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ONCE FRIGHTENED, FOREVER SHY?
BY
NOMI BERGER
Books Nomi has written

Most dogs are afraid of thunder.

Not my dog.

She’s afraid of everything else. And she clings to her fear like a treasured chew toy.

As a first time adopter, I promptly hired a trainer, who, within five minutes of meeting my dog, pronounced her "anxious and fearful."

Really?

Then, as the tall, buff, young woman strained to walk my small, squirming dog down the corridor of my apartment building, I suddenly understood why she was so frightened. She thought she was being given away again.

After a single training session, she returned to me more anxious and fearful than ever. Needless to say, the trainer did NOT get paid for her disservice, and I was on my own.

One week later, I learned what ten pounds of abject terror looks like.

It was Canada Day, and as the first fireworks exploded across the sky, my frightened dog bolted for the front door, frantically scratching at it until paint chips and bits of weather stripping littered the floor.

I’d read enough to know what to do: distract her.

I turned on the TV, grabbed one toy after another and attempted to play with her. I called out every command she knew, but she was too busy hyperventilating to either listen or care. I grabbed a bath towel from the linen closet, wrapped it tightly around her struggling body and held her to my chest. She reacted by jumping out of my arms.

As her panic increased, so did mine. I knew the rule about no coddling, no baby talk, but I was desperate.

I nabbed her as she streaked past me, charged into the bathroom and shut the door. After turning the faucets on, I sank to the floor with her still wriggling in my arms and leaned against the door. Then, as I sang to her, I alternated between squeezing her tightly to slow her breathing and forcing her to drink water from my cupped hands.

Three steamy, sweaty hours later, we emerged, exhausted and spent.

The night may have been over, but for us, it was only the beginning.

As a hyper-vigilant dog, she startled and reacted to every sound, both inside and outside my apartment. The closing of another tenant’s door and she’d release a series of long, low growls. The mail dropping through the slot onto the floor and she’d race, barking, to the front door. The buzz of an electric drill or the hum of the industrial vacuum in the corridor and she’d hide, quaking, under the dining room table.

She’d often follow me into the bathroom and lie on the tiles at my feet. But when the toilet began to flush, she’d tear out of the room. Whenever I‘d run the water for a bath or turn on my hair dryer, she’d head for her doggie bed and curl herself into a ball. If I turned on the tap in the kitchen sink or let the kettle boil too long, she’d leave mid-meal and run down the hallway to my bedroom.

If she was stressed from the sound and fury of it all, I was stressed from trying to remember what I could and couldn’t do.

At six one evening, my best friend phoned me from the lobby – our signal for me to meet him there. When I hung up, my poor dog started whimpering and clinging to me. She’d sensed something was different. She’d seen me getting dressed and putting on my makeup, and she knew: I was abandoning her.

Tearful and guilt ridden, I forced myself to ignore her, turned on the radio, arranged some toys around her doggie bed and left.

At dinner, all I thought about was her stricken, little face looking up at me. All I did was pick at my food and down two glasses of wine. All I wanted was to go home, hold her tightly and tell her that I’d never leave her.

After that, whenever the phone rang at or around six, she’d whimper and cling to me. Nothing I did ever soothed or reassured her.

Her fearfulness made me ache. Because, as a child, I too was afraid. Of everything. And I was devastated because I couldn’t -- the way a good mother should -- make it all better.

But her greatest fear was, and still is, the chugging, spurting sound that water makes after it’s been turned off awhile. The ominous "pfft-pfft-pfft" of air escaping in the pipes that makes even me jump.

The first time it happened, we were in the kitchen. At the first "pfft" she was off and running. I found her cowering under my bed, where she remained for the rest of the afternoon. She refused to go anywhere near the kitchen that evening, so I left her food bowl on the living room floor.

Over the next two days, I moved her bowl closer and closer to the kitchen, preceded by a trail of treats. By the third day, she made it all the way back .

I often wonder if I’d jinxed her by renaming her Shadow when I adopted her. Had I been the one to make her afraid, literally, of her own shadow? Our vet assured me otherwise. She reminded me that Shadow had been raised from puppyhood -- her formative years – until the age of three by another family. She also admitted that some dogs are simply hardwired that way.

One evening, as we roamed the back garden of our building, she stopped abruptly, raised her head and barked. After a brief pause, she barked again. Then she let out a series of brief, hoarse barks followed by a long, high yowl.

Suddenly, it hit me. She was barking at her own echo! As I doubled over with laughter, she looked at me and promptly (no doubt due to my complicity) repeated her performance.

. Despite these rare moments of levity, my precious Shadow remains a fearful dog. I’ve tried and failed repeatedly to socialize her. To introduce her, slowly and patiently, to the larger world. To have her walk calmly beside me along a crowded sidewalk. To have her accompany me as I stroll through a mall or wander the aisles of a store. To have her curl up at my feet while I have lunch on the patio of my favourite restaurant.

Like other dogs and their owners.

And yet, in my heart, I know that none of these activities can compare with the sweet and tender joy we’ve found in each other’s company. Nothing can match the feel of Shadow’s warm, velvety body pressed against mine as soon as I utter the magic word, "snuggle." This is when she’s happiest and calmest. This is when I’m the most peaceful and content.

But then I look out at the darkened sky and see Canada Day looming on the horizon.

And I wonder who’ll need a tranquilizer more: my scaredy-cat dog or me.

 

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