It had to happen, of course. The honeymoon always ends. Life moves on and the fresh new relationship gradually transforms into an old familiar one. Allowances for past traumas, habits, and reactions give way to impatience with behaviors based on the past. It’s here and now — let’s get on with it, it feels like. At least for me.
I have to remind myself that Rosie’s past five years are a lot longer than mine. Dog years vs. human aside, almost all of Rosie’s five years or so have been spent in other circumstances than she now finds herself in. I have to keep reminding myself that while she is learning about me and our relationship she is also unlearning most everything she based her behaviors on. It’s hard enough for a human to do that. Why should it be any easier for a dog, who doesn’t even get much choice in the matter?
I have to give her credit. She’s doing a good job of adjusting… but still. The honeymoon is over.
It was merely a few weeks ago when I was thrilled to hear Rosie bark for the first time. Days later I went out of town. My brother-in-law Jeff was here all day long working on my house. He said that Rosie barked non-stop, to the point where she became hoarse. He tried bribing with doggie biscuits; he tried speaking firmly to her. He tried locking her in the house and turning up his boom box. Eventually he just yelled at her to knock it off, which apparently she did.
Until the next time. Such as when he would show up the next day to feed her and the cats and horses, and resume working on my house.
A little bit of judicious barking is good. A lot of indiscriminate barking is crazy-making (for humans if not for dogs). I don’t know if Rosie would still be barking at Jeff – who is a very nice person and who loves dogs – but he’s gone home. It’s just Rosie and me again and she doesn’t bark anymore.
A few weeks ago I was thrilled when Rosie showed signs of being able to move away from the security of walking at my heels when we’d go out to hike. It seemed to me to be a sign of growing confidence in her relationship with me as well as this house and this land being home.
In the evening after feeding horses Rosie and I go for a quick walk, even if we’ve walked earlier in the day. Partly it’s a chance for me to enjoy the outside a little longer before settling down inside for the night. I can take sunset photos, maybe catch a glimpse of a shooting star or the ISS gliding across the Milky Way. Another reason for the walk is to make sure there are no cows hiding behind bushes, waiting till I go away so they can invade my horse’s pens and steal their food and water. Partly it’s to transform Rosie from a flabby middle-aged butterball of a dog into a fit and healthy dog. Some of why we walk is to give Rose a last opportunity to go potty, meaning one less bit of poop for me to have to scoop up from her dog pen.
In the beginning she had to be coaxed to go with me, but Rosie not only enjoys this short walk now — about a third of a mile loop — but she expects it. If I turn back to the house immediately after shutting the barn door, she refuses leave the horse pens where she’s been sitting in anticipation. If I turn instead to walk around the pens and head out on the trail we’ve worn through the rabbit brush, Rosie will scoot under the fence with a big grin on her face and wait for me.
She used to walk so closely behind me that sometimes she’d step on my heels. After a few weeks she began to dare to walk slightly ahead of me, often stopping with uncertainty, forcing me to step over her else I’ll fall over her.
None of that anymore. Now Rosie scrambles ahead of me, her stumpy legs propelling her down the trail faster than I’d have ever guessed she would or could run. She’ll break off her sprints to run in tight little circles, her skinny little tail whipping from side to side. Then she’ll stop, panting, waiting for me to catch up so she can tear off again.
So cute! This is what having a dog should be like, isn’t it?
After having been here three months, I can hardly consider Rosie to be trained. We’ve barely begun. There’s lots and lots of room for screwing up.
Having figured out that it’s okay to not stick on my heels when we walk, Rosie is now feeling the call of the freedom, and that means exploration and adventure. It is no surprise that she has discovered the joy of chasing rabbits. Mostly cottontails, since jackrabbits don’t hunker down and pretend to be invisible till Rosie trips over one.
At first Rosie dared chase only a few yards before she’d turn around and dutifully come back to me. Not because I was calling her but because she didn’t feel she was allowed to be doing what she was doing. She would watch me very carefully to see if she was in trouble. She was not. I would never yell at a dog for coming back to me even if I had been calling, but of course the only way she would know that would be through trust and trust takes time to build.
But the other day I was chasing the neighbor’s cattle off my property and Rosie really pushed the boundaries. The bovines were down valley, meaning that I had to chase them up the side of the mesa to get them back to the allotment where they belong. Very good exercise for me, chasing cows – much better than fixing my fence.
At any rate, I was puffing myself halfway up the mesa (did I mention that the mesa sides are super steep?) when a small brown streak blurred past me. Aha! I thought. Rosie is going to round up the stragglers. Sometimes I amaze myself with my imagination.
Not only had Rosie flushed a rabbit, she’d flushed one that was dumb enough (or maybe smart enough) to run towards other rabbits. Next thing I know a bunny-sized streak flashed down the mesa side, another across the mesa side, and two in the other directions. Rosie was nowhere to be seen.
After I had watched the last cow hump her way over the rim rock and onto the mesa, I started back, calling Rosie as I went. She’s the exact color of dried grass and her red collar is as good as invisible in the vastness a small dog could disappear into. Cupping my hands behind my ears made it possible to hear her panting, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. She was moving fast but not in my direction.
I called some more. I whistled – not sure why, since I’ve never whistled for her before. I kept moving towards the barn, stopping to listen, calling, being ignored.
And finally I realized how stupid this was. I had wanted Rosie to feel confident enough to do things on her own and now that she was doing something on her own I was trying to control her. Of course I didn’t want her to get lost, maybe to be eaten by coyotes, or shot by some trigger-happy yokel. But I knew she hadn’t gone far. I knew it wasn’t about her getting lost; it was about her running away.
Would Rosie suddenly realize she really was free?
I have wanted Rosie to trust me, but didn’t I also need to trust Rosie?
I went back to my barn chores, trying to not constantly look up to see if Rosie was coming. When I was done, I resisted the urge to hike back up the mesa side, to call some more. I had to believe that the relationship we had established was true, and for it to be true there has to be trust in both directions.
I had to trust that if Rosie was now confident enough to step away from me, she was also confident enough in me to come back.
And she was.
Having lost her rabbit, she had come back home. Home, where I found her sound asleep on her bed by the wood stove. She cracked open her eyes, thumped her tail once, and went back to sleep. Perfectly at home.
The honeymoon’s over and thank goodness for that. Let the real relationship begin.
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