published Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Shavin: What to do with a nervous dog

Dana Shavin

Two weeks ago, one of my dogs had a meltdown. Brie is a shy, caramel-colored cocker spaniel whose brown eyes get huge when her feelings are hurt. She tiptoes through the house on mop feet, clings to her end of the sofa like a life raft and lies down like a lamb with her front legs bent under at the knees. As with most sibling relationships, there is the occasional scuffle with her sister, Bella, with whom she shares the sofa and a bed. But until a few weeks ago, she had never turned on my tiny, 14-year-old dog, Shark.

It happened in the kitchen on an otherwise quiet morning. Shark is like a truffle-hunting pig, snout to the ground, snuffling his way throughout the house in search of interesting smells and tastes. On some of these innocent meanderings, he bumps into Brie. At the zenith of her frustration, when Shark's wandering and bumping coincided with her anxious wait for breakfast, she attacked. And when she attacked, I screamed and spanked her. Had this been the last of it, our lives would have progressed without frantic calls to a dog-trainer friend, feverish readings of books with titles like "The Dog Who Would Be King," and insomnia-fueled nights tormented by images of Shark's bloodied head hanging out of Brie's smiling mouth.

But it wasn't the end. There were more attacks, each followed by screaming and spanking. By the time I called the trainer friend, sweet, shy Brie of the folded lamb legs was growling and attacking with terrifying regularity. I was depressed and beside myself with worry. I thought about the Richie Diener story from 1972, in which the father shot his steak-knife-wielding son in self-defense. Was this where we were headed?

The trainer friend, who may or may not have known about Richie Diener, was slightly less frantic than I was. He asked a lot of questions: When does Brie get mad? What does she do first? What do I do? What do the other dogs do? I answered him, but there was a stone in my belly on which was carved, "We can't fix this." I listened carefully to his recommendations, then called my husband, who had been out of town for exactly the amount of time Brie had lost her mind, making me think that it had perhaps been my husband who'd been keeping Brie sane all along.

"It's hopeless," I told him.

"Is that what the trainer said?" he asked.

"Not exactly," I said. "He said Brie is anxious because everyone is excited about eating, and she feels like she has to manage the situation. He said to put her on a mat in a private spot away from the other dogs at mealtimes." I refrained from mentioning the Richie Diener steak-knife/murder issue. I didn't know whether there had been violence in Richie's family that led up to the shooting, but I did see how, in our case, spanking Brie for her aggression had only made her more aggressive.

And so began the plan that involved an absurd amount of quietude: voices barely raised above a whisper, footsteps moderated, silverware unclinking. Brie gained her own private mat just inside the dining room, where she could still see into the kitchen but was leashed to the table for the 40 seconds it took her and Bella and Shark to eat their meals. Once finished, everyone came together again in an orgy of calm delight.

A few days into the plan, my husband returned home, and I went to Atlanta for my fourth round of life-coach training. Two days into the training, which was (coincidentally) about helping clients work though emotions and manage their fears, my husband said something extraordinary had happened. In the kitchen awaiting breakfast, before he could put Brie in the dining room, Shark had bumped her. Brie growled, looked at my husband, then walked into the dining room and sat down on her mat.

Images of Richie Diener, so vivid in my mind the week before, burst like bubbles. Life felt livable again, and my gratitude, and my pride in Brie, was enormous. And maybe it was coach training, or maybe it was my husband's gentle hinting, but for whatever reason, I suddenly "got" it: how Brie and I were just alike, how, in our anxious, ill-conceived attempts to manage things, we create havoc instead.

My husband was right. Maybe I do need my own mat.

Email Dana Shavin at danalise@juno.com.

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