I wander into the bedroom and find Maisie, as per usual, curled up in a small, compact ball, her chin on the heap that is my standard t-shirt and cargo shorts, carelessly thrown there after our morning walk. Her sumptuous tail is wrapped around her, its tip grazing her nose. When she sees me, her tail starts to twitch nearly imperceptibly, her eyes look up at me expectantly, her brow gets a little wrinkled; she lifts, ever so slightly, one back leg. She is assessing the situation and deciding if now would be a good time for a full stretch on her back, belly up to the ceiling, in hopes of a good rubbing.
We often find her in that position: on her back, pink spotted belly up to the heavens, her front paws curled against her chest, her back legs splayed way out, feet nearly straight up in the air. Her head is stretched back, her chin long and her ears flopped out. It’s not always in response to one of us walking into the room; sometimes it’s just how she lies in repose.
In dog body language, lying belly up is communicating submission, but I’m not sure if that is always what Maisie is trying to say. I do know, though, that when she is lying like that, she is fully and completely trusting us. She is highly vulnerable and comfortable being that way, because she trusts us.
I have never seen Maisie intentionally take that pose with another dog. She may end up that way in the course of some good, old-fashioned rough-housing, but she is never the submissive one. No, Maisie barks at strangers — and friends, for that matter — every time. In the time I’ve spent with her, I’m learning about her barking, about its subtle nuances and what her different barks are trying to communicate.
The truth, of course, is that Maisie has rarely had any reason for her impulsive bark-now-think-later response to a new dog. There have been a few times that have been fairly stressful for both of us, like the time I took her to a new dog park in Napa, California, only to be “greeted” at the gate by five or six very large and very boisterous dogs. She freaked —understandably, since she weighs in at less than 17 pounds — and it got a little ugly. A few of the dogs didn’t take too kindly to her crazy barking and so returned the favor, and then some. But I was able to scoop her up, the owners of the other dogs were (mostly) able to call them back, and everybody eventually settled in to their own space, as dogs are wont to do.
And even though dogs do pick up — almost without fail — on their owner’s energy, I’ll admit that I get pretty nervous whenever I see any dog that has even just a hint of a fighting dog or guard dog in them, has any pit bull or german shepherd or the kind of breed cities like to pass ordnances against (warranted or not) and dog activists like to rally to defend. I’ll admit that I have that fear, even though it’s not p.d.c. (politically dog correct). It’s not that I don’t trust them, it’s that I don’t trust her not to freak out on them, and then I fear for how they may respond to this little barking terror. Because she wouldn’t have a prayer if they decided to turn on her, and I don’t think I could live with those consequences. And so I have to live in quiet guilt with my own breed-ist thinking.
As in all things Maisie, I am always amazed how much she reflects my own struggles in life. I get it Maisie, I get it. I too see others and want to play, want to join in on the fun, but sometimes I get scared and sometimes my hackles come up. I don’t want to stand on the outside looking in, but I also know there is so much potential for pain and hurt and rejection, for not being accepted for who I am, from these prospective playmates. I convince myself there is reason to be wary, and so I convince myself that I need to let them know I’m tough and they’d better not mess with me, that I need to establish a few things right out of the gate.
Mostly, though, I keep my hackles down by keeping to myself. Just like choosing to walk Maisie when there is a much smaller likelihood of running into other dogs, choosing to be a hermit goes a long way in protecting my heart against rejection and hurt. My husband loves me. My dog loves me. Why would I need to venture out into an unkind world that, I’m fairly certain, only has ripping me to shreds on its agenda?
I don’t know where Maisie’s fear comes from and I don’t know where mine comes from. (Okay, maybe a little of it comes from what the brutal reality of being an A student and classical violinist in high school means, but shouldn’t I be over that by now?) My mother tells me stories of how I would be covered in bruises in the summer because as I would come down the stairs I was always trying to see what was going on outside and then I would fall down the last few steps. But I’m pretty sure my fear is not at all related to my physical safety. (And yes, I still am that klutzy. Just ask my husband.)
What I do know, though, is that it’s all just one giant protection racket, this thing that Maisie and I have going on. We think that by acting tough — by letting others know, in no uncertain terms, that we are NOT to be trifled with — that we will somehow protect ourselves. Which of course is not the case, never really and truly is the case, because anything that makes your heart harder only makes the breaking of it more shatteringly devastating.
Recently a friend of mine adopted a new dog, a Pointer-mix who is about six months old. This friend of mine and I have known each other for going on 20 years and her dog Oslo was Henry’s first friend, way back when she and I first knew each other. I have been trying to convince her — subtly and not so subtly — that she should get another dog and so when this Pointer came on her radar, I resorted to manipulation.
“Maisie already has her wedding dress picked out, you can’t disappoint her.”
“That face! How could you resist that face!”
“I promise, I will help you whenever you need it. He will always be welcome to stay with us.”
“Did I say that Maisie already has her wedding dress picked out?”
(Mind you, I realize that making wedding plans for your dog is the worst kind of anthropomorphizing. But I really, really wanted her to adopt this dog.)
The long story made short is that my friend did adopt this dog. And it’s a damn good thing for Maisie that she wasn’t doing a speed-dating event, where you only have a fleeting moment to make a good impression, when she met him. Because in classic Maisie form, she was awful. I picked her up and she proceeded to scratch the living daylights out of my stomach with her back paws, trying to get free. I put her down and she was in his face, his startled-what-the-hell-is-this-thing, poor little puppy face, barking and barking and barking.
Somehow, as always, I managed to get her to calm down just a bit, and then a bit more, until we were able to take them for a short walk. She pulled ahead and then, for a minute or so, would turn and give him one or two short barks, just to be sure he knew she wasn’t kidding before. And then she was done. Then she walked alongside him, the two of them trotting along together as if they had known each other their entire lives, and she has been fine ever since.
More than fine, actually. Because the lead photo of today’s post is her and Pluto, mid-play, right before they jumped back into their never-ending wrestling match, taking a little pause to catch their breath. She looks pretty damn happy in that photo. And now, of course, whenever we go to my friend’s house, she is just thrilled to see her new best friend, can’t get up the porch steps fast enough.
I have been working on better ways to introduce her to other dogs, but I’ll save that for another post. Right now, I just want to keep the photo below of her and Pluto — because, I swear they are both cracking up at some secret, hilarious joke shared just between the two of them — at the forefront of my mind, to remind myself that my own Great Protection Racket is just that: a giant, unnecessary racket that will never, ever protect my heart, that will only ever make it harder and more brittle.
And that’s hard sometimes. Like everyone else, I’ve been hurt and burned. I even had to witness my beloved Henry nearly be killed by a Rottweiler mix (the introduction with whom I never should have allowed and which, come to think of it, may have something to do with my breed-ist thinking). But mostly, my heart has remained relatively intact, a few scars not withstanding. Henry wasn’t killed by another dog; he died at a very, very old age. And Maisie always manages to, if not make a friend, at least learn to co-exist around other dogs.
So that’s it. All you demons out there running our protection racket, hit the road. Your services are no longer required. Maisie and I have too many playmates out there waiting to be found.
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So, lovely readers, how do you protect your heart? Are you like Maisie and me or is your heart wide open all the time? How do your animal companions, if you have them, help you open your heart more? I always love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment below!