Layla was two years old when she was attacked. The other dog, owned by a friend of mine, was safely muzzled but was an impressive 60 pounds larger than little Layla. We were attempting to introduce Layla, who had wonderful social skills, to my friend’s dog, and the introduction went sour. Layla rolled over, exposing her belly, and the other dog muzzle-punched her on her abdomen. Had she not been muzzled, I hesitate to think of what could have happened. Layla screamed, likely a combination of pain and fear, and ran away, triggering the other dog to chase her. We were unable to catch either dog for what felt like forever, but was probably less than a minute.
After the attack, I took Layla home. She crawled under the covers of my bed and trembled. Her abdomen and the insides of her thighs were bruised and sore. After that day, she became very reactive towards other dogs, lunging and barking from even very great distances. She was especially reactive around large dogs and dogs that resembled my friend’s dog.
And I blamed myself.
Every week, I work with clients who are trying to help their reactive dogs. Each one of them has a unique story. There has been some past trauma, or there hasn’t. They know what precipitated the reactivity, or their dog has always been like this, or the issue developed so gradually over time that they didn’t realize what was happening at first. They failed to protect their dog, or someone else failed to protect their dog, or they didn’t know enough to prevent this issue. They didn’t understand how to choose a breeder or a rescue. They didn’t realize that their zoomy dog was actually stressed. They didn’t realize that their anxious dog needed medication to address a real physical problem.
Every story is different, but through each of them runs a unique thread: “this is my fault.” In each case, these owners feel guilty that they didn’t do more or know more or take a different action. In each case, they wonder whether things would be different, if only…
And they blame themselves.
There’s a quote that I have hanging up on my work station by Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I think it is absolutely normal for us to feel guilty about what has happened. Remember that guilt comes from a place of compassion: we love our dog and want the best for them. It’s also okay to let it go. We do the best we can in the moment, and as we learn, we do better.
Our imperfections are part of what make us special, and sometimes scars (whether real or emotional) are simply another way to show the world that we survived adversity. I feel guilty that I didn’t protect Layla that evening when she was attacked. But that incident was one of the many forks in the road that led us on an amazing journey we have taken together.
Had Layla not become reactive, she may not ever have had the chance to teach me how to listen to a dog. The lessons of connection, empathy, respect, humility, and compassion that come from working through these issues were painful and hard-won, but they have since served me in helping hundreds of other dogs and their owners who were just starting down the same path.
Layla had to learn too: she had to learn to trust me, to communicate her needs in a way I could understand, and to control her own impulses and emotions. I can’t ask her (and don’t want to anthropomorphize), but I’m pretty sure she found the journey every bit as rocky and frustrating as I did.
We all wish that we could do better by our dogs. I doubt they wish that they could do better by us. They may wish that we would walk just a little longer, or share our sandwich crust, or back off when they lick their lips and turn away. But their wants and needs are in the moment. We could do well to emulate that.
Do the best you can with your dog. Give him or her the happiest life you can with the tools you have. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and be as kind as possible. But when you’re tired and frustrated, give yourself the benefit of the doubt too. It’s okay to be imperfect. Enjoy your unique journey together, and let the scars of your mistakes become a roadmap to the paths you’ll explore with one another.