Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Today I am writing about dogs. I used to have this sweet, traumatized rescue dog named Odie. We got Odie when the twins were eight years old. We had prepared for months, watching Caesar Milan dog training videos and discussing principles of behavior training, the importance of exercise and how to use treats to reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior to extinguish it according to the principles of operant conditioning. I felt well prepared to use my graduate school education and earnestly thought my state certification as a child mental health specialist would apply neatly to dog parenting.

Odie came from a home where he had been so neglected that when he first joined us, he couldn’t walk around the block without sounding like he was having an asthma attack. He licked the fur on the tops of his paws clean off. He licked the glass of the backdoor until his salvia etched it into a permanently cloudy surface.

Whenever someone came over or I talked on the phone, he would rocket out the doggie door into the backyard and leap up repeatedly against the door and bark as if the hounds of hell were on his tail.

When company came over, he would take out his girlfriend/dog bed and vigorously hump it in the middle of the gathering.  Having been neutered did nothing to deter his motivation.

I did all I could think of to help Odie become a better-behaved dog. I got him a variety of treats. Sprayed bitter apple spray on the back door. Held and petted and walked him daily. Tried picking him up when he was misbehaving, as well as leaving him alone, as well as putting him in time out in another room, as well as distracting him with toys.

I wish this were a story where my persistence and patience resulted in the eradication of these whacked out behaviors, but it is not. Instead, I changed. I became less distressed when he came back in through the doggie door with saliva streaming down his chin. I learned to leave the room when I made or received a phone call so the person on the other end wouldn’t have to worry that we were beating our dog. I learned to take less personally his pillow humping during social gatherings. Odie taught me high strung, traumatized dogs don’t necessarily get better.

This spring, Odie was killed by Coyotes. It happened early in the morning, before I woke up. I found his collar and a significant amount of blood in the backyard, and later found his skull under a sage bush.

There is a mathematical equation that equals the exact amount of time each of us gets on earth, but no one knows the value of any of the variables. It’s only when their time is up that we know how much time we had with our human and non-human beloveds.

Hedonic adaptation is the psychological term that describes the common tragedy of developing a tolerance for, and then subsequently ignoring, every single familiar source of joy in our lives. We forget to notice the beauty of the garden, the sweetness of ice cream, the scent of our child’s scalp, the warmth of our spouse’s sleeping body. It takes conscious effort to fight the development of immunity to joy.

Dogs never develop hedonic adaptation. They eat their treats with gusto every single time. They greet us with total focused enthusiasm. Odie, as crazy as he was, celebrated each family member with sniffs and licks and tail wags and demands for belly scratching. He had terrible breath and was banned from dog gatherings and destroyed the back door and was still the sweetest, most loving creature. Flawed is not unlovable.

One thought on “Dog Lessons

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