All the ways my dog does not soothe my anxious mind
The perfect pet, if you happen to be a farmer in the Australian outback
“You may want to come back and get your dog yourself,” the vet tech said kindly. “He’s very nervous.”
“Yes,” I replied. “We are a nervous household.”
Alfie was only a puppy and had just gotten neutered. This would put any animal on the edge, but apparently he was so hysterical the vet couldn’t get him out of his cage once he woke up. I am pretty sure he had convinced himself we had sold him to an evil research lab. The look of relief on his face when he finally saw my husband Saul and I walk in the room, broke my heart. Once we let him out, he dragged us to the car as if he was Jamie Lee Curtis running from Michael Myers with loud scary music playing in his canine brain.
That night Saul and I took turns lying with him on the kitchen floor comforting him until he finally fell asleep from exhaustion.
We adopted Alfie from an organization called Lulu’s Rescue. Saul was warier than me about getting a dog and warned me not to fall for the first one we saw. “We need a calm lap dog,” he firmly reminded me. The minute we walked in the door, Alfie trotted up to Saul wearing his dapper ‘Adopt Me’ vest and sat gingerly on his lap. Saul looked up at me with pleading eyes and I knew we had found our dog.
We were so smitten, we did absolutely no research on cattle dogs. We have since learned they are as opposite from lap dogs as you could possibly get. They were bred from dingoes to be on constant high alert for wolves or bad people who steal sheep and cattle. Alfie has yet to meet either a sheep or a cow but has met plenty of bad people…at least in his opinion.
“There is a lot that goes on in a cattle dog’s head,” someone once remarked about Alfie. “Yes, but a lot of it is wrong information,” I replied.
Alfie perceives danger where there is none to be found. He takes STRANGER DANGER to epic levels.
It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings…or the dog pushes you off stage
The first month we had Alfie he was terrified of the outside world and too petrified to go for a walk. He’d put his tail between his legs and stubbornly refuse to go an inch past our front stoop. When we did finally drag…I mean walk him down the block, he somewhat adjusted. But to this day he still absolutely hates when people are walking behind us even if they are a few blocks away. He checks over his shoulder so often that more than once he has run right into a lamp post.
And children freak him out even more. He thinks they are some type of mutant hairless calves that must be immediately corralled. When he starts making growling sounds and pulling on his leash, I often yell to the children’s parents, “Sorry! He is just trying to herd them!” Often, they misunderstand me over the commotion and think I’m yelling “He is just trying to hurt them!” They usually do not react well.
I have noticed that whenever I have to assure someone that my overly-excited dog is not going to hurt them, they never quite believe me. Alfie has decided Saul, me, and our two cats are the best chance at having a herd to protect that he is ever going to get. As a result, when someone Alfie doesn’t know tries to enter our front door, he can act very intimidating. He jumps up to face level and tries to push them out the door. But me smiling while yelling “HE ONLY WANTS TO SCARE YOU AND PUSH YOU OUT THE DOOR! HE HAS NEVER BITTEN ANYONE!” doesn’t put anyone’s mind at ease. Especially if they are over seventy and using a walker, like one of our recent visitors a few months ago. We have learned tricks to keep him distracted until the stranger isn’t a stranger anymore (it takes roughly fourteen minutes for Alfie to decide a person is his best friend), but there is a certain amount of hard-wiredness to Alfie’s brain that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
So, any dream that I could one day certify Alfie as a service dog has been dashed to smithereens. I once saw a very well-dressed woman with her tiny service dog perched on her lap getting ready to watch the opera at the Met. I was annoyed but mostly jealous. The cute little dog sat calmly through the four very long acts of La Boehme without even a peep, keeping her owner anxiety-free even as Mimi died slowly of consumption onstage. I’m pretty sure Alfie would have paced frantically in the back row smoking a cigarette while trying to intimidate the audience of strangers into staying in their seats.
On the other hand, I make a great service human
My life revolves around how to cause less stress in my dog’s life.
Now when Saul and I take him back to the vet for vaccines, we both hold him very tight as he’s getting his shot while Saul looks into his eyes and sings about what a wonderful little guy he is. (Even though Alfie is bigger than a lot of dogs, to us he is still just a little guy with a big hairy nose.) Because of the pandemic, our vet is only offering curbside service. I have no idea how we are going to handle Alfie’s booster shot this week. They may have to restrain him like Hannibal Lector while Saul sings to him through the window and I yell, “HE ONLY WANTS TO SCARE YOU AND PUSH YOU OUT THE DOOR! HE HAS NEVER BITTEN ANYONE!”
Exercise is one of the few things that really calms Alfie down. We take him on long hikes in the woods and along the river where there is much less chance of people walking behind us. Alfie is better than probably any dog alive at retrieving sticks from the river. I have written about how much joy this brings me. I now know that if I had a child who was an athlete or a dancer, I would not only brag about them, but I would push them to their physical limit and then tell them they need to try harder. And I would be a monstrous stage parent. I get much of my self-esteem over how superior to other dogs my Alfie is at retrieving sticks.
At home, Saul and I can barely raise our voices to each other anymore. Before Alfie, we could really hash out an issue and yell at each other ’til the cows came home. Now if one of us starts getting testy, the other quickly points to our dog and whispers, “Look… you are scaring poor Alfie.” Sure enough, Alfie will be watching from the couch clearly descending into a state of bleak, anxious depression until we both walk over and gently assure him that sometimes two dads can disagree but that doesn’t mean they are getting a divorce.
But nighttime is when I get the biggest reminder of how much my dog is absolutely not a service dog. Instead of guarding the house from strangers, he spoons against me so aggressively that I often wake up in the middle of night because I’m falling out of bed. Sometimes we let Saul spoon with us too.
Service dogs are supposed to help their human stay calm. Instead I am forced to constantly make sure Alfie is feeling safe and secure and loved, which hardly gives me any time to think of my own problems.
This is why Alfie will never be a service dog, and he and I will never be seen at the opera together.
And why I think I’ll keep him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman does not need any suggestions on how he can train his dog better. Believe him, he has tried them all.