learning patience through dog sitting
One of my yoga instructors did a reading on patience the other day. “Attention,” she said, “is the most basic form of love.” That makes sense; giving a person or a task your full attention requires patience. The problem for me is that, when it comes to patience, mine is in short supply. The love part of the message blew right by me.
I am a freelance copywriter. I’ve always been on the agency side of the business. That means I am a service provider. The client pays the bills, so the saying goes ‘the customer is always right’. It can be tough fitting patience into that dynamic.
Last November, during the 2014 election, my business dried up. I knew it would come back, but rather than panic, I tried to think of something else I could do to make money. I hit on dog walking. I’ve always been a dog person; we have three in our family. And, even though the hourly rate is a fraction of what I was making as a copywriter, I like exercise, I like being outdoors and I like money. Works for me!
My first customer was George and his pit bull cross, Hercules. When I went to meet them, Hercules was on a tight leash, but he still managed to growl and even snap at me. “Don’t worry,” said George, “he just needs time.” I wasn’t convinced, but I decided to give it a try. “Dogs like me,” I thought, “I’ll win him over.” The next night I arrived at the agreed upon time, after George had left for work. Hercules was in his crate. As soon as I opened the door with my key, I heard a low, menacing snarl.
I stepped cautiously into the room cooing, “Hello big guy, I won’t hurt you.” He went postal. Hercules threw himself against the bars of the latched crate, barking so ferociously I thought it would disturb the neighbors. The bloodlust was stunning, “Come on,” he seemed to shout, “open the door and I’ll tear you apart.”
Each day in yoga, I dedicated my practice to Hercules and thought about the effort it took me to walk into his room. “He just needs attention and patience,” I thought. Each evening, I went to see my new charge and was greeted with the same fury. But one night, about three weeks in, he rewarded me by not growling when I arrived. At the start of week four, I took a big chance.
Making a trail of bacon treats between his crate and the living room sofa – one room away – I unlatched the crate and booked for the sofa, holding up the top of a garbage can for protection. Hercules followed the treat trail. He lay down on the floor, and I slowly lowered myself onto the sofa. We watched TV. “OMG,” I thought, “It worked.”
Not quite. For the next month, I plied that dog with ice cream cones that he licked from my hand. I hand-fed him oatmeal raisin cookies one bite at a time. I read him the poems of Rudyard Kipling and e.e. cummings. I even read him Mister Dog. Did he let me pet him or put on his harness to go for a walk? Not a chance. Every time I tried, he’d lunge toward my face and snap. One time I fell into a table and knocked it over. He just looked at me.
“Okay,” I thought, “time for new strategy. Poems and food are not working.” He had simply gotten used to the new routine. So I decided to change it up. I texted George and told him to leave Hercules out of the crate. “When I come in,” I wrote, “I’ll be the one to open the crate for him – but not until he agrees to take a walk. The first time I approached him with the harness, he rolled over onto whichever side I was working on and attempting to click the latch into place.
I struggled; he rolled. After about 30 minutes of this I was able finally to harness him and put on the leash; we were ready to go. And go we did. Outdoors, Hercules was in his element. He ran from tree to tree, sniffing as he went. When we encountered other dogs and their owners, he just looked. No aggression.
Once home, he ran from room to room like his butt was on fire. And then he did something wonderful. He rolled onto his back, feet in the air, and let me give him a tummy rub.
The whole patience journey took about seven months. Today, Hercules waits at the door for me to arrive. I say, “Let’s have a big adventure!!” He does the crazy dance, runs around the house and skids across the kitchen floor ending up on his back, feet in the air. I rub his tummy and say, “Who wants a kiss?” He juts his chin up in the air and I plant a big smooch right on his face.
Hercules and I have been in this place for about two months now, and unless something drastic happens that is out of my control, I see no reason for a reversal. Driving home the other night, I was musing about the experience and what it means to me. “Am I proud?” I wondered.
No, it’s not that. ‘Gratified’ is what I’m feeling. I waited the big guy out. I dedicated my yoga practice to him every day. And every night, I waited for the tide to turn. I gave Hercules my full attention. And he blessed me with something that was neither his nor mine to command. Love.
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