When Someone You Love Hurts You and You Love Them Anyway

I have the worst dog.

This is not unqualified hyperbole, either. I am a dog trainer, by hobby at least, and I’m not terrible at it. Vesper is the kind of dog… okay, there have been a couple times where professional trainers watched me working with her and said, “yeah, I couldn’t do that.” By which they meant, “I wouldn’t want to do that much work.”

Vesper is a lot of work.

She is my first dog. Difficult first dogs are supposed to make you a better trainer. I usually feel like a failure.

Vesper is brilliant. My other dog, my puppy, is very easy to train; one or two repetitions of something and he’s got it. He is smart. Vesper is different. She’ll learn tricks, yes, and she’s very good at that, but she would rather solve problems. She’s tenacious. She does not quit. She works at a problem until she loses her temper and then she starts smashing things because she’s not going to stop until she has the thing, whatever it is, even if it’s not that good of a thing. It’s not about the thing, it’s about the problem.

Vesper is intense. She scares people, even though she loves people and wants to lick them. She is pointy and her muscles and ribs stand out and she’s athletic in an intimidating way. She uses her body like a bludgeon and frequently hurts herself. She will try anything; she is fearless.

Vesper is extremely sensitive. She is not afraid–very much the opposite. She would be a fantastic police dog or search and rescue partner; loud noises, weird situations, danger, these aren’t scary. It’s feelings that affect her, not her physical circumstances. If I don’t like someone, she alert barks at them. If I am sad, she is miserable. The few times I have been angry at her directly–instead of at the situation, or myself, or the gaps in our training, like a good dog trainer would be–she was utterly inconsolable, hugging the walls, staring at me from around corners and whining quietly.

Vesper’s own emotions are near impossible to control. She is highly reactive. Her feelings mount until she does not know what to do with them except lash out physically: she lunges, barks, body-slams animals her own size, hangs on anything wooly (poodles, sheep), stomps on tiny things.

I love this dog in a way that is hard to explain, except that most people understand it if they have children or know an animal that has done something remarkable for them. Vesper is inside me in a way nobody else is; she understands my subtle physical and emotional cues and follows them like the partner she is. She’s not a pet. She’s my teammate, my dearest friend. I love all my animals but V is different. Maybe because we have worked so hard to keep her simply functional in a human world that requires things like walking tolerably well on a leash and not frightening the neighbors. Probably because we have gone pretty far in competitions where I was never certain we would get anywhere at all. She has worked hard for me; I have worked endlessly for her.

Recently she picked up a little dog and shook it. There was blood. I am sure she would have killed it if I hadn’t been there.

We were at an agility event; the details are irrelevant except that she was supposed to be working with me and there really wasn’t any inciting incident to send her through the fence, out into the crowd and onto this innocent bystander’s dog. It was like the circus lions getting loose. It was horrific.

I leashed my dog and handed her to a friend to crate her. The other dog’s owner took it to the emergency vet. I locked myself in my car and cried hard for an hour straight.

I’ve had my heart broken before. Never like this. Never when the love was so true.

Vesper has no idea she did anything wrong. You don’t scold a reactive dog for reacting, just like you don’t scream at a toddler for having a tantrum in the grocery store. There are enough bad feelings happening already. We just went home. We had dinner, we played ball. I’ll never trust her to do agility again.

It is hard to explain how much work it took to get us into the agility ring and how it feels to strike a line through all of that in one moment: it’s over. It’s done. She can’t; I won’t put her in that situation again.

It is hard to explain how it feels, to know that this dog I love so intensely is not safe. That I can’t trust her.

What a strange place to be, to love someone who you know would happily, free of conscience, do something abhorrent and break your heart. To not hold that against them–because I don’t; I don’t resent what she did or blame her. Vesper will always be who she is. She’s a rat-killer, a dog-mauler. In public she wears a muzzle that makes her look like Hannibal Lecter. Her emotional roller coaster is so unpredictable and violent it could kill. It’s hurt me many times: road rash, sprains, and one broken bone, all of them unintentional. I just got in the way of her feelings train.

It makes me intensely emotionally vulnerable as well. But really, I already was. It’s just stripped of its cushioning now. There’s no couching this love in the safety of some soft fluffy couch muffin whose full-time occupation is giving kisses. I love a vicious dog. I’m not sure what that makes of me.


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