Who You Calling Leash Reactive?

I’m sitting on the sidewalk, holding little Maisie, and I can feel her heart damn near about to burst out of her chest, her panting short and clipped and agitated, her tongue (impossibly long for her tiny snout) dangling anxiously to the side. I am sitting on the concrete sidewalk, the March sun weak, all the months of winter cold that have been stored up in the unforgiving cement permeating my thin jeans, and I am whispering to her and petting her and trying to soothe her, but mostly I’m trying to soothe myself, trying to fight back the tears that are welling up on the edge of my eyelids, ready to spill over onto my cheeks, a levee in a storm about to be breached.

We have just had an encounter with another neighborhood dog, a small, sweetheart of a dog I’d come to know a bit during the last few months of Henry’s life and the few weeks leading up to getting Maisie.  Juniper is also a shelter dog, a ball of white and brown curly scruff and fluff who is unruly in her playfulness and way too excitable, like a jack-in-the-box on meth.  But she is a dog who is not, in dog behavior parlance, leash-reactive, a dog who just wants to play, unlike Maisie, who in the short time we have had her, has proved to be the kind of dog that makes other dog owners cross the street when they see us coming.

Perhaps her owner is unfamiliar with dog etiquette or perhaps she has had the good fortune to have owned only plays-well-with-others dogs, but when she saw Maisie and me, she let loose the retractable leash and Juniper came bounding over to us, only to be stunned back by Maisie’s best imitation of Kujo: her little barrel chest straining at the harness, her shaggy ears back, her bark piercing the open air like a crazed soprano at the Metropolitan Opera.  And while I know (or at least suspect at this point) that Maisie really is all bark, understandably her owner pulled Juniper back, and the withering and apologetic look she gave us as they walked away (yes, it is possible to communicate both those things in one glance) is what has left me shaking and nearly as worked up as Maisie.

After this encounter with Juniper, I bring Maisie home and for the first time since we’ve had her, I am angry with her.  I tell her I don’t want to talk to her and I shut the door to the bathroom so I can take my shower in peace.  I see she does not understand what has just transpired, but I also see that she does understand something is amiss in our connection, and in spite of her confusion and her obvious concern, I ignore her anyway.  While ignoring her does not ease any of my own pain, in fact, it only makes me feel worse, I do it anyway.

I stand under the shower head and let the tears and hot water and streams of recriminations pour down over me, hear all the voices of people who watch far more Cesar Milan than I ever will, hear all the messages of how a dog’s issues are just mirrors for our own, all of it beating on my weary soul like some relentless ball peen hammer.  And all I can think is, I don’t want to deal with any more issues.  I’m done dealing with my issues.  I have spent what feels like the better part of a lifetime dealing with my issues and I just want to live a normal life.  I just want to walk my dog without the fear of running into other people walking their dogs.  A sinking feeling announces its presence in my gut and I become vaguely terrified that maybe I made a mistake, maybe it really was too soon for another dog.

At some point in my 30s (aka the Dealing With My Issues era) I came across an idea to view everyone we meet, every being we encounter, as a Buddha placed in our path to teach us a little something, bestow upon us a bit more wisdom than we previously possessed.  It didn’t matter whether we saw that person as a sage friend or an enlightened being, an uneducated buffoon or a mean-spirited bully getting in the way of our happiness.  The idea was simply that life gives us endless opportunities from which to learn, and by seeing everyone as a Buddha with more wisdom than we ourselves possess, we open our hearts and our souls to all of the richness and beauty that is right in front of us. Right there in front of us, if we would just pay a little more attention.

So there in the shower, as all of these thoughts swirl around in a chaotic dance in my mind, I consider the possibility that maybe those voices make a valid point, maybe our pets really are holding up some kind of mirror.  Perhaps they become a reflection of us, perhaps we choose them on some subconscious level; I’m betting it is a combination of the two.  Maisie is my second dog.  She is also my second leash-reactive dog.  And while leash reactivity is not at all uncommon, perhaps this is one way I can tune in to what’s staring me in the face before the powers that be get out that damn megaphone, before the lessons get harder and uglier and decidedly more difficult to dismiss.  Maisie has a good year or two history about which I know nothing, so I don’t believe that she is learning this behavior from me or reflecting my own behavior (yet) back to me.  I do, however, believe that our life instructions, our own personal Buddhas, are all around us and show up in the most unexpected ways.

Which is why when my tears start to subside, I begin to admit that maybe, just maybe, I might be the human version of leash reactive.  I think about all the times I meet someone new with my guard so far up I might as well be Rapunzel locked in her tower, about how too often I jump to judgment in a failed attempt to ward off any criticism of myself (criticism which almost always comes from myself).  And I think about how, in many ways, I am far less honest about it than little Maisie, we humans being experts at keeping all the crazy shit running through our brains locked safely and deeply away from the harsh light of the world.

Our best guess is that Maisie is some sort of mix of Corgi, Spaniel, maybe Jack Russell…breeds that are friendly and playful and not typically aggressive.  I don’t think it is in her true nature to bark at strangers but since we will likely never know what her first year or so on this planet entailed, we can only move forward to work with her on healing whatever wounds she may or may not have endured, give her whatever piece of the puzzle was missing, do what we can to let her sweet little Buddha nature shine through.

By the time I am out of the shower, my anger has waned and while I’m still a little rattled, I am also calmer and I lean down to Maisie, who is lying outside the bathroom door, and I rub her ears. I tell her I am sorry.  I tell her she’s a good girl and that we will work through this together.  She is quiet and sweet and I try to let that side of her reflect its light back to me.

As I get dressed to go out for the evening, I move deliberately and gently.  For someone who has a tendency to barrel through life, this is harder than it may seem.  I stand a little straighter, physically open my chest in an attempt to free my heart from the protective cage of hunched shoulders in which I typically carry it. At a core level, I know that while it may have become a default response, it is not in my true nature to be the human version of leash reactive. I take a few deep breaths and commit to trying to curb my tendency to bark at strangers, to open my heart just a little more, to trust that I will be okay without my armor.

I know this process will not be easy.  By their very nature, habits are deeply ingrained, especially those habits that dwell in the heart, and changing them takes a Herculean and conscious effort.  But I owe it to Maisie, because I can’t possibly expect her to heal if I don’t have the same expectations for myself.  I can’t possibly expect her Buddha nature to shine through if I keep my own goodness locked tightly away.  If you happen to run into Miss Maisie and me some day and one of us starts barking like a maniac, don’t mind us.  We’re both a work in progress.

* * * * *

Be brave, dear readers!  How do your own animals reflect you and your struggles? Did you subconsciously choose your own wounded critter or are they perhaps learning faulty coping mechanisms from you? How have they inspired you to let your truer self shine through?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!


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