The First 60 Days
I waited 3 years to even consider another animal companion after losing my Airedale, Harry. The wait was grief-related and also based on my home situation. My son’s dog, Roxy, couldn’t always manage the stairs up to my son’s second floor apartment, so she stayed downstairs with me most of the time. She missed Harry, too, so we consoled each other. She had the best of both worlds and I still had a dog in the house.
We lost Roxy late last summer and suddenly, the house felt so empty.
I don’t make decisions easily. I wish that meant I had keen discernment. What it really means is I angst over choice, for fear of making the wrong choice; for fear of the permanence of choice or what I’m missing having chosen, and for fear of the grief and effort it takes to right a wrong choice, when that’s necessary.
Leela came to me through One Love Rescue, Inc., a foster care organization here on Long Island. She was the first dog I met and, after several days of decision-angst and my son’s encouragement that she would be perfect for me, I said yes. She was a rescue from Alabama, found on the street with another dog that ‘clearly wasn’t related to her’, according to One Love Rescue. She was sweet and social and about 4-1/2 to 5 months old.
There’s this imaginary story you create in your head about what having a new puppy will be like: the cuddles, the puppy clumsiness and pranks, the sweet sound of sleeping when you’ve only been in the world for 4-5 months. I’d also created another chapter to that story that Leela would become my forest therapy dog when I lead walks, sitting patiently by my side, unaffected by people, other dogs or anything else a dog might find curiously interesting. But that last part was for later. Now, it was sweet, clumsy, cuddly time.
It was nothing like that. Nothing like that at all. I had, it seemed, adopted Leela, the warrior princess; a puppy who looked like a Dingo dog rather than a cuddly ball of fur. Technically, dingoes are not a breed of dog. They're only semi-domesticated and are just as much wolf as they are dog. So far, it's unclear if Canis lupus dingo was ever fully domesticated. Some evidence suggests that they may once have been pets, but were abandoned and left to revert to their wild state. You can find dingo blood in Australian Kelpies and Australian cattle dogs, the latter of which I believe is part of Leela’s DNA.
I used to laugh at people who tested their dog’s DNA. Now, I am one of those people who is considering testing my dog’s DNA to see what comes up in her mix. And then again, I stop and think. She is who she is: a dog that no one seems to be able to identify. Her own unique self. (You'll want to read the next segment - Leela at the Lake - to learn why this is titled, "The Occasional Hyena".)
People comment that she must have some German Shepherd in her, and yet her legs, front and back, are long and getting longer. Dutch Shepherd is the next choice, which feels closer than the German breed. Australian Cattle dog, because her chest and belly are colored white with black spots and the hair is much longer. They also have the ears and were originally a crossbreed between Dingos and Collies. Catahoula Leopard dog (uh, no), Treeing Tennessee Brindle (except for the ears, this is an excellent match!) And the list goes on. Now, through my own online research, Akita-Dutch Shepherd mix seems possible. But then, there’s the Dutch Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix and I say, “Yes! That’s Leela!” So, the mystery remains.
Leela didn’t start out being Leela. Her first name was Hootie. What an evil thing to do to a little puppy. No disrespect intended since the rescue organization has hundreds of puppies that require names. But really? Hootie? Since One Love Rescue, Inc., is a foster-to-adoption organization, the first couple of trips to the vet for shots and spaying were all Hootie trips. I had trouble saying, “Yes, this is Hootie, and she’s here for …” When she was spayed, the day she officially became mine, her tag said, “Leela.” Enough of this Hootie nonsense. I’m done. Leela means Divine Play, or Sport/Play, depending on where you search for results. Derived from the Arabic Leila (night, dark beauty) or the Persian Leila (dark-haired). In Sanskrit, it looks like this – लीला. I thought it looked like hearts.
At any rate, after the first few weeks, it was clear that my ideal dog relationship wasn’t turning out as I’d intended. Leela was smart and quick to learn. She was also quick to ignore what was clearly something she knew how to do. I don’t feel like sitting, no matter how many times you say it. Drop it? Drop what? And barking. For a dog that barks at nothing, Leela began to bark at me. After we’d run through the list of reasons why she was barking: out, eat, teething, needs a toy retrieved from under the sofa, etc., there was no godly reason to bark at me, except that she could. And then there was stalking. I’d throw the ball and she’d run after it, only to turn around, look at me, and slow-stalk me, eyes laser-focused on me, until, breaking into a frenzied run, she’d throw herself at my body. Really? Are we having fun yet?
As she’s gotten better at “Fetch”, the stalking has lessened, although sometimes, she runs to the ball, circles around the back of it, and then runs headlong for me, leaping within 2-3 feet of me. She’s responding to “No. Stop” much better these days but I’m impressed at just how far she can leap, even if it’s at me.
With all this going on, I decided to hire a trainer. My vet recommended someone who was reasonable and came to the house to train me. That’s really who’s being trained. Not the dog. The human. He was a kind man who immediately showed me that Leela could be ‘the perfect dog’ with lots of references to the human being a ‘good leader’. Well, I must suck at leadership, which is ironic since I teach it to organizations. At one point, he said, “Linda, look” and I looked. I half expected a treat.
Working with this trainer led me to an interesting question. Is there a masculine energy associated with leadership and training, or is that a choice, and there’s also a feminine energy associated with leadership and training? There was a thin, short lead for Leela to wear around the house. I needed to keep her close, so keeping my feet on the lead, so she had to lie down was my assignment. I liked that she sat on the back of the sofa, watching the world go by (not barking, mind you) but that was 1) elevating herself inappropriately in rank and 2) not paying attention to inside or me. The free spirit in me thought that if my parents did that to me, I’d have poked my eyes out with a spoon in a NY minute. And, oh wait. They did do that in their own way and I remember how I rebelled and how my spirit was broken often over silly things as well as monumental things. I didn’t like it.
The next lesson/challenge was taking her for walks. He sold me a nose harness, assuring that it didn’t hurt her (physically, that is. Her soul was another story.) and advising me that if people ask if she bites because it looks a bit like a muzzle, his reply was, “Oh, she could bite you if she wanted to.” Uh, no. Not saying that to anyone. Leela hated the nose harness, often throwing herself on the ground until I realized (quickly) that I was dragging a dog, not walking one. Ironically, she walked perfectly in it by my side and there was something that felt outwardly assertive/even aggressive that I just couldn’t bear. “Are you a good leader, or a bad leader?” ala Wizard of Oz (Are you a good witch or a bad witch), comes to mind. Now, she walks well without the nose harness and she gets time to sniff and wander and be a dog. Everyone is happy most of the time. Ask me what I did and I can’t tell you. I have no idea except to say I worked with her and we figured it out.
At one point, during the bark-until-the-human-cracks phase, I called this trainer again. He’d promised that he wouldn’t keep adding lessons so he made more money than I did, and yet, barking, it seemed, required another lesson. He started talking about teething and how good leaders always have a toy handy. You know, it takes me 3 trips on a good day into the backyard, just to have everything I need to sit and enjoy the backyard with Leela. Oops, I forgot the treats. Heck, let me get you a ball. Now my coffee is cold. Wait, maybe I could read that article I’ve been meaning to read. Good leader be damned, I’m doing my best.
The straw, final or otherwise, was when he told me that we’d require a lesson about barking because it would take him 40 minutes to explain it to me and then I’d need to agree to it. “Just tell me how to make it stop!” I wanted to say. Now I know how Leela felt when sitting just wasn’t an option for her. Instead, I said thank you and the training relationship ended with me feeling deeply that there’s got to be another way; a kinder way. After all, teaching leadership and how to create a culture of engagement, you are supposed to create the environment in which engagement happens. You can’t MAKE anyone engage. I need to work on what motivates her and how to use that to our advantage and benefit.
Things haven’t always been so rosy (yes, these stories were the good ones). Peeing on my living room rug sent me into a spiral of despair more than once. All I really learned from that is that if I were being murdered and screaming with all my doors and windows open, the neighbors wouldn’t have the slightest curiosity about what was happening. Good to know.
Everything I have comes at a great cost to me. Being a solopreneur, money is always dear. So, when something is damaged or ruined, it breaks my heart, because often, I can’t replace it. The last time I spiraled into despair, I was cutting my living room rug into 3 pieces for the trash people to take away and looking up how to get urine stains out of hardwood floors (It turns out that hydrogen peroxide works). I practiced what I planned to say the next morning to One Love Rescue; about why this wasn’t working and why it couldn’t continue. I’d reached the end of my rope and I was hanging from it that day.
Then a friend said to me, “You know, she’s a lot like you: cuddly AND a warrior. Maybe you’ve met your match.” Strangely, that comforted me. It encouraged me. Who had I decided Leela would be? Who was she really? When I looked at her as this little one whose only been in the world for 6 months, I was impressed and inspired. She’s fearless. She’s confident. She’s got her own mind and a past I know little about. How do you keep the warrior princess spirit AND respect household boundaries? It really was up to me to be present and attentive and curious about who she was; who she is and learn from that; to be a better leader in my own way that keeps the warrior princess spirit alive in me, too.
here’s no trainer to tell me that; just my intuition and reading her cues. I knew that intuitively. I felt it when guided to go against what felt right to me. I just couldn’t own it as a method. What a huge learning that was for me!
Curiously, we are snuggling more as a result and having more fun. We are two cuddly, warrior princesses at the end of the day, both feeling good about ourselves and each other. In the end, that’s all I ever really wanted.