Twice Bitten, Thrice Shy

I’d say it’s natural and normal to react badly to a dog bite. Who likes being bitten by a dog? But how many people get sent into a spiral of low self-esteem and insecurity from a dog bite?

We always had pets in my houses when I was growing up. My dad had an outspoken preference for dogs, but mostly had cats. My mom has always liked to have at least one dog and one cat in the house at any given time. The main dog we had at my mom’s when I was a kid was a cute and energetic but fairly neurotic Bearded Collie named Cookie.

My dad talked a lot about how bad my mother was at training and controlling dogs. He said it was because she lacked any sort of interior authority, which dogs could sense. My dad talked a lot about how weak my mother was. I loved my mother and thought she was as strong as most people could or should be, but I still internalized the idea that “can’t control dogs” = weakness, something my father would disparage and laugh about. My dad would sometimes compare me to my mother, as well as tell me (from childhood well into adulthood) that I was passive-aggressive and manipulative, which were other ways he had of saying someone was “weak.” (My father valued directness and honesty, despite the fact that he was often neither of those things.)

Dogs are not easy pets to have. They’re generally quite clever and eager to please their owners, but they need to have clear pack hierarchy established and reinforced. What might seem to me to be a common sense way of establishing order can turn out to be the opposite of what a dog needs to keep it in line. I like dogs, but I’m generally much more comfortable with cats as pets. When Berkie adopted Dicken, she read a lot on dog behavior and training. We weren’t living together at that point, so I didn’t read up on training and looked to my companion for instruction. I’ve done my best at interacting with the little guy, but I am, admittedly, inconsistent and don’t always behave the right way with him. Add to this that he is clever and eager to please but also loves to test his boundaries and can sometimes just be a little asshole. He gets cranky with me in particular, especially when he thinks I’m encroaching on his quality time with Berkie.

Last week, I got up to let him outside early in the morning. After he came back inside, we both headed up to go back to bed. He wasn’t happy about me coming back to the bedroom and started growling and barking at me–which isn’t all that unusual, but Berkie and I just tell him to shut up and get off the bed, which is usually the end of it. This time, he bit my leg, then when I grabbed him and told him no, he bit my thumb. Neither bite was bad enough to draw blood, but they both hurt and startled me. And then yesterday, he was chewing on the fluff he’d pulled out of one of his toys, and when I started taking it away from him, he bit my other thumb, hard enough to draw blood on both sides of the digit. After both bites, I pinned him down to re-establish my dominance, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really see me as an alpha.

Which shouldn’t really be that big a deal. Berkie has nicely, patiently explained to me things I was doing wrong and things I could do to rectify the situation. I’ve done my best to listen and be open to her instruction. But there’s this strong voice in my head–a voice that sounds exactly like my dad–telling me that the dog is biting me because I can’t project any kind of authority. Because I’m just too damn weak.

I’m sure anyone reading this is thinking, “Ignore those inner voices! Forget what your dad said! He was full of shit.” And he was. I know that. But these are long-established thought patterns in my head. I wish it were as easy as just ignoring them. I wish I could just say, “Fuck it! I know I’m strong!” But I look at the bandage on my thumb and I see a big, obvious sign that I’m weak. I assume everyone who sees it knows that it means I’m weak. I look at this 20-pound mutt and I feel nervous that I’ll never dominate him. And I feel stupid for letting my father knock me down from beyond the grave.

This will pass, as all things do. But today? Today, I’m feeling like a weak-willed, cowardly crybaby.

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