Finnegan met me at the door when I got home yesterday. I know, that might not sound like much to most people, but to me, it absolutely was AMAZING. Besides, it wasn’t just that he met me at the door; it was the way in which he met me: exuberantly.
Finnegan has bonded so closely with me since I brought him home from the shelter December 14th that if I stop short, his cold, wet nose gets jammed into portions of my anatomy that truly prefer not to be exposed to clammy canine noses, even though I’m covered by clothing – it’s just that unnerving. He’s the perfect (or imperfect?) height to hit me “right there” every time I stop walking, & he’s always, always right behind me… I can count on Finn!
However, I realized that much of this tight “bond” had more to do with his fear of repeated loss than actual emotional attachment. I prayed daily for help. I also constantly touch Finnegan with loving hands. If he’s anywhere near me – & he usually is – he’s being stroked, scratched, “Furminated,” massaged, held, or hugged. There are so many ways to touch a dog without reaching his heart, it seems…
At bedtime I sit on the bedroom floor between both of “my boys,” Copper & Finn, & just love them both & whisper secrets into their ears. It’s important for them to fall to sleep knowing how much they are loved & wanted; these boys who were both abused & thrown away by others after nearly lifetimes spent trying to please. When I hear them each blow a hefty sigh, I feel as if they’ve given up their bad thoughts & dreams for the night. I bless them, kiss them, & leave them in peace. All of this worked with Copper back when he was so adamantly against forging a connection with me. So I’ve kept hoping it might also work with Finnegan.
Since Finn came home with me, he’s been an extremely low-key dog. The only time he’s displayed any “real” emotion was when he was crated & he went ballistic in a total frenzy to escape. Having to crate him every day for several weeks became terribly painful for both of us, as he absolutely abhorred it. Other than that, Finn gradually began showing interest in our twice-daily romps through the pastures instead of remaining pasted to my hip looking for approval (or because he was afraid I’d disappear). Still, Finnegan simply didn’t express true joy like other dogs. He seemed always guarded, as if afraid that something bad would happen if he either got too excited or was too happy. I was always so thrilled when he used his “happy tail” & “smiley face;” they told me he really was doing well & feeling content in our home.
But I prayed for more, of course. I prayed for the sign of that REAL connection between the pair of us. I wanted to know he loved me (because I’m just that needy).
And yesterday: Yesterday my sweet, faithful Finnegan met me at the door when I got home from work. He’s been crate-free for weeks now, after a horrific incident (for both of us) in which he quite literally panicked the crap out of himself while crated. He was miserable. I was miserable. It was all-‘round a wretched affair & I decided while digging poop out of the pads of his huge paws that I needed to find a way to make him crate-free – & I did. However, after nearly three weeks of being crate-free, yesterday was the first that Finn has ever met me at the door. Usually he waits for me to come in before he approaches to say “hi.” I suspect it’s the same fear of appearing too enthusiastic, lingering anxiety that some sort of painful retaliation might occur. Ah, but yesterday everything changed!
Of course, I didn’t suspect anything as I parked & gathered my belongings from the seat beside me. I got out, closed the door, & as I stepped toward the front of the van movement at the glass patio doors caught my peripheral vision. I glanced over toward the deck, expecting to see Copper performing his happy dance, wearing his “welcome home” grin, but I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight before my eyes: Finnegan was at the door & he was doing his first-ever happy dance for me. He leaped into the air until his old hind feet even left the floor, his tail lashed back & forth in a veritable blur, & as I approached closer & closer to the door, he danced faster & faster. When I stepped onto the deck, Finn powered off his front paws & immediately threw himself forward onto the floor into the very first play-bow I’d ever seen him perform. He looked ridiculously adorable with his big old rump wiggling in the air! His ears were cocked as far forward as he could get them, his eyes were wide & gleaming, he was smiling broadly, & his tail was waving madly. Finnegan was beside himself with joy to see me. Even more astounding was that he felt confident enough & trusted me enough to display it. I was awed & humbled by his heartfelt demonstration.
It was all I could do to get inside the door with both of The Geezers frantic to greet me. It was awesome! I felt like I’d waited half a lifetime for Finn to not just desperately need me, but to love me, too. I dropped my belongings where I stood & sat on the kitchen rug, wrapping my arms around each of the boys. Copper death-breath kissed me & Finnegan tucked his head into my chest & sucked in huge breaths of my scent over & over again, as if imprinting me in his brain. I pressed my face against each dog’s neck in turn & did the same.
I marveled at the gifts these two damaged dogs have given me. It’s continually amazing to me how adaptable & endlessly forgiving dogs are. Both of these dogs – as a result of cruelties perpetrated upon them – had every right to never trust a single human being ever again; perhaps even to become vicious animals with no future as trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, each of them found a way to see contentment through the misery of subjugation, joy through the grief of betrayal, & learned to trust & love again through the fears of pain & loss. Unlike humans, canines have the extraordinary ability for living today & letting yesterday go, which Finnegan had just reminded me of once again, as Copper had two years previously.
Finnegan may never feel as free to demonstrate his emotions as “normal” dogs that haven’t experienced the abuse he has, but yesterday was a critical day for him; a turning point. Yesterday was the first day I saw The Real Finnegan break free from his iron-tight, inner constraints. The most perfectly wonderful part of it all was that he came dancing to me… exuberantly, with his heart in his eyes.
“Recollect that the Almighty, who gave the dog to be companion of our pleasures and our toils, hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit.”
– Sir Walter Scott ‘The Talisman’
“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
– James Thurber
It’s so easy to love a dog. Usually it takes but a single glance at an adorable dog for our human hearts to begin the slide. Should that same dog give us trusting, entreating eyes or worse, wide, desolate eyes, our hearts tumble, quickly gaining momentum. As soon as physical contact is made & the dog delivers the coup de grace: the face lick, it’s all over but for buying the Nylabones; our hearts have rolled to the cliff’s edge & sailed gleefully over the precipice, destined for the greatest unknown of all: Love.
Falling in love with a dog is the easy part. It doesn’t take any logical thought process, it’s all about emotion. What comes after falling in love with a dog is what may lead to heartbreak if a dog’s Person fails to build on the relationship properly. As in marriage between human beings, companionship between a dog & his Person takes hard work. Love alone cannot build a solid relationship.
At the very least, trust between a dog & his Person must be established, or neither will ever have confidence in the other or himself while with the other. Initially, the task to build trust falls upon the Person, as the reasoning human being. Trust is established by:
• NEVER causing harm to your dog
• Recognizing your dog’s emotional & physical limits & NEVER forcing more
• NEVER encouraging negative behavior
• ALWAYS rewarding positive behavior
• Viewing behavior issues as training opportunities, NOT as your dog’s failures or “fault”
• Seeking out quiet moments simply to enjoy being together (key word: moments)
I fell in love with a photo (online) of a sad, old Labrador at our local animal shelter. I fell right into Finnegan’s deep, sad eyes & knew in my heart that he belonged with me. When I went to meet him, Finn was a neat old dog, but barely gave me the time of day. You see, he didn’t know me. He’d been at the shelter for several weeks & countless people were passing in & out of his view day after day. I was just one of many. Why give me any special regard? Fortunately, after a lifetime of loving dogs & dealing with rescues, I understood what I was seeing & wasn’t a bit put out by Finnegan’s behavior.
I returned the next day with my husband & daughter. Ah! But this time; this time Finn took notice that I had returned a second time! I had gained some status in his opinion, perhaps a teeny bit of regard. He shared attention & affection with each of us during our visit & it was wonderful. Still, he was more than happy to leave the room. Although he had recognized me, I wasn’t anyone special to him.
On the third day, I took Finnegan out on a foster so my vet could look at him. He had a terrible cough that the shelter couldn’t get rid of & with him being an old dog; we were all quite worried for him. What an adventure! Finn made it very clear that although he found me likable, he did not see me as anyone important in his life. While on-lead, he simply used his superior strength to drag me yonder & fro with absolutely no regard for my commands or futile tugs on the other end. He just did as he pleased. If he felt he needed comfort, he came to me & tucked his head against me & used me as a convenient human “safe place.” But I was certainly not “his Person.”
Finn has been with me for exactly one month now. It’s interesting to compare that initial vet visit with a hike through a nature preserve we enjoyed a couple days ago. First off, instead of having to coerce him or physically lift him into the van, Finnegan loaded himself for the trip to the preserve. He trusts that he will be safe with me. Once we arrived at the preserve, I asked Finn to sit while I got his long-line attached to his harness, with the van door wide open. I didn’t worry that he would bolt because I trusted him to stay with me. That trust was earned from a month of shared training & long walks in our wide back pasture.
As we hiked with Finn on a thirty-foot long-line, he rarely ran out more than ten feet of line before coming back & nosing my hand. The majority of the hour & a half hike was spent with Finnegan glued to my hip. A few times when he did trail out to sniff something I’d practice a recall to see how he’d do; just fine. Finn trusted enough to explore away from me at times, but respected our bond enough to come at the recall.
When we passed other hikers & other hikers with dogs, Finnegan sat on command or hand signal & showed little interest in the passers-by. His focus was nearly always on me. He was constantly checking to see where I was & what I was doing. This was funny because I was usually three inches away from him… Still, he was confident enough to trust that I would not let him come to harm from other dogs or strangers.
It seems that I have become Finn’s Person, which was of course my fondest Christmas prayer this year. We’ve built a good beginning trust, he & I. I know that he has fears & limits that I must always be conscious & conscientious against which not to press him too hard. And he seems to trust that I will be his strength when he needs it, like when he is tortured by nightmares & cannot awaken. After nights & nights of comforting & holding him, he is finally sleeping soundly.
We’ve come quite a distance in only a month, this wonderful, faithful Finnegan & me. We are building something together that no one else can see & maybe no one else will ever understand… But that’s okay, because it’s all intertwined with trust & trusting in Love – & since Love is still the greatest unknown of all, no one really expects to understand.