Just a Dog

During the days after finding out about my mother’s death and actually being able to get to my family I had one source of comfort. The same source of comfort and support that can nearly always be found within a few centimetres of me: my dog, Shadow.

Years ago when I was still in university and doing very well with the academic part but having some anxiety during the busy time between classes my doctor wanted to get me an actual Autism Dog. The notion of such a thing was still new to him and he thought it would be enourmously beneficial and given I don’t really react typically to any medication but do love animals it seemed logical to him.

I was still in my phase of if I try hard enough I can be normal though or at least so closely approximate normal – especially at school, that I wasn’t keen. I did desperately want a dog and didn’t live in a place where I could have one for several more years but between wanting to look normal and thinking that for me any dog would likely do whereas for the types of kids (and they were always kids) being featured in stories about them they did indeed need a highly trained dog so it could go to school and so on.

It would be years before I got a dog. I was never entirely pet-less even if my lease said I was. I had gerbils, and a mouse and when I moved somewhere where I could have a dog but hadn’t accumulated the money for a dog, rats. I wanted to be sure when I finally got a dog I could pay for emergency expenses so long after I could afford to either buy or adopt a dog I was still saving.

Eventually I got a dog. A friend in Alberta, I had met on a channel for support for autism (primarily parents on that channel) found one in the paper and I had a sleepover when I went to visit my family and the dog clearly chose me. She was a good dog but we had been lied to about some of her life history it seems and there were numerous health issues. She was however so devoted to me I often worried about the next dog. How would the next dog ever compare?

The impact of that first dog was dramatic and immediate though. Whereas before I was often hospitalized for depressions that the powers that be had deemed untreatable due to my autism, and actually offered a cingulotomy as my only hope (a cingulotomy in case people wonder is in some ways more horrifying than a lobotomy). Post dog I was never hospitalized again for that. (Well until my no good. very bad year)  There may be a few contaminating factors in the data there but the dog played a huge role without a doubt.

When my dog, Tiny was her name, died I knew I could not be without a dog. I was torn between feeling there was an appropriate mourning period where a new puppy might feel like a replacement and the cold, hard knowledge that without a dog my life would head steeply downhill. I could feel it heading that way when in my pain of losing her I had no dog to reach for.

Slightly less than a month after Tiny died I got Shadow. Not wanting to be saddled with an unknown history I unapologetically got a puppy. Countless semi-anonymous people felt they could take me to task on getting a puppy when so many dogs are abandoned but I said that after having gone through some avoidable things with Tiny I wanted any errors made with my new dog to be created by me, and known by me. So if he didn’t get care he should have had, or wound up with severe separation anxiety or whatever those would be problems that had their origin in my care of him and I would then live with them. Sorry any unmet rescue dogs I never considered but this was my health at stake which I had to place at least equal to yours I am afraid, and so a brand, spanking new puppy, with a nice health record of both him and his parents it was. It wasn’t the politically correct thing I suppose but I am seldom in danger of doing that anyway.

Shadow’s name is a source of embarrassment to me. I had had gerbils named after mythical figures and rats named after physicists. A teeny, tiny entirely pathetic runt of a mouse I bought during a moment of extreme crisis (my suicide prevention mouse) I had dubbed Sergei Brun Mussen Von Federovsky in homage both to hockey and a linguistic game my maternal grandfather used to play.

With Tiny I had an excuse. She came with a name and was old enough a change would be hard. I would inevitably on being asked her name follow up with the fact I didn’t name her. I did name Shadow.

Oh how I didn’t want his name to be Shadow. He’s black of course although he would be no less Shadow like in another colour. It’s the 6th most popular dog’s name in our municipality among registered dogs and indeed there were no less than 4 on our block (granted it was a large block but still…) He was simply unquestionably my Shadow from the first moment.

I didn’t go to get him the day I wound up with him. I had my eye on a female in another litter. My father had told me that females always make better pets and that combined with alert and active dogs were probably smarter was about all the information I made my decision with in the end. I had read some stuff on the web but it didn’t differentiate that much from what my father said, so it seemed like a female it would be.

My dear friend, Jim, who has since died drove me with his wife. His wife, Shirley had been against my getting a dog in the first place. Atypically for her quite verbally against it as her reasoning was I could barely look after myself how could I look after a dog. She admitted she had been wrong within a week of my getting Tiny as she happened to drive by me walking Tiny and had never seen me look so happy in the entire time she had known me. A convert to the notion that a dog was necessary she was keen to be a part of the process.

I noticed Shadow immediately. Of the puppies only he was at all alert. It could be the rest were sleepy because they had just eaten or whatever but Shadow watched my every move. As I dutifully studied the dog I had intended to purchase my eyes kept going back to him. I explained my dilemma to Jim and Shirley but they had not been what you call dog people and had no advice beyond thinking it was me who had to live with the decision so I had to make it.

I asked to spend some time with Shadow thinking I could get him out of my system, after finding no one had expressed any intent to buy him. His sister’s had been hotter commodities and although all but one was still there they were all spoken for. (Maybe everyone had fathers who taught them that a female makes a better pet) Not that his sisters were at all tempting. They were as sleepy and as disinterested in me as my intended dog and her litter-mates.

I took Shadow out of eyesight of the other dogs which is ridiculous as the puppy I had come in for couldn’t know the grand betrayal in the making. I held him. I sensed my plan to get him out of my system or to discover something disappointing about him was not going to work. I set him down and he was adorable as he promptly scrambled to try to position himself on my shoe. I thought, it can’t be he actually knows how this works and if I am able to walk away from him he will never see me and I wasn’t vain enough really to think in the grand scheme of things that should matter too much but to Shadow it seemed to.

The inevitable followed of course. It feels odd to me to buy a dog as I don’t look at myself as owning a dog but being in a partnership. (Shadow has written somewhat extensively on this in his own blog – okay he gets some help with the typing and translating from dog but still http://www.dogster.com/dogs/914607) He was paid for since my feelings about ownership don’t enter into the need for a transaction. We went and got some things that would be  uniquely his and not passed down from Tiny and then took him home.

I had never had a puppy of my own to train. We had dogs always growing up but my father looked after that and the last dog that had been more mine than the family dog was one that I had walked after school for her whole life, as her people were in busy professions but came to me fully trained. Even overly trained for the life she wound up having. But Shadow and I both proved pretty trainable.

The first night he was home I slept with him in my hand. He wanted to be with me and was having none of this crate business and even though I had read umpteen books on why crate training is the greatest thing since… well who knows what but I am a single human. There is no greater feeling in the world than a dog snuggled by your side. (Or in Shadow’s case often on top of my bladder but still somehow that works out) I was terrified I would crush him, but clearly couldn’t put him down so I slept in the most awkward position of all time- my hand holding him but stretched what I judged to be a safe distance from my huge self. I woke to find him on my heart as I always roll onto my back at some point and that was his place after that while he was small.

Somewhere along the line the more reluctant members of my family came to accept that I actually needed a dog with me had. Even my father who sometimes had tried to convince someone to convince me to leave my dog behind gave in by the time Shadow came around. He had a cat he loves and the perception of the cat being upset about the dog is a little warped by that love. Their first time together after that cat had drawn quite copious amounts of blood from my then 3 and a half month old puppy it took a feat of extreme will not to explode at all the expressions of sympathy for the cat. Anyway said cat can take care of himself and usually when I visit without the chaos of the rest of the clan, the cat is over it fairly fast. The cat hates me with a passion as I have never been found without a dog with me but we reached a state of detente.

This year in the eyes of some Shadow got promoted. Getting him certified as a service dog had been something my new psychiatrist had been keen on. I could see the practicality of it as we were having some problems finding housing but I had qualms about some of the requirements. Again Shadow has covered those in his own blog so I won’t repeat myself – or rather him.

That he is a support animal is without question. Despite 2012 being the year when my record absence from hospital was broken as I tell him what went on was beyond the ability of any dog to fix. I couldn’t cope in a completely predictable autistic way with the major change of having to leave my home of many years. The degree to which I couldn’t cope was a surprise and the fact I am still not over it also a surprise but given the number of very learned humans who also have not been much help in this time my inability to cope was not his fault.

He isn’t officially certified as anything yet beyond being certified as an emotional support dog on one airline. There has been some feet dragging on my part as a service dog is the more logical designation for my conditions and would grant him more privileges typically (although laws in our province are almost non-existent) but I have some ethical qualms with some of what would be required of him. Ultimately I suspect we will still go that route as I have been told that they do take the disability into account so the area that caused me the most concern was the requirement that a dog not greet someone without permission as it’s useful for me that he does and his friendliness is a fundamental part of him. One doesn’t tamper with the fundamental parts of a being in my ethical system so training him to seek permission from a human who would be slow to realize there was even someone who needed greeting and the attendant lack of social interaction that would go with that seemed unthinkably cruel to him.

Shadow isn’t just friendly. He is comically friendly. When he was a puppy and we were in Calgary for a funeral, a business man in full oil patch attire drove past us, backed up, parked his car and sat down in his very nice suit and simply played with him. He said almost nothing to me beyond enquiring about the breed so I have never been able to come up with a reason why that happened. Something more than the extreme cuteness of my dog surely but I can only wonder. Some days I suppose one just needs a dog urgently enough to break with societal norms in a city full of them. Who knows?  A commuting bicyclist did the same here although that’s slightly more typical for what the rest of Canada calls “la la land”, than Alberta.

When my friend had found Tiny for me she expressed a hope that having a dog  would make me talk to people. Tiny though was content with me as her universe so I was able to walk her at 1 am with no visible harm to her. I knew immediately that Shadow would need to be walked in daylight hours when there were people about and this was no small thing for me. I often find the daytime too bright, we lived in an area near a park so thankfully it was seldom also too noisy but if I am not doing well daytime is overwhelming. Add in the fact that suddenly neighbours I had had for ten years without them noticing me were it seemed, pouring out of their houses to say hi to Shadow it was all a bit hard. Hard but no doubt good for me.

I am pragmatic. I really struggled with those early months of his intense popularity in our area. I had read though that in a natural disaster people who know their neighbours have higher survival rates and better outcomes and as insane as that may seem as a way to rationalize what I went through to have Shadow’s social needs met at the end of every walk when I slumped at my computer to do comforting computer stuff that’s what I told myself as I started at my stockpile of earthquake water.

When I was in hospital my nephew would bring Shadow in. It was actually the nurses there who were among the most vocal that he should be certified as they had just had a dog stay for some time and felt it benefited everyone. I certainly missed him mightily as it was our only separation of longer than 2 days. I worried he would be a piner like Tiny and not eat but he was apparently loving the wild, student lifestyle with my nephew and having the attention of who knows how many university students who had left some beloved dog at home heaped on him but still I know I am number one in his brain.

In these days of intense grief, Shadow has upped his protectiveness to extreme levels. He had his bed beside my desk and would sometimes drag it even further to be warmer or less likely to have paper dropped on him. His bed wound up fully under my desk almost immediately after hearing the still unfathomable news.  I didn’t even see him move it just noticed that when I sat down the sensation of dog head landing on my foot was now part of the process.

He came with me, “home” to see my mother’s cold, cold body. Well he couldn’t go to the actual funeral home but was on her bed waiting for me when I returned. The airline we fly with had just changed their policy about service and support dogs so years of paying for him to fly were going to end. He’s more essential than anything else that travels with me and now they were apparently willing to accept the word of a person qualified to say I had a DSM diagnosis (heck I collect them so that’s no problem) . For their purposes he needed nothing else. The only hitch was they needed it 48 hours in advance. Which was of course impossible. They opted to waive his fare going out as a pet and have him come home as an emotional support dog. That would be the promotion some people refer to.

Only of course he hasn’t been promoted. Nothing at all has changed about my dear Shadow. There is no rank higher than my dog in our shared universe. That society might acknowledge his importance to my health and well-being is great but that’s society. It’s practical to jump through their hoops as on a small pension and the little extra I am able to earn legally because  it’s not easy to shell out for his fare and so on but he’s doing what he has done since he was 8 weeks old.

He’s very good at it. Back before the news while he still regarded me as needing more watching than I had in some time (it has as I say been a very bad 15 months) he was willing to have his eyes off me for a few minutes at a time. We have a very small space now and he must have realized I can’t actually escape without him noticing as his practices have changed a bit.

Right now he is back to the comical levels of surveillance he had when he was a puppy. We had a walk in shower at out last place. So reluctant was he to have me out of his sight back then that he would follow me into the shower despite it only taking a second at that size for him to be soaking wet. He would eventually settle for sticking his head around the curtain and then for lying down and complaining loudly about my being in such a dangerous device but that was slow progress.

We have a bathtub here. It’s a deep one and Shadow is not a fan as if I slide all the way down to soak my aching joints I am not visible at all from where he sits. Up come his paws and head on the ledge of the tub. I know it’s anthropomorphizing him to imagine he looks a little annoyed at having to check but I do imagine that. Today he seemed to feel the need to check so often I eventually felt guilty and climbed from the tub far sooner than my arthritis wanted me to. Still he is right to suspect in my pain and misery I need close watching. Nothing would actually happen in the tub but he can, I know, feel the pain and it’s that pain he is checking on. He must also feel the slight lifting of the pain as his paws and head come into view as annoyed as I imagine he looks it is also a bit comical and does give some relief.

I don’t really understand non-dog people because the love of a dog is like nothing else on earth. I can’t quite wrap my head around not knowing that or at least not taking it on faith enough to try it.

Back when I had Tiny who was so devoted to me people would marvel I would dismiss her devotion a bit as being a product of what I increasingly suspected was a more troubled background than I had been told. I knew she loved me but I thought that love was artificially enhanced in contrast to what she had known before. That I was good to her there is no doubt but still I tended to think I was just a huge improvement so her dedication to me made a sort of sense not due to my own qualities but in contrast to what she had known.

Shadow has changed my mind. When people remark on his attentiveness I tell them that I inspire devotion in dogs. Dogs by nature want to be devoted but mine seem to go that extra mile so people do remark. I have realized it isn’t every human or indeed the majority of humans who thinks of their relationship with their dog as a partnership to the extent I do. I’ve joked if I believed in reincarnation and aside from the practical limitation I would come back as my dog.

When I first got Tiny and would describe myself as Tiny’s human when booking an appointment people would sometimes laugh. The years went on and some municipalities started to adapt language for dog by-laws that was free of the term owner. I had nothing whatsoever to do with that but was simply using language the way I always do. That is I use the words that are true. Owner is not a true word for the type of relationship I have with the dogs I have loved.

While one can buy a dog and due to a dog’s forgiving nature even the most horrible human can possess it’s heart to a degree that makes me want to weep at times, I don’t believe you can own one. If you are lucky you can have one that recognizes that you are the human he or she was meant to have and tried as hard as Shadow did to prove it.

My heart is as fully his as his is mine. Since I am not being blessed with the ignorance of his mortality that he is perhaps more so, as having lost dogs it’s hard not to look at even a young one without looking ahead to that terrible day.

Still in the moment we have each other and much of the time that is all we are certain of. It seems unlikely that I will ever have the kind of relationships with humans I sometimes long for but don’t mistake this love of and by a dog as a poor substitute for that. It’s a deep and loving bond free from the complications and hurts that humans sometimes inflict on one another. I am not qualified to say it is a better relationship but I do know it is not inherently a poorer one.

Like the husband I will likely never have he is not perfect. He’s part Pekingese so he snores like a 400 pound truck-driver sometimes with that squashed in nose of his. There’s that aforementioned tendency to find the most comfortable part of my body to creep up onto in the night to be my bladder and I left out the part (although again he discusses it in his own blog) where he has a war with my reading material.

Right now I can’t really look after myself. I am losing alarming amounts of weight because of that and all sorts of regarded as essential things are not happening. Shadow however is looked after. On my worst days he has to advocate for himself a bit and I feel terrible guilt if his water dish is empty but so central is he to my universe that his care comes above my own and I do think that love has been defined that way by more than one poet or sage throughout time.

I titled this blog Just a Dog because it’s a phrase I hear so often, often preceded by “Don’t be silly,”. I feel sorry for people who can say, “just a dog”. There is no just about it. To not have been loved by a dog enough to know that just and dog don’t go together as it does them dishonour to so diminish their importance is a very sad thing. A sadder thing I think, (although the world again views this differently) than my condition. It probably breaks some fundamental neurotypical societal rule for me to feel sorry for those inclined to buy puzzle ribbons and turn facebook blue and all that meaningless politically correct “see how much I care about autism” nonsense and still say just and dog in the same sentence. So sorry any regular, well-meaning but insight impaired neurotypicals that read this. I mean no offense. This is just my truth about my dog and why he is neither promotable nor diminishable by any adjective.

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One thought on “Just a Dog

  1. Although I would make a lousy dog owner due to an innate fear and the fact that I only ever had a cat growing up, I do understand the bonds that form and I live with dogs, although they came with my lover, and to some extent, I am bonded to them as we’ll. I am glad your Shadow gives you so much and more glad that he can fly as your aid.

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