14 August 2005


My dog likes corners to sleep in.

Some dogs stretch out on the floor in the middle of the room. Not my guy - I'll call him The Bear. He tucks himself away and hides in a quiet place. It's the last vestige of the way he coped with life when I adopted him five years ago.

He'd been in a noisy, crowded animal shelter, reprieved twice from the gas chamber because the people there liked him and thought he was worth saving. I was looking for a shepherd dog to walk with at night - a dog to be a companion and guard. He was looking for Anywhere But Here, Please.

He was terrified of his own shadow at first. It wasn't like he'd been abused, so much as he was just frightened. As it turned out, it was mostly inexperience. However he'd been brought up, it wasn't in thoughtful family surroundings. He displayed extreme terror of garage doors, SUVs with open doors, other dogs, young men in baseball caps, young men on skateboards, and male Asians. By extreme, I mean I'd be playing him at the end of the leash like a fighting fish.

The extent of his deprivation was made clear the first time he accompanied me through a drive-through for cheeseburgers one evening. He was in the back of the Volvo wagon, looking around, alert and a little nervous. I was explaining the whole way that it was about good things to eat, and just trust me, you'll see. He held it together until the kid at the window leaned over and reached out to take my money. The Bear feels strongly about the car, and even more strongly about me, and let it be known that he, The Bear, would take that kid's arm off at the elbow if he didn't back off right now. The kid visibly jumped. Bear's bark is magnificent and loud. The manager out in the store even looked over with a "is my kid all right?" look.

I happen to subscribe to the belief that dogs do that out of standard beta-pack instinct: their job is to watch the alpha's back as well as the den, and the Volvo is clearly a good den in Bear's mind. So I wasn't going to scold the dog, because he was behaving correctly in the situation as he perceived it. Instead, I thanked him. "Thank you, Bear - I know what this is. It's OK." He quieted down pretty much then, though still grumbling under his breath at the nerve of the kid.

I wish I had a videotape of what I saw in the rear-view mirror as I drove away. Bear sat up with a busy nose. The aroma of cheeseburgers filled the car as I made my way back to the house. He was, eventually, allowed a taste. Since that day he is an old pro at drive-throughs, and has extended his nonchalance to all the old phobias, with the singular exception of a couple of elderly Daschunds down the street. If they're out when we walk by, they scurry across the street and fearlessly set upon poor Bear. He gets truly scared, for he doesn't know what he's done to arouse their ire (nor do I), and he knows I won't let him retaliate and extinguish the little twits. So he cowers while I dance between him and the dogs until the owner comes to retrieve them. The predatory Daschunds. Heh.

However, to this day, my big strong dog still likes to sleep in corners. He has several around the house which are his favorites. All are readily identified by the smudges on the walls. One is an unused shower. One is by the front door. It makes him feel safe. One of the things I've noticed about him is his evident and obvious gratitude for quiet, peaceful surroundings. He's just like me, in that regard.

He and I both like our versions of corners, places where we can feel safe and be quiet and rest and sleep and recharge. My dog will never be a social diva, nor will I. But we have each other, and we understand one another, and feel a certain camaraderie in our taste for solitude and retirement.

In the cage where I found him huddled against the wall, silent and enduring amid the horrible noise of the enclosed kennels, I wonder if he was hoping for such a life, or if he even knew there might be a reprieve. I remember how it was for me at a similar time in my life, not of literal noise but internal torments of a similar, unrelenting nature. That Bear and I found each other gave me hope that one day I, too, could be free. With him at my side, I've found the courage to do more than ever before, watching him take on new challenges and suppress his fears out of a desire to please me. Corners are good for resting, but only in between forays. Some adventures are great (cheeseburgers). Some are not favorites (the doctor; the groomer). Bear and I know. We're figuring it out, together.

(In case you're curious, Bear is a mix, but he's mostly Belgian Tervuren - a breed I never knew existed until I found a picture on a website after his adoption.)

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