to rise.

This is what he did to the cellphones.

But then, this week, I take him to the vet for his annual shots, and he's as good as gold. We were forced to wait in the waiting room for almost an hour before the doctor could see us, and all that time, Remy sat patiently in a down-stay or charmed the pants off the receptionists and all the other visitors with his tricks: "crawl," "twirl," and "high-five." (You have to keep him occupied or he gets into trouble.) He's the most studious dog in our obedience class, and he run circles (literally and figuratively) around almost every dog at the dog park.

No, if I'm being honest with myself, there's nothing "wrong" with my dog. He's just being true to his particular dog nature. The problem is with me, my expectations, and the inappropriate environment in which I've required him to live. I was attracted to the Border Collie breed for its intelligence and agility, but I underestimated the demands of an animal that needs constant mental stimulation and exercise. Remy is a perfectly "good" dog, when he can be by your side all day, completing tasks and obeying commands, as evidenced in our little trip to the vet. He is a farm dog, after all, and on a farm, he would be herding livestock and would end each day physically and mentally exhausted -- and happy. In our home, we frustrate his every dog desire, by telling him not to stalk the cat, not to bark at visitors, not to do what his instincts tell him to do.

I know such tendencies can be controlled with the proper training -- and believe me, we're training -- but at what cost? Sure, I could exhaust Remy by running him around the neighborhood for two hours every day, but then when would I play with my son, or make dinner, or, heaven forbid, read a book? I know of one Border-Collie owner, who has to drive around in the woods on an ATV for two hours a day, just to wear out his dogs -- and he lives on a farm!

This is Remy after an hour of playing ball -- ready for more!

I'm forced to admit that I have made a grave, grave mistake in bringing Remy into our home. I have thought about finding another, more appropriate home for him many times. In fact, at our recent graduation from obedience school, where Remy received top honors, our instructor mentioned, in passing, a neighbor of hers who was looking for a Border Collie rescue to herd cows on his farm. It was all I could do to prevent myself from handing over Remy's leash right then and there.

This just goes to show how little Remy understands boundaries.

But -- for now -- Remy is a mistake that I'm going to live with. The good days don't outnumber the bad, but, rare as they may be, they do outweigh them. When we go to the park and Remy hangs on my every command, when we play a marathon game of Frisbee and he catches my throw mid-air and brings it back to me for more, I experience that wonderful synergy of man and his best friend.

So, we're going to continue our training, not just because I need to be able to better control my dog, but because when we are training we are also bonding. I'm embarrassed to admit I've never properly bonded with Remy. I don't "love" him the way most people "love" their pets, the way I "love" my cat, the way I "loved" my old sweet, stupid Golden Retriever, Bennett. (Why, oh, why, didn't I get another Retriever?) Part of the problem is that Remy is so intense -- I swear he positively vibrates like a piano wire -- he doesn't really open himself up to human bonding. I could never imagine him flopping down on the floor beside me and resting his head on my feet, the way Bennett did. But a lot of the blame belongs to me. I became pregnant shortly after getting Remy and was so sick those first few months that I wasn't able to be physically near him, let alone bond with him. After that bad start, I've been so often angry with his latest infractions that I haven't made myself emotionally available to him or given him enough room to improve.

Now, I hope I'm never foolish enough to project human emotions onto an animal. Remy's problem isn't simply that "he never got enough love." He simply has to learn to live under human rules, and the first time he snaps at my baby, he's out the door. I also hope that I never become so afraid of failing to rehabilitate my dog, that I fail him in more important ways: that I fail to see when he might just be happier living someplace where he doesn't have to constantly struggle against his nature. But for now, we'll muddle through somehow.

We're headed to Calgary for the long weekend and Remy's headed to the wonderful kennel where we go for obedience school. I actually dropped him off a day early by mistake (um, was that my subconscious speaking, do ya think?), and I'm not picking him up until the day after we get back. I'm hoping the time apart will be good for both of us. He'll hopefully wear himself out at doggie daycare every day, and I'll hopefully feel rejuvenated after a few days of peace and quiet. This morning was this first morning in a year in which I didn't start the day off getting irritated with the exuberance of my dog, and it's been good for me. I hope not so good that I decide never to pick him up. ...

1 comment:

Matilda said...

Sarah, he's still a puppy. You have to keep that in mind. Eventually, even border collies grow up and mellow out. I promise! My Dad has two of them. They have 10 acres to run on and they still get bored. But they have grown up a lot too. Part of it I think is that he is just excited to see you. And wait until the baby is up and running around, Remy will have someone to herd!

Also, you probably have a million dog toys but do you have a Kong? It's a hard rubber toy that you can put biscuits, treats or peanut butter inside and the way it is designed dogs have to spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to get the treat out of the Kong. If you don't have one and can't find one, let me know and we can get you one here.