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Faith in Vermont: Oh, My Dog!

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Posted on February 13, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Of all the human and non-human species that make up our family, I’ve written the least about our dog, Gracie. My daughters always do nutty things, the ducks and chickens teach us about life and death, and my husband is the “straight man” in the midst of the chaos.

But Gracie, our five-year-old labradoodle, is complicated.

The contributions that a dog is expected to make to a family typically include: companionship, affection, and exercise. My daughters insist that Gracie adds all three to our lives: Their interactions with Gracie mostly involve snuggling on the floor, feeding her treats, and dressing her up in funny costumes, all of which Gracie submits to dutifully. “Gracie’s the best dog in the WORLD!” a daughter exclaims daily.

My husband and I would agree that Gracie adds exercise to our lives, because one of us has to walk her on a leash at least twice a day. We have to walk her on a leash because we don’t have adequate fencing at our house, and we can’t trust Gracie to be outdoors off-leash. We can’t trust Gracie to be off-leash because, for the five years that we’ve known her, Gracie has demonstrated repeatedly her inability to control her emotions.

“Anxious” is the word we use most regarding Gracie. If there is a person she doesn’t recognize (a stranger, or my husband in a hat), a car, any sort of animal (chicken, duck, squirrel, rabbit, and robin being the most likely suspects), or – most especially – a UPS truck within 50 yards of her, Gracie jumps up, barks uncontrollably, spins in circles, scratches up the floors, and drools on the windows until long after the perceived threat has passed.

Early in her life, we completed several training sessions with Gracie and a “dog whisperer,” who instructed us to distract her with treats when one of her anxiety triggers appeared. After months of walking around with bacon and doggie treats going stale in our coat pockets, we realized that Gracie was too high-strung to be wooed by food; she’d just get nervous anytime we pulled out the bacon.

Our next attempt was a citronella collar, which works on the principle of unpleasant surprise: Every time Gracie started to bark, the collar sent a spray of citronella into her face. Multiple canisters of citronella later, our house smelled permanently like an open deck in summer, and we had a dog who had decided that a citronella squirt was a small price to pay in exchange for threatening the UPS truck. (On the plus side, we had no mosquito problems that year.)

Gracie’s vet suggested the canine version of Prozac. While this made Gracie sleepy (which is saying something, since she sleeps about 50% of the time un-drugged), she continued waking up to bark at guests. After a while, since stupidity is not one of Gracie’s faults, she figured out that we were putting pills in her food and started spitting them out.

The thing that’s worked best is the thing we wanted to avoid: the shock collar. This collar emits a series of brief shocks of increasing intensity the longer Gracie keeps barking. She usually stops fairly quickly. In this case, the problem is our daughters, who keep hiding the collar. “You wouldn’t put a shock collar on US when WE’RE being loud, would you?!?” they cry. (To which my response is, “Don’t give me any ideas….”)

So, we’ve had to accept the fact that we’re navigating life with an overly anxious dog. As you might imagine, it can be stressful to have people over to our house. We usually put on Gracie’s leash before we’re expecting company; it helps her feel a little more secure, and we can grab her if needed.  As soon as our guests cross the threshold, Gracie races into the mudroom, barking furiously. (She’s not a biter; she just wants to alert us to potential danger VERY LOUDLY.)

New guests often try to win Gracie over by leaning down and talking to her sweetly, perhaps offering a hand to sniff.

“Don’t look her in the eyes! Don’t try to be her friend!” my husband shouts over her barking.

There are some people whom Gracie lets pass after an initial bark. These include almost all children and a handful of adult friends. Both sets of grandparents are also exempt – even the grandparents who live in California and visit only a couple of times a year. (On the other hand, the Middlebury College graduate who lived with us for two years was never allowed to enter the house – or the living room – without a thorough tongue-lashing from Gracie.)

Gracie’s anxiety also makes it challenging to leave the house for more than a few hours. If we’re taking a trip, we can’t leave her at home and have a dog sitter check on her twice a day; should a UPS truck arrive while she’s alone, we return to clawed doorframes and pictures knocked off walls.

Nor have we been able to find a dog sitter whom Gracie will allow to stay in the house. When we attempted this in the past, Gracie responded by “doing her business” up and down the hallway, and – back when we had an in-ground fence in the yard – breaking through the fence and refusing to re-enter the house until we returned.

So we board Gracie in a kennel if we’re leaving town. Even this isn’t fool proof: We dropped Gracie off for her first kennel stay the night before a trip, and several hours later the phone rang: She had somehow managed to jump the eight-foot perimeter fence, they had her cornered in a field, and would I please come help bring her in?

Since then, the kennel keeps Gracie on-leash at all times.

After all this, why do we keep Gracie?

Because she’s ours.

In the end, it turns out that Gracie has added love to our family, after all. What is love but the commitment to keep someone around, feed them, and drive them to their check-ups, not because they’re easy or likeable, but just because they’re yours?  In our house, there are people who are sloppy, people who have fiery tempers, people who sometimes wet the bed. And there’s Gracie, with her anxiety. But we keep them; that’s what it means to be family, which turns out to be much more than sharing blood.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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