I (Veronica) was recently up at 1 am the morning before my oldest daughter, Aubrey, started kindergarten. I had a hard time falling asleep so when I awoke to the loud banging sound, I had only been asleep for a couple of hours. Now I was wide awake from the noise and walked downstairs to find my 90-pound male Akita (named Po after the movie Kung Fu Panda) on his hind legs in the foyer tearing window blinds apart, and sharp pieces were scattered all over the floor. As I approached I could see the curtains were also ripped and I smelled urine… he had peed on the floor in the front dining room and some of it had dripped down the air vent. In case you’re wondering, 90 lb dogs pee a LOT. After cleaning everything up and taking out the trash, the smell of urine still hung in the air.
I’d like to say this was an unusual incident that had never happened before. Unfortunately, this (or something similar) happens every time there is a thunderstorm, fireworks, or any kind of high-pitched beeping sound. The previous incident was a beeping smoke detector whose battery was low. I awoke to window blinds in pieces and a baby gate completely unhinged from the door frame. If Po happens to be outside when one of these events takes place, he will literally eat his way through the fence- even if it means wooden splinters and a bloody mouth or getting himself caught halfway between our yard and the outer world. Many of Po’s teeth are chipped from years of chewing on metal door bars at our old house.
When my oldest daughter Aubrey saw the recent damage to our window, she sighed and exclaimed, “he is SUCH a bad dog.” In that moment I wanted to agree, frustrated that I was once again cleaning up a mess he created and annoyed that I now had to completely replace the window treatment. Who has time for that?
But even in my most frustrated moments, I can’t quite get to calling Po a bad dog. First of all, other than his nervousness with certain conditions or sounds (which is growing worse with age and not very responsive to medication) he is generally a sweet dog. He’s loving and patient with our kids and very attentive. These episodes initially started when we lived in our old neighborhood, particularly when the sound of gun shots rang out. Over time Po’s sensitivity has increased such that anything that resembles that sound is a trigger.
When Po is triggered, he immediately starts trying to get to me. If he’s outside, this might mean escaping our yard and running around the neighborhood. If he’s inside he’s trying to get my attention by banging on a door or attacking a window. Usually the only thing that really calms him down is me sleeping on the couch downstairs. He will finally settle down and lay right next to me and fall asleep. I don’t know if my presence settles him down, or if he is trying to protect me from the danger he perceives, but once I’m near and pet him a while, and the sound stops, he’s usually ok.
So for Po, it’s complicated. He’s not really a bad dog, but labels make things easier and allow for categories and explanations. Yes, it’s bad that he ate the window blinds. I wish he would stop. But there are logical reasons for his behavior, or at least a logical progression of how it’s developed. He’s not just trying to make my life miserable. He is miserable- and trying his best to cope with what happens inside him every time triggers present themselves.
But all that is a lot to say and so even for me, a dog lover, when guests come over and the house smells like dog pee, I apologize with something like, “my bad dog did this.” Bad dog is a label everyone can understand.
I wonder how often we do this kind of character labeling with human stories. How often do we see destructive behavior or uncontrolled fits and think “bad human”? How often do we judge the present moment and circumstances without the benefit of a backstory?
It’s easy to do but could cause much further damage, as our labeling impacts our interventions. If Po is just a bad dog, maybe I should hit him with a rolled up newspaper and scold him angrily when he pees on the floor. Maybe I should put him in his crate for punishment. I’ve read in books that these are acceptable responses for bad dog behavior. However, I know that what Po really needs is presence and reassurance. So instead I scratch him gently between the eyes, pat his head, tell him it’s ok, and stay with him until the storm passes… or until he finally calms down and falls asleep. He’s not a bad dog, he’s actually a sweet dog that has lived through a lot and is just trying to cope with triggers that keep coming.
I think there are a lot of parallels for understanding and treating humans, and I hope as a society we can be patient enough with people to consider their whole story and then treat them with compassion.