Whenever I walked Travis, the pit bull puppy I fostered for the past three months, strangers would run up to me, cooing, “can I touch him? I want a dog so badly but I can’t have one in my apartment.” I would smile at them politely, but think to myself, “that clause in your lease is the best thing that ever happened to you, because you can keep cooing and you’ll never have to find out what actually goes into owning a dog.”
But as I said to Travis’s new owners when they picked him up this weekend, “having a dog will absolutely change your life, but it is a great change.” And while I ultimately don’t think I’m prepared to be a dog owner, I wouldn’t trade this (mostly difficult) adventure for anything. And in case you can’t have a dog at your house or don’t have the time to go through an entire bottle of Nature’s Miracle in one quarter, here’s a cheat sheet of what I learned.
Dreams Don’t Come True (the way you think)
I used to be one of those people that killed time by googling things like, “cutest pitbull puppies” “adorable pit bulls” and what have you. For months, I scrolled through Petfinder flagging all the pitbull puppies. So when I went to the shelter to pick up a foster dog and the lady in charge said, “would you mind considering this guy?He’s young and recovering from a hip surgery but he’s a really sweetheart” I was didn’t think twice. I ran downstairs to the car with Travis and marveled, “we got the pitbull puppy of our dreams!”
It would take less than two weeks for me to realize that the pitbull puppy of my dreams was a bunch of pixels, and that the pitbull puppy of my reality was a living, breathing thing that didn’t like taking his medicine, loved to torment me by chewing on my shoes, thought it was fine to pee in the hallway of my building and treated me like a threat instead of a master in the moments when I was least expecting it.
Of course, the pitbull puppy of my dreams appeared, too. Strangers regularly stopped me on the street to tell me how adorable he was. He insisted upon touching me with at least one paw while sleeping. He liked to sit on my lap at bars. To this day, he’s the only guy who has found watching me take a shower as enthralling as I hoped he would. But the puppy of my reality took up much more space in my heart and mind. And I think it’s that way it is with most of our dreams – once we achieve them, the real work sets in. My yoga teacher today said that “the yoga doesn’t start until you stop wanting to do the pose.” I think this is true of dreams, too. Whether it’s a job, a relationship, an apartment or a baby, your dream doesn’t really come true until you’ve worked through the less dream-like aspects of it. And if you can get through the hard part, what you have is amazing – it makes you stronger, smarter and deeper – but it’s not rose colored.
Not everybody is a natural alpha
When I first got Travis, I had advice from some friends who were experienced dog owners. The advice mostly revolved around asserting my authority, never letting Travis “win” at anything and physically pushing his head into the floor if he disobeyed me. Intellectually, I understood what they were saying. But intuitively, I couldn’t execute.
I hate to blame gender here, but I think it matters. After a few days, it occurred to me that I had never once told someone else to do something and assumed that they would do it. That’s not to be confused with always saying things in a nice tone of voice, which I certainly don’t. But before Travis, any time in my entire life I’d suggested something, I either felt that I needed to persuade the person to agree with me, or just pray that they listened. Consensus building is a nice trait to have at work, but it’s a disaster for a dog.
Furthermore, when I noticed this and tried to be strong, I struggled to find my voice. When a male friend would give the dog a command, he could easily sound very authoritative and the dog would listen. When I gave the dog a command, I ended up sounding like my mother yelling at me to clean my room. And just like me when I was a teenager, the puppy responded to that tone of voice with angst and continued defiance.
It took me a few days of this before I realized that being “strong” in dog land was going to require a set of skills and mannerisms that didn’t come naturally to me at all.
That said, everybody can learn to lead
Once I set about adjusting my behavior, I realized that part of the problem was that I was trying to mimic someone else’s expression of authority, which in a way, is counter to the entire notion of leadership. So for example, physically disciplining the dog was scary and unnatural for me, so even if I “won” I hadn’t really convinced the dog that I was a leader. On the other hand, ignoring the dog when he misbehaved was really easy for me. It made me feel more comfortable, and for Travis, a playful little puppy, it was actually much worse punishment than being pushed (which he tended to think of as a game.)
Realizing this, I had to do a lot of on the “back end” to convince myself that I was a person who was going to make decisions and give orders and instill discipline. Only by starting with that inner belief as my foundation could I start to find the right ways to outwardly convey my authority to the dog.
Although, as I said, most of our interactions with humans are better when we’re having conversations rather than giving commands, realizing that I might know what to do without asking someone else first was transformative for me. Last week, I was talking to a friend and he interrupted me, “I don’t think you should do that.”
I replied, without thinking, “I didn’t ask your opinion on what I should do. I told you what I’m going to do.” After the fact, I wondered where I even found those words. They sounded like something my brother would say. Or maybe it was the dog. I truly couldn’t think of a time in my life when I hadn’t, on some level, been asking for someone’s opinion until I had to live with a dog whose opinion didn’t matter.
Although I wouldn’t say I’m a pro dog trainer now, or that I’ve suddenly become really decisive, I no longer have the constant, nagging feeling that someone other than me must know the right answer.
There is a cult of people who think the earth is flat
Always hopeful that anyone I met could give Travis’s a forever home, I talked to a lot of strangers. One day on Bernal Hill, I met a seemingly reasonable man who first asked questions about Travis, and then presented me with a whole list of “mathematical” facts that prove the Earth’s roundness is a conspiracy. My advice here is brush up on your science because some day, you might say to a stranger, “Well, I think the explanation is light bends?” And he will say, “That’s crazy, how would light bend?” and you won’t remember that the answer is, “Gravity” and you will have to listen to more of his terrifying bullshit all before 7:30am.
It takes a village
Although I met some of the strangers I met were crazy and some of the advice from my friends didn’t always help me as much as I would have liked, I truly couldn’t have fostered Travis without the support of dozens of people from many circles of my life. Whether it was dog-sitting, donating old dog toys, keeping me company at dog friendly bars so I didn’t go crazy or offering moral support, my friends and co-workers were indispensable. But even beyond that, a larger community emerged.
I live in a neighborhood where we met tons of people who wanted to interact with Travis and understood that they were contributing to his socialization. I had neighbors who allowed him to meet their cat, to see if he could be friendly. I crossed paths with a couple on Cortland street who thought that having Travis sniff their toddler would be a good exercise for both of them.
I have a wonderful aunt in NYC who active in animal rescue and got Travis shared on Facebook hundreds of times. She e-introduced me to a friend of hers who had pitbull experience and was willing to devote time to give me advice on Travis’ resource guarding, without ever having met me. A woman that I knew through yoga made time in her schedule to be Travis’ dog walker. The list goes on.
I’m sure I could have done it on my own, but I’m really glad for both our sakes that I didn’t have to. It helped on a practical, functional level, but it was also a reminder of how how important it is to connect with a community larger than your immediate circle.
What we talk about when we talk about unconditional love
One thing you’ll hear people say about dogs a lot is, “there’s nothing in the world like that unconditional love.” I absolutely agree with those words, but not the way people mean them, because at no point did I get the sense that Travis loved me unconditionally, or even loved me at all. Part of the reason is that dogs don’t actually love anyone unconditionally. They love people who feed them and take care of them, which is the definition of conditional. As a stray who had been through a lot of trauma, Travis, I think, took a long time to realize he was going to be fed and taken care of. He had a nervousness about him, and mannerisms that I anthropomorphically described as a constant suspicion that he was going to get ripped off.
What’s more, he gave more affection to every human we met than he gave me, causing perpetual wounds to my ego (even when I tried to be mature.) And finally, worst of all, I knew that no matter how much work I put in to make him a good puppy, I wasn’t going to keep him. I wouldn’t ever reap the benefits from the puppy I raised; in fact our time together was just a countdown until the moment when I would peer out my window, crying and watching his new owner drive him away. As unpleasant this sounds, all these issues led me to recognize what real unconditional love is.
It is going above and beyond to support and nurture another being even when it doesn’t feel good at all. It’s paying close attention to the needs another being, so that you can do what’s actually good for them, rather than what you think is good for them or what feels good for you. It is seeing something deeper in them than their day-to-day behavior, it is recognizing that irritation, annoyance, sadness and fear are in a separate sphere from love, and they should never impact your ability to give it.
It’s also recognizing that this kind of love isn’t easy, and that’s it not a set-it-and-forget type of thing. It’s a practice that you commit to every day, by engaging in the actions of love and putting aside the mercurial feelings. It’s something to strive for rather than achieve. But most of all it’s realizing that being able to give this type of love is even better than getting this type of love. Most of us are on a constant quest to find way to feel good. We could make our lives so much easier and more rewarding if instead, we looked for ways to do good.
Your stupidity is who you are
As soon as I realized Travis was going to be a difficult dog, everyone I knew encouraged me to return him to the shelter. I actually tried, but after 24 hours, I decided I would rather struggle, change, learn and maybe uncomfortable than leave him there. I took him back two more times after that – once after a new home didn’t work out – and once after he went back to the shelter while I was on vacation. Each time, my family and friends would say to me, “Please don’t take back, Travis,” or “you need to take care of yourself.”
The last time I picked him from the shelter, he was very distressed and confused. The first day, he was territorial and even bit me. He liked to curl up against me in my bed but growled if I pet him. That night, I hugged the edge of my bed with my body and wondered if it was really a good to be sleeping next to a pit bull that had already bitten me once that day.
Correction: I wondered if I was stupid but I didn’t think about doing anything differently. I had made the decision to care for Travis, and as dumb as it looked to everyone else (including the rational side of my brain), I was committed. I took a leap of faith that things would get better. And they did.
Around this time, I remembered that a former boss once told me that for her 30th birthday, she went skydiving. “The minute I jumped out of that plane,” she said wistfully. “My life became my own.”
The first time you do something that isn’t logical and nobody else thinks is a good idea is surreal. But it’s also the moment that you find out, for better or worse, who you are. And that even if there was no one please, no approval to get and no right answer, you would still do something.