Jingle bell time is a swell time for awkward first encounters.
My boyfriend and I finally took the plunge: we got a puppy! I knew it would be hard work and a lot of responsibility, but that “holy shit” feeling I had when we picked her up was just a subtle hum of the loud siren of uncertainty I’ve come to know in the month since.
Having grown up with dogs, I knew what it would take on a logistic level, but nothing prepared me for the emotional turmoil of having one of my own.
Being responsible for a living thing feels almost like a miracle cure for my self-absorption and narcissism. Had I known it’d be like that, I would have quit therapy and got a dog much sooner. As a TV writer trying to sell shows, take meetings, and keep my career moving, I get very caught up in the narrative of my own success and failures. But since adopting SanDeE* (named after the character from Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story”) my thoughts have shifted. I used to wake up every morning by telling myself what I needed to be stressed about that day or reminding myself of what I didn’t have. Now my morning routine starts immediately with relieving SanDeE* from her crate so she can relieve herself outside because, otherwise, I am an animal torturer. Then it’s breakfast, playtime, and enjoying the ridiculous things she does in the morning, of which I am convinced she knows are cute. After my boyfriend goes to work and it’s just me and SanDeE*, that’s when the challenges of the day begin to rear their head.
Training a living being that does not speak a human language is one of the biggest challenges I have experienced. That said, golden retrievers are pretty easy: they will do anything for a treat and are eager to please. It became clear that the key to training SanDeE* is to ignore her bad behavior and incentivize good behavior by rewarding her with a treat every time she does something right. In time, she will (hopefully) forget the bad behavior and only remember the good. This concept was pretty easy for me to connect to since it is basically how I’d like to be treated: be told I am beautiful, smart, and amazing, and given food or presents every time I go to the bathroom in the bathroom.
While there are days when SanDeE* does really well, there are days—even weeks—when our communication is stunted and we cannot connect. The hardest thing for me is when she’s too stubborn to leave the house and go outside—and it hasn’t got easier. Apparently, it’s normal for puppies, especially females, to be afraid of the outside world; they become aware of how big the world is and how many smells there are, and that it can be dangerous out there and they become really fearful. When I learned this, I realized this dog and I are the same. I’m a homebody. I enjoy working from home and not seeing people, and it takes a lot of willpower for me to get over my anxieties and be social. My biggest challenges are always fear-based. I have made the worst life choices when I was most afraid of the world, and the best life choices when I felt no fear at all. So why is it so much easier to dwell in our fears? I don’t know the answer, which makes it even harder to guide SanDeE* outside.
At first, I tried telling her how beautiful and amazing she is instead—my go-to method—and it worked for a bit. I reinforced her confidence over and over hoping she’d forget her fear. Now it’s not enough. After doing some research, I found the way to fix this is to walk her with confidence. If I’m confident and strong, she will follow. Just when I thought I could cut corners and help her, I’m reminded that I can’t help anyone until I help myself. Not only is my conscience holding me to the commitment of being the best emotional version of myself, but now my dog is too. Noted, Universe.
As if examining my own self-confidence and learning how to deal with that wasn’t enough, I tend to put aside prioritizing my health and well-being. I put off doctor’s appointments because I’m afraid of what they’ll tell me—whether it’s my weight or that I’m actually dying. But when we changed SanDeE*’s food and she not only got diarrhea but woke up the next morning with pink eye from the diarrhea getting in her eye somehow, I couldn’t wait to take her to the vet. Moreover, when I got there, I learned she had flaky skin—like dandruff for pups—but a little children’s Benadryl in her food would fix it. I didn’t think twice; I got the medicine. It reminded me of when my doctor prescribed me an ointment for a skin issue and I never picked up the prescription. Three years later, and still no prescription to treat it. Noting the irony, I remembered something I learned a long time ago in the sky: if the oxygen masks on a plane deploy, we must put it on ourselves before helping anyone else. We are no help to anyone unless we take care of ourselves first. I am no help to my dog if I am no help to myself. Noted again, Universe.
With all those ailments happening all at once, having SanDeE* has reminded me to be patient. Here was this adorable puppy with flaky skin that drives her crazy; her eye filled with so much puss, I’m sure she could barely see; and a stubborn attitude about going anywhere, she was not only uncomfortable in the world but scared of it at the same time. I was frustrated with her because she wouldn’t go for walks (“I have work to do!”) SanDeE* could tell I was upset with her and not because she says anything directly (she is a dog after all) but because I wasn’t praising her, I wasn’t giving her treats … I was in a rush and I “needed” to get back inside. That feeling between us was so potent—one of disconnection, not communicating. It broke my heart. After I left her in her crate and left for my meeting, I called my boyfriend and confessed everything: “Was I mean to her? Will she feel bad about herself in the crate?” He insisted she wouldn’t remember any of it, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to love her so much that the fear went away; I want to give her medicine that makes her feel better right away; I want her to be happy and confident in the world. I want to be happy and confident in the world.
When I returned home, in regular dog fashion, SanDeE* was happy to see me. I took her out right away and my guilt from the previous walk made me incredibly supportive on this one, mostly because she forgave me and, more likely, forgot about everything. I cheered her on so much and gave her tons of treats. I didn’t have to pull at the leash once. She did all the business she needed to do and her poop was finally healthy. I threw her a puppy party for one and she walked home with more confidence than ever before. I realized she makes me want to achieve that level of confidence for myself more than I did before.
Now that I have SanDeE*, trying to make her feel loved so that fear goes away is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt. When she has a little victory and I can see how happy she is to please me and how proud I am of her, it really helps put me in my place in the world. We are all individual creatures with good days and bad days. Knowing that phases, like SanDeE*’s fear-based one, are common reminds me that my phases of contentment are part of human process too. It’s not just me who is going through something, we all are in our own way. So when we can be reminded that out of many, we are one, it makes the world a less fearful place. SanDeE* is not alone. I am not alone. We are not alone.