Smiling, the owner walks into the exam room with her male black lab. She is a new client and the veterinarian has never seen her or her dog before. The dog jerks his owner around and around on the leash, pulling her this way and that. While he does this, she continuously speaks to him in a soft calm baby voice, attempting to soothe him, telling him that he is a good boy and that everything is okay, and that there is no reason to be nervous. Eventually, the dog’s attention comes to rest upon the veterinarian and his assistant, who are both standing in the exam room. When this happens, the dog retreats behind his owner and he stays there, moving with her every movement, remaining behind her at all times, and only peeking out occasionally from around her left or right. The owner states “He never acts this way at home…you must be scaring him.”
He is trying. He is trying very hard. But, he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know why he is so scared and so nervous and why the other children and the Sunday school teacher seem so threatening…so malignant, but they do. He can’t hardly breathe….he can’t get comfortable and the panic is rising steadily…spike, and he tries to breathe…think of something else, anything else….spike, he feels like he might shit himself or vomit or scream…he doesn’t know…he just doesn’t know why… or what…all of it is coming down on him…..pressure hits him hard, tightening his chest, his breathing constricts, and diarrhea bubbles in his colon….and thoughts cease, as reaction takes over…his trembling hand raises to get the attention of the teacher, “I…I…..I need to, I have to go to the bathroom…please…”. And the teacher appropriately responds, “Okay Jeff, you can go…come right back, okay? Are you alright?”. He tells her that he is okay…and he stands up in Sunday school class, and he begins to walk a little too fast towards the door. He knows what his body is doing, and he knows that he must just keep it together for another moment,…fool them for just another moment, for just another step, until he can get outside of the door, until he can get away. He stops himself from running towards the door, just so he can run faster after another step. His hand hits the knob, the door opens, he steps out of the room, and as soon as the door shields most of his body from the Sunday school class, he breaks into a terrified run. He is not even sure which direction to head…just out…just out of the building….away…away from all of them….he spins, the halls are empty because everyone is in class, he runs down one hall, turns a corner and sees an outside door. He doesn’t know exactly where his parents are…they are somewhere in the building, but he doesn’t know where, he doesn’t know where to find them….. and it is too much of a risk to look for them. He bolts with every fiber of his being. He runs so hard at the door that he almost knocks himself out as he hits it, but then he is outside…outside. He runs into the parking lot…he can hide there…and then he realizes the family car might be unlocked. He scrambles and zigs and zags; jerky, nervous, and irrational movements, which somehow, lead him to the gigantic Pontiac, that is familiar to him. He reaches the handle and the door snaps open….and he finally feels a tiny bit of relief; a tiny sense that he might get away and make it to safety. He jumps in and slams the door shut. He checks every door twice, slamming the locks down. He crawls into the front passenger floorboard, he rests his head on the seat, in a tiny ray of sunlight, and he waits for his parents to find him.
The owner says, “This is Bandit. He is a good boy. I am not sure why he is scared of you……maybe he is just nervous.” Then to Bandit, “Okay now, stop being silly. They won’t hurt you. It’s okay. You are a good boy. I am here.”
The veterinarian fills his face with a soft friendly smile before responding. “Is Bandit good with people? I mean has he ever tried to bite anyone or maybe, the previous vet? I just need to ask before we start to examine him.”
A look of astonished surprise becomes a dramatic mask covering the owners face as she replies, “Oh gosh, no. He is a great boy. He is so good with the kids and their friends, me and my husband. He loves us and he never gives us a problem. I mean he sleeps in the bed with us at night and he lays on the couch with us, when we watch TV. He is part of our family. This behavior is very strange for him…..I do know that one time we took him into the vet just for an annual exam, and that vet was a big strong guy, and when he was trimming Bandit’s nails, Bandit freaked out pretty bad. I think that vet may have hurt him…you know, cut his nails a little too short. We didn’t go back there after that. If it wasn’t his nails, I think maybe Bandit could just tell something about that guy…..he just didn’t like him. Maybe he is remembering that experience and that is why he is acting like this.”
“Have they ever had to put a muzzle on him before?”, the words are soft and unprovocative in tone, as the veterinarian continues to display a gentle smile.
“Never. Not that I have ever known of, but you know, they always take him into the back to get the samples and do his vaccines. After they have finished, the tech has always brought him back into the room without a muzzle. He has always seemed happy when they brought him back to me. The only time, we were actually in the room with Bandit for his exam and vaccines, was when we went to that big guy vet, you know, the one I was talking about, the one who cut his nails too short. He said something about maybe needing to muzzle Bandit, but I told him that I really wasn’t comfortable with that, and he said they could probably avoid it, and they never had to put one on.”
“I understand. Thank you for entertaining my questions. The reason I asked you all of those questions is because of Bandit’s body posture, and what his posture is telling me and my assistant, right now, in dog language. The truth is that most owners don’t really understand their own dog’s behavior…they don’t really know what to look for, even though almost all people are convinced they do. It is actually kind of counter-intuitive to how we tend to be programmed to think about it. Bandit is displaying an overt fear response. He is hiding behind you as much as possible, just like a frightened child might do behind his mother, and his ears are also pulled back and his tail is tucked tightly underneath his body. So, even though we have not done anything to him at all, absolutely nothing, he is essentially having a severe panic attack because of irrational fear. And just like a scared person who is suffering from the same issues, if you push them too far, or accidentally surprise them, or if you send them any kind of a mixed signal with your posture or your movements, they might strike out violently and unpredictably because of their overwhelming fear.”
Defensively, in her own posture and expression, the client responds as if attacked herself, as if everything just spoken by the veterinarian, had no validity to it whatsoever. “I have never seen him act this way with anyone else except you….and maybe, maybe, that other big guy. You know, now that I really think about it,…he might have been abused or beat or something like that, by a large man, sometime before we adopted him. I remember that he was very skittish at first…I mean for a while after we brought him home, but then, we babied him and gave him plenty of love, and we got him to eventually come around. Now he pretty much rules the roost and he never acts scared or frightened.”
The veterinarian wanted to say, “Yes, I know how he rules the roost and I have heard your same erroneous, misperceived, and woefully pathologic, theorized interpretation, more times than you can imagine. More times than you can damn imagine; usually daily and sometimes hourly, I hear this same damn ignorant story, over and over and over. The story is again, at best, a convenient and plausible, house of cards excuse for the truly well intentioned who are just simply ignorant of the truth. But if that were the case, you would already be listening instead of progressing further and further into full bore, self-aggrandizing denial of objective fact. Your immediate refusal to even contemplate my words, the words of a trained professional, who is presenting the truth to you in a respectful and appropriately dominant manner, tells me more about your diseased soul and your destructive capability towards all creatures, than you can possible imagine. You…you…you, are the problem. Not a guy. Not a big guy. The only one abusing your dog is you, and your sick love is the form of that abuse. You. You, excuse making, rationalizing, deflecting monster…you, are the problem. You and no one else. Your dog and your child, may have benefitted from your influence and presence in their lives, but at what cost? What damn cost? What is the ultimate cost of that secret toll you planted in their psyche, in exchange for the light that you did bathe them in?”, but instead, he just stood there, across the exam room table, and saved his breath and some of his sanity.
It is not even a quarter of a mile to the bus stop, but his father drives him there every morning. He assumes this is normal, the way it should be. These same events have happened before and even though he silently prays, every damn day, for them to never occur again, he is forced to accept the truth that it is very unlikely that the occurrence will yield in repetition and come to stop. He wants it to stop. He wants it to stop so badly, but he doesn’t know how, and his parents just pretend like nothing unusual is happening…every day is just another day in Pleasantville. Their pretending imprints upon him…he already knows this, at his young age, and this scares him as much as the occurrence. Is their lesson that he should just pretend everything is okay…everything is normal…even though he instinctively and rationally knows that it is not? Is their lesson to just keep quiet about it? Hide it from at least those who do not know? He can’t figure it out because they will not broach the subject with him…they will not talk to him….and this makes him feel ashamed…like an embarrassment…like maybe he is an abomination…such a freak and an embarrassment, that his own parents can’t even deal with him and the occurrence. And of course it follows that if your parents think that…your own parents, then everyone else must feel those same thoughts about him ten-fold. He is alone. Alone………..alone. A freak that no one, not even his parents, wants to talk to. This makes him feel worthless and completely and utterly, alienated. Everyone else in the world is different, they must be, because parents must talk to their children, they must, they must, right? His little immature brain already recognizes the simple fact of what is proper and what is madness, and parents must talk to their children, at least, all of the other parents, or the whole world would be mad…insanely mad and upside-down.
Toi be continued…