Tonight, in dog class, a big unruly unaltered male kept getting in her face.
I don’t know what her life was like before the pound and the rescue, but I have some guesses. One of those guesses: she had to defend herself against unfriendly dogs. She is hypervigilant when other dogs are in sight, unless they are among her small circle of friends.
She has already taken this basic obedience class, and mastered everything except “heel.” I take her anyway so that she can spend time around misbehaving dogs, dogs who do not listen or respect boundaries or know how to play nice, in the hope that she will become desensitized and relax.
She shuts down when the triggers get to be too much for her. I will tell her to come with me but she will shut me out, freeze in place, pick a random spot on the floor that must be sniffed for the next 20 minutes. I have learned to ease her out of those moments, to take her muzzle in my right hand and bring her eyes around to meet mine. I whisper reassurances. I kiss her forehead. I envelop her.
Tonight that boisterous, unruly male, dealing with traumas of his own, came too close to her. A year ago she would have snapped at him. She did tonight as well, but it was a polite, pro forma snap; the merest baring of three or four teeth and a nod of her head, as far removed from an actual bite as a handshake is from an attempt to jostle loose any sleeve-hidden daggers.
That male is one of three in the class, and they have developed a triangular and resentful rivalry. There is much serious growling. There is unseemly barking. There is aerosolized testosterone and display of tooth enamel.
Tonight she grew tired of the boys.
It took her 45 minutes to reach the limits of her tolerance and shut down. When she did, it was a thing to behold. I took her muzzle in my hand, brought it around to make eye contact, and she was so rigid I lifted her front feet off the linoleum. We took some time away from the activities, off to the side, me whispering blandishments and offering bits of dried liver.
Twenty minutes later, in front of the whole class, she demonstrated for the less-tutored dogs the perfect sit-lie down.
That was lovely, but what made me happiest was something only I noticed. For the rest of the class I watched her. She lay on the floor at my feet watching the other dogs. I watched her. Every now and then, as she looked at one of the boys, her glance would harden, fix itself into a cold and calculating stare.
Each time I whispered “leave it.” And each time her shoulders would relax and she would turn her gaze elsewhere.
She will be a happy dog yet.