Jake is my dog. He’s a Shetland sheepdog mix, the kind with a very furry back end, and on Thursday evening he ingested something that caused him to have diarrhea that kept us both up all night and into the next day.
My 10 year old relationship with Jake has been far from ideal. He was literally rescued from an abusive situation, and the girl who “dognapped” him as a puppy couldn’t keep him because she lived in an apartment that had a “no dogs” rule. Scott and I had been talking about getting a dog (because that’s what couples do in preparation for making a baby, right?) and the timing seemed perfect. We had all these fantasies about long walks through the neighborhood, playing fetch in the back yard, and going to those dog parks together. Scott grew up with happy-go-lucky retrievers, and I’d never had a dog in my life. So when we “adopted” this neurotic, timid, rescue puppy 10 years ago, we had our work cut out for us.
Walking Jake consisted of us dragging him away from the house, and him dragging us back. Shelties do not fetch; they herd and bark. He chewed every table leg in the house, destroyed several pairs of shoes, and has mauled many of the children’s toys and stuffed animals. I think the family motto “We just can’t have nice things” was adopted during our early days with Jake. He shed like mad, but he wouldn’t stand to be brushed. He wanted nothing to do with crate training. Once he grew into his full size, Jake’s bark also grew into a full size alarm system that went off any time a car drove by our street, sending our hearts into panic mode, especially when we had sleeping babies. He threw up the first weekend he was with us, sending us panicky new parents to the pricey emergency vet who could give us no diagnosis besides a “nervous stomach” which he never outgrew and still graces us with half-digested piles of food and bile every few weeks without fail. “Normal” behavior for Jake is to pace the house nervously and scratch at any door that is closed until someone opens it, not so he can enter, but just so he can keep his eye on it. He laughs at baby gates.
However, with all these traits of Jake’s that make me crazy, he is a very good dog. He is great with the kids. He’s never been very affectionate, but he is incredibly tolerant of their erratic behavior. My favorite memory of Jake is bringing my son home from the hospital and Jake licking his little face, claiming him. From that moment, Teague has been “his” boy. He sat at my feet when I nursed him, and he often sleeps in Teague’s room, or just outside the kids’ doors, keeping watch for monsters. Jake gets antsy when the kids aren’t home, and he’s positively beside himself at 2:36 pm every afternoon in anticipation of the school bus.
Perhaps my most favorite of Jake’s traits is his bladder of steel. Jake can go all day without needing to go outside. In fact, he would prefer to avoid going outside at all, lest he get his paws dirty. This means that I can be gone from the house for long stretches without worrying too much that he’ll have an accident. God must have known what he was doing when He paired the two of us up. Only once in the whole time I’ve had him has he ever peed in the house. And that was the night we brought Teague home from the hospital; as much as he liked this new hairless creature, Jake was only a year old himself, and he marked his territory right next to the bassinet when I was changing a diaper. It never happened again. He had never pooped in the house until yesterday.
Jake has developed an interesting routine because of his lack of interest in going outside to relieve himself. From puppyhood we rewarded his going outside with treats. As a result, he will sometimes go outside and do nothing just to come back in and beg for a treat. It’s not unusual in the evening for him to scratch at the door once every hour just to get a snack (which usually causes him to throw up if he has too many). As long as he’s already relieved himself once, I just ignore it.
So on Thursday when he frantically paced the house and scratched the door, I thought it was his “crying wolf” game, and I was really tired and didn’t want to play. He kept me up all night pacing the house. Finally at around 3 am I gave in and let him outside. I was horrified and overwhelmed with guilt when I saw his back end when he came back in the house covered in black, acrid goo. I felt like the worst pet owner in the world. He had done everything he could to prevent himself from having that explosion in the house, and I’d ignored him. I took him in the bathroom and hosed him down in the tub. An hour later, he went out and did it again. I had to leave later that morning to take my youngest to preschool, and when I got home, the downstairs had drips and drabs of liquid feces everywhere.
What does this lengthy description of my dog have to do with my being single? Well, everything. Needless to say, my experience with dog ownership did not meet with expectation, but when the fantasy bubble burst, I responded to Jake with resentment, cursing, neglect, ignoring, anxiety, anger, frustration, and fear far more than with acceptance, compassion or unconditional love. There have been times when the only reason I could keep the commitment to keep the family dog was my kids’ and mother’s attachment to him, and the assurance that dogs don’t live forever. Yet despite my lack of charity toward a simple creature of God, Jake still wags his tail whenever I come home and doesn’t seem to hold a grudge. Frankly, my attitude toward Jake is something I’m ashamed of, because the way I’ve treated him is probably just a slightly darker shade of the way I’ve treated other people who have lived under my roof.
Every time I’ve cleaned excrement off Jake’s back end this weekend, I’ve been humbled in this simple act of service. Disdain has been replaced with genuine care. I chose to sleep on the couch last night not only because I didn’t want him getting the carpet upstairs messy, but because I didn’t want him to be alone. My palpable resentment of this animal has been replaced with genuine intimacy. Taking care of Jake these past few days has been a spiritual experience on many levels. I feel as though I have ministered to Jesus in the form of this pathetic, smelly, humble dog. I’ve had a very powerful lesson in service and unconditional love.
Jake seems to be doing better now. He’s gone more than 12 hours without diarrhea, and has a hearty appetite. He’s even attempted to steal food off the table, so he’s well on his way to being “back to normal.” He’s had a full-fledged bath and is now allowed back on the furniture and upstairs. And I feel we’ve been given a second chance to have the kind of relationship that people and their dogs (however neurotic) are supposed to have. I’ve heard it said that before you have a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, it’s a good idea to first get a plant. If you can keep that alive, then get a hamster, and then a dog. The progressive caring for these will make you more ready for a relationship with a human being. I know I’m still not ready for a relationship. But thanks to the unpleasantness and lessons of the past few days, I’m a few steps closer to ready.