“We tend to think of feelings as things that just happen in our ‘hearts’–as things that are somehow not connected to the physical world. The truth is, very obvious chemical and physical changes happen in our bodies and our brains when our emotions change. When we’re angry, our heart rate increases and our brains and bodies are flooded with hormones like adrenaline, to give us the extra boost to be able to fight. When we’re afraid, blood flows to our biggest muscles such as our legs so we can be ready to flee, and other hormones put our body on alert, ready for action. Love creates the opposite responses to fear and anger, and makes us feel calm, content, safe, and relaxed. When we’re sad, our body’s metabolism slows, conserving our energy so that we can heal, both physically and psychologically. And finally, happiness increases the activity in our brain, blocking negative feelings and allowing us better access to our available energy. In this regard, we feel and react to emotions in exactly the same way that our dogs do. With all these complex biological changes going on inside of us every time we have a feeling, is it any wonder that other animals can tell what we’re feeling at any given moment?”
—Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, our dog Phoebe was a life line. They were twin misfits. Phoebe was an anchor for my mother, constantly rooting her to the immediate present and giving her a positive focus. At the same time, the opposite was true: my mother had a calming effect on Phoebe for the most part, who responded to my mother’s voice and touch with pleasure and offered her belly for a scratch.
Phoebe had a tough puppyhood. The people who bred her at eleven months sold all her Shetland Sheepdog puppies and then dumped her at a shelter in Massachusetts, near where my parents had a summer home. When my parents first saw her almost thirteen years ago, she was emaciated and shivering on a lead in the scrappy backyard of the shelter. They brought her back to the house, and she spent the afternoon running in circles, her nails clicking on the polished wood floor. She calmed herself using her herding instincts.
She’s a beautiful dog–a canine Elizabeth Taylor with a glossy coat of black and tan, white gloves, soft pointy ears and big worried brown eyes. The first night she slept over at the house, she was so frightened that my mother stayed in the foldout couch in the den with her. The two quickly became cemented together, instantly inseparable.
Phoebe’s papers said she would do best on a farm. We brought her to the middle of Manhattan. For the first day and a half in the city, she was so nervous that she couldn’t pee. We urged her across the cement plaza and onto cobblestone side streets. Finally, she found herself among a sea of noisy children outside the elementary school next door and she crouched down to let out a flood.
Like a lot of Shelties, she‘s extremely high strung and barks constantly. When I’m leaving the apartment, she puts a chew toy in her mouth and growls at my heels, pouncing on the front door once it closes. What’s more, she’s leash aggressive, which means she’s fine off the leash but otherwise lunges and bites at passersby–from delicate toddlers to well-heeled neighborhood regulars to tiny dogs like Shortie, a squat little Dachsund who lives around the corner.
It got worse after my mother went into a facility and then, last year, my father passed away.
One night I was walking her in the back of our apartment complex and she reared up, barking hysterically at a neighbor. “That dog’s nuts!“ he shouted above the din. “You need the dog whisperer!”
I used to brace myself for a walk with Phoebe, anticipating the worst. When she lunged, I would rein her in, yet this just made her bark in circles. I approached each walk on the plaza as if entering a war zone.
Little did I know that I was the problem.
That is, I knew I had a problem with anxiety, but I never connected it to my walks with Phoebe. I didn’t realize that she was my little mood ring. Since childhood, I have been the nervous type–always anticipating the worst. Expecting to find Jaws in the swimming pool. Worrying about every past encounter as if I could alter it with a little imagination and an E for effort.
But how does that affect my dog? I suspect now that it formed the root of her present behavioral problems. I practiced saying Cesar Milan’s catchphrase “calm assertiveness” over and over again, like the ommm shanti shanti shanti I used to say in yoga class. Phoebe liked it.
Einstein said, “The most important question a person can ask is, “Is the Universe a friendly place?”
I think the answer is supposed to be, “yes.”
Slowly, Phoebe is getting better. Especially with the help of a lovely young woman named Archie, who walks her while I’m at work. And the plaza isn’t just a concrete nightmare anymore. It’s a place where we take a stroll and meet the smells and the sounds of the passersby.
We’re still learning how to relax into the Universe. (It’s difficult when the daily newspaper greets us at our door with bloodthirsty howls.) But Phoebe slowly trusts more and more that her immediate environment isn’t so scary.
I wish we could say that we feel the Universe is a really fun joint to be in all the time. I wish we could say that the Universe is like the good friend who loves you because of your faults and puts out a welcome mat. But sometimes there are things that make us want to bark a lot in warning–like a cat slinking by or a neighbor in the distance. Bark just loudly enough so that the other guy knows we’re there…and so that he knows we can be loud if we want to be.