I’m not entirely sure, but I think I like my dog better than everyone on the planet except my kids but even that is questionable. Did I say that out loud?
We have a blue heeler named August West. We call him Auggie. When we got him, our Labrador had just passed away and because my husband and I are ruthlessly devoted to questionable decisions, we got another dog right away and consequently I looked at Auggie as a rude interloper and pathetic substitute for what I really wanted.
Trying to understand my feelings, I googled “Getting a new dog after your dog dies” and read about 900 articles suggesting that one shouldn’t get a dog immediately after a dog dies because the new dog will seem like a pathetic substitute and rude interloper.
So then I was grieving both my dog and the addition of a new dog who I low-key hated, which added guilt and shame to my already mountainous guilt and shame surrounding the sudden death of my Labrador.
In short, I believed Auggie was an astronomical mistake, and yet, one I could not, or would not, ignore.
He was this round black and white spotted little thing with soft, floppy ears and keen, engaged eyes. We said he looked like a fat seal. George noticed one of the markings on his side was in the shape of a heart.
And he is a fucking working dog. I knew if I didn’t train him thoroughly, giving him all kinds of jobs, he would find himself a job, and it would probably be Eat The House.
So, against a large portion of my desire, I devoted myself to training our August West, who, in case you aren’t familiar, is the alcoholic in the Grateful Dead song “Wharf Rat.”
So there I was forcing myself outside with this dog multiple times a day, taking him to puppy training where he would leap for the sky in pursuit of other puppies while I stood on the leash (as directed by the teacher), thereby causing him to occasionally do these gravity-defying acrobatic flips in the air.
I was convinced Auggie was the worst pup in the class with the worst parents.
But I kept going on account of the house-eating situation.
And one day, I noticed something. I noticed the fat seal learned commands by about the tenth time we did it. I noticed he looked at me and cocked his head to one side, waiting for the next command. I noticed he followed me around the house like a duckling behind its mama.
He appeared, in a word, to exist just for me, and I noticed.
I taught him to sit, stand, go down, and wait. I taught him fetch and “leave it” and “catch it.” I taught him to shake hands, sit on my right and my left. I taught him to go around behind me and come to the front of me. I taught him to walk on a leash, stop when I stop, go when I go, sit when I pause.
And as we worked together, I noticed that when I was with him, I was free of the pain in my brain. He came a few days after my dog died, six weeks after my grandmother was murdered, and 12 weeks after my grandfather died. He came in the middle of me writing my memoir on alcoholism and motherhood.
He came when I was enduring a pain I had never known, and reliving through my writing a pain I believed would never be surpassed.
I noticed that when I was with him, I was in my body, on the ground – outside of the swirling mess in my brain — communicating with an animal intuitively connected with me. It was so simple, so loving, so tangible:
Sit. Correction. Sit. Correction. Sit. Success. Treat.
It wasn’t vague or complex or twisted up in emotion. It felt clean, direct, and pure.
It was a dog watching me, observing me, learning me, and me, learning him, committed to teaching him, and what I noticed is that one day I looked at that fucking dog and realized he was healing me.
After I’d write a section of my book that tore my heart into shreds, I’d head outside with Auggie and sometimes I’d give him whole strings of commands with signals only. No words. No sounds. Just a couple of friends working together.
The way he watches me. The way he sits in front of me, waiting, observing, at the ready. The way he jumps on my bed when I’m resting, puts his paw on my chest as if he’s patting me. The way he wags his tail when I say his name, and sleeps on the kitchen rug while I cook.
I have never loved a dog like this. (Don’t tell my last dog, who I loved, too. But this is like WEIRD.) I didn’t even know this was possible, and I wonder if it’s because he came when I was pissed off and broken and full of terrified rage, and I was committed to protecting myself from humans, from the violence and agony they cause, and here comes Auggie as if to say, “Okay but you never said anything about fat seal pups. Can you let me in?”
There’s that Dead song that says “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
For me, I guess it was a dog I wasn’t ready for.
“Fiercely talented word-warrior Janelle Hanchett grabs your guts with her frank, brutally funny, and moving memoir of modern motherhood and addiction. You won’t want to let go of this book.”
―Ann Imig, editor of Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now