On Getting Better

I’m not spiritual. As much as I explore unusual, impossible, beautiful ideas, and as often as I include the supernatural in my fiction writing, my heart lives in the realm of the banal. Life is just biology and the coping mechanisms we construct to survive and reproduce.

But the wonder of life never escapes me. Especially working with dogs.

There is something transcendental about the human-dog relationship. We co-evolved together; we are symbiotic, parasitic species with histories hopelessly intertwined. There is something special about our relationships with dogs, something we don’t share with any other creature, anywhere.

If any experience in my life has come close to the spiritual, it is the way my life has grown around my dog Vesper’s.

When V came into my life I had dreams. I wanted her to get her Masters Agility Championship before she turned six; we would go to AKC Agility Nationals that same year. We would do flyball and take long off-leash hikes in the mountains. She would come to work with me, get her Canine Good Citizen, run calmly at my side.

Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I brought Vesper along on my pursuit of dog-excellence. I didn’t know, and then couldn’t acknowledge, that she wasn’t the dog I had hoped for. Those goals didn’t fit her.

Things deteriorated until several summers ago, when she attacked a small dog and showed me with complete clarity that she could not and should not do the things I was asking of her. That incident changed my path from “dog agility competitor” to “dog trainer,” and taught me more in one moment than all my previous years of practice.

My dog’s life changed dramatically after that. For almost a year, Vesper’s life was confined to the third of an acre my suburban house was planted on.

This was the exact same dog who I’d unleashed in agility arenas most weekends for years; who I took off-leash on hikes and swimming at dog parks. She had not changed, but my perception of her had. I now knew what I should have known before: she was not safe.

What I’ve had to learn since then is that no dog is truly safe. They’re not automatons. They make choices that we can influence, but not control.

Vesper changed me into a more joyful, determined and hopeful person. But she also opened me up to deep trauma. I have flashbacks to her being hit by that car; when a dog approaches too close I fight panic. I am terrified of repeating the horrible lessons she taught me and won’t ever let them happen again, if I can. But again–our dogs make their own choices. I can’t say never.

I grieved the loss of those dreams. Watching Agility Nationals this year hurt me deeply; dogs who’d been in Novice with V were there, having the success that I fought hard for. This was supposed to be her year. Instead, I’ve been slowly learning how to trust her again.

Of all the ambitions I had with this dog, I’ve pared all of them away. For most of the last year, I had no ambitions for Vesper at all. But that wasn’t working, either–I miss her. I miss the dog she is outside of my home. Out in the world she tends to be much sillier. She’s thrilled to see people, to try new things, to use her body. She needs more freedom.

This year I set a goal for us. We would get better. That’s all–we just need to get better. We don’t have to heal completely. We don’t have to compete. But we need to be a team again.

This is where it feels spiritual, to me: taking the steps to trust her again, within whatever framework I can set to keep her and everyone around her safe. It’s intensely vulnerable. When you love a dog like Vesper, you’re very likely to get hurt. She is hard to trust. But she is also a good dog, and well-trained, and I underestimate her as often as I overestimate her. I don’t want to squash her life with my own fear of what might happen.

Yesterday for the first time I took both of my dogs out into the woods, together. We just wandered a huge and empty field, but my heart pounded for the first thirty minutes. And even though I told myself not to, that it wasn’t safe or smart, that too much could go wrong, I unclipped her leash.


There are lots of reasons why I thought this was okay. We were isolated, I had a clear line of sight for at least half a mile in either direction, I knew nobody else was out there. I carry citronella spray–to use on my own dog, if she gets her teeth on anything–and a bear horn. And I can make it even safer: in the future, she will be muzzled, and I just activated her new GPS tracker in case she takes off after a deer.

Still, my hands shook when I reclipped her leash after giving her a few spare moments of freedom.

This is rehabilitation. It hurts. It’s frightening. I’m brave enough to do the work for her, but only because she taught me how to be brave.

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