Hitch your leash over a hydrant and walk away

by Gautam Raja

I was at a party where a dog played with a football. I got the ball off him, and joined the game in a way you could consider teasing. I hid the ball behind me, pretended to throw it, unexpectedly threw it in a different direction, and then, when I got it back, put my weight on the ball as the dog scrabbled to dislodge it. The dog’s ears were up, and his eyes shone as he jumped and feinted, barking and huffing in excitement. I let him have the ball every now and then, but infrequently and unpredictably.

A guest watched. “Poor thing,” she whined, “don’t do that, let him have the ball, poor thing, don’t tease him.”

She was obviously illiterate to canine body language. Anybody even semi-conversant would have seen the dog was thrilled by the game. His brain worked as hard as his body as he read my movements, and tried to outmanoeuvre me.

This “oh poor helpless little thing” attitude towards dogs is common, and it sets my teeth on edge. As we’ve pieced together our own dog’s story (he was adopted after being abandoned on a highway), I’m convinced he’s come from a loving household with no rules. He had an anxious, dominating energy: grabbing objects and running around with them, lunging for food, and testing boundaries by leaping at you in barely veiled aggression. The first time I gave him a treat, he almost took off my fingers.

Today, with a life of play and boundaries, especially around food, he has a calm, loving energy that a recent houseguest described as unique and special. And yet, my wife and I are often told to lay off as we enforce rules about rough play, food begging, or jumping.

“Let him be, he’s just being a dog” is the line we’ve heard in various forms. (Some of these people have children–I wonder how they’d react to: “Oh come on, he’s just a child, let him eat all that ice cream! Poor thing, don’t tease him–give him the whole carton!”)

I sometimes play a game with my dog that can seem cruel, especially if you know he has a fear of being abandoned in strange places. On a walk, I hitch him to a fence or fire hydrant, and keep going. At first, I couldn’t go two steps without him yowling in outrage and anxiety. Gradually, I was able to get further, and today, he’ll let me go out a long way, and when I turn and stop, he’ll sit until I return. I won’t say he likes the game, but I have taught him that I always come back. He is now much more relaxed at new places, or when I have to leave him in unusual situations, such as at the vet, or outside a store. Reducing a life sentence of chronic anxiety is not cruel.

As I work to overcome my own engine idle of tenseness, I see almost debilitating anxiety in so many people in my life. Anxiety makes you a walking “Worst of…” album of yourself. When it comes to connecting, it’s as if you’re tuned into a screeching high-frequency carrier signal modulated from a distance by your actual personality. It’s nearly impossible to bond with others over the racket. Finding a way to hitch your leash over a fence post and walk away, giving Anxious You a chance to breathe, and learn you’re not going to leave is a complex, even brutal process. However, it’s so important to realise that you’re no “poor, helpless thing” and that short-term kindness is often long-term cruelty.

First published in Gulf News, June 6, 2017