It saw on Facebook that it was National Dog Day earlier this week. I am not much for celebrating minor holidays, but if I had about this one ahead of time, I definitely would have baked some dog biscuits for my pooches or taken them for a joy ride in celebration. There are few things I adore more than my dogs, in part because they have taught me so much. High among the gifts they have given me is teaching me how to settle.
I was introduced to this art by my dog Lucy. Lucy was our first non-childhood dog, adopted a few years after we were married. We had finally moved into an apartment that allowed pets and were so excited to find “our” dog and bring her home. We had looked around for a pup at shelters for a couple of weeks, but when I looked into the cage that day and saw Lucy it was love at first sight. This 60 pound basset/dachshund mix was our dog. We signed the papers and loaded her up in the car. But soon after we got her home we realized that caring for her was going to involve more than we had bargained for. You see Lucy was a rescue girl, having been given up by two homes already at age five. She had clearly been neglected, was possibly abused, and was seriously wrought by fear. The first month we had her she skittered into her crate every time my husband entered the room. Don’t even get me started on what would happen when we brought the vacuum cleaner out. Clearly the first order of business was to go through a trust building stage with Miss Lucy. I’d lie outside her kennel sometimes when she was afraid and sing lullabys to calm her. We’d lure her out of this safe hiding spot with kibble and walks, both of which she loved. After about a year we had a pretty good working relationship with Lucy, so we decided to be good doggy parents and take her to training.
If you have ever taken a dog to be trained, you know that both you and the dog learn a lot of commands. Many we learned were what we had expected, “sit”, “stay,” and “down”. But one that was new to me was “settle.” In obedience school we learned that settle was similar to down in that the dog was to lie down on the ground, but its intent was different. In a down position the dog usually has its head up and paws pointed down in an alert and ready position. In “down” Lucy would keep her eyes watchful, ready to jump back up at a moments notice. However in settle we would get Lucy to roll over on her hip side a bit so that her back paws faced sideways. It’s a position dogs take when they are going to chill out for a while and relax. Settle.
Settle proved a useful command for Lucy. She was no longer afraid of us, but was still fearful of so many things: thunder, fireworks, ceiling fans, and balloons (you got me on the balloons, maybe she heard one pop once?). If any one of these triggers was present, she would pace nervously around and around never taking her eyes off the dreaded object. In these moments we would come close to her and say “Lucy, settle.” Then we’d stroke her back for a while to reassure her she was safe, we had her, she was going to be okay.
I’m not sure at what point I switched from telling the dog to settle to giving that command to myself. I think that the reason I’d connected with Lucy so quickly was that we had a similar spirit about us. For there are certainly many times that I pace around nervously, overly focused on some object of my fear. Much of the time this fear is about as rational as a dog being afraid of a ceiling fan. But sometimes grace intervenes in my fear and I hear the command to settle. The invitation comes to take a breath and relax. To let my fists soften a bit and sink in. For someone bigger and stronger than I am has got me. God calls me out of my cage of fear and invites me to draw near. I can look upon God’s face instead of my fear and remember that I really am okay after all.
We had Lucy in our lives for ten years before she died a few years back at the age of 15. She became such a brave and funny member of our family that I could write a whole blog on her adventures alone. But one of my best memories of her is how tender she became in her old age. She loved my husband, the man she once feared, wholly and devotedly. Even when her hips were stiff and sore she would get up and stand by the door each night when it was approaching the time for him to come home. And as she lost her hearing and her sight dimmed, she took to staying close to me more and more. I’d take time during the day to pet her and tell her how great she was. In these last days she was less about the ceiling fan or vacuum cleaner and more about settling in and lying close so she could look up into our faces and feel our touch.
So in memory of our Lucy and in honor of the other dogs in our life, happy belated dog day. Maybe you have a dog that has taught you important tricks as well? Favorite dog stories anyone?