It is a well-known, although thoroughly exaggerated, fact that I am a big fan of bad dogs. I have also said “Dogs and children only commit the sins you have chosen to condone” often enough to consider trademarking it. But in truth, my relationship status with bad dogs: It’s complicated.
First of all, what’s bad? All dogpeople know the phrase “no bad dogs” which means that behind every “bad” dog there is a bad owner – which is rather like the Freudian propensity to blame Mother for everything. There’s a certain truth to “no bad dogs,” but there are also dogs that are by nature or environment unable to behave safely around people or other pets. They attack, they bite, they kill despite incredible efforts to help them overcome whatever is going on. But are they bad? In my opinion, no: they may be abused, ill (emotionally or physically), or just plain not right in the head. But this is a definitional digression – if these dogs aren’t “bad” then just what type of bad dogs are the subject of this ode?
The kind of bad I take great delight in might be labeled creative or brilliant by some people; obnoxious or rude by others. I love a dog who looks straight at you and breaks a rule with a twinkle in his eye just to see what you’ll do about it. I love a dog that is willing to get in trouble and take a thorough dressing down because it was worth it. That dog with a feather sticking out of her mouth, a lopsided grin, and “who me?” tattooed across her forehead? Sign me up. My kind of bad dogs serve me up challenges and keep me on my toes every day: they interact with me, respecting me but testing me every day. When I triumph, they up the ante. Lovingly, and respectfully, of course.
Iske, my 11 year old Belgian Malinois, was never really that sort of dog. She arrived in my life on the heels of a complete train wreck: I had just left my marriage and was starting a relationship that rapidly deteriorated into the most abusive and powerfully negative experience of my adult life. Iske was my right hand through every soul-sucking minute. She was my pal and my protector, and my co-parent when my daughter was in residence. She was my running partner when running was the only thing I knew how to do to stop the tears. We ran and ran and got thin together. Then I broke my leg and we gained weight together. We went hiking and swimming and played fetch. I took care of her and that soothed her wounds from her haunted past. She took care of me and that saved my life.
There is another saying dogpeople know well: whatever you as a handler are feeling “travels down the leash.” Sort of like a canine version of “don’t drive angry.” I’ve wondered about Iske and the way in which my soul is spliced with hers. I wonder what it was like for her to bond with a human so full of the frenetic energy of hopeless love, grief, denial, heartbreak, rage and in time peace and joy. So much has traveled down her leash.
Now, in the twilight years of her life, everything is different. It is no longer just us and the human pup. We live in a family and she has a pack. I am happy (at least when I don’t have PMS), no longer the anxious and sad holder of the leash. She is elderly, as canines go, white-faced and white-pawed. And one of her new pack members is a very bad dog indeed.
Cinder is a totally different story compared to Iske: she came to our home the third dog in the pack. Our human family numbered two adults and two teenagers. Cinder was a teenager too, young, green, and eager to rev her engines and rattle our cages. She destroyed the buckle on my expensive brand new backpack, and removed the heels from my favorite cowgirl boots. She still regularly selects items from the kindling box to distribute around the living room. At first it was ignorance and being unaccustomed to freedom indoors, but it has rapidly morphed into a game: she waits until I’m watching to get on the forbidden couch or grab a shoe. She practically pokes me with a forbidden object, begging me to play along. I yell, she leaves it, I turn my back, she starts again. Playing with Mommy is good no matter what the game.
But our relationship is different. It’s not like it was with Iske – that intense blending and blurring between Iske and me was unique. Cinder is a bad girl in her own way, expressing her own badness, not mine. For me, delving as deep as I can – as WE can – into these relationships is the whole point in having these dogs. Understanding, deepening, learning, and growing is a form of yoga or worship or whatever you might want to call it. It is a celebration of love via work – the hardest work of all – loving a being that is taunting you. Loving a bad dog is a delicious challenge – to always be the good mom, maintaining safety and structure (which dogs, like children, need) while encouraging, developing, and celebrating the dog’s incredible ability to interact and connect across species lines. Meditate on that for a moment – we build incredibly subtle communication across species lines. If that isn’t miraculous and awesome in the truest form of that word, I don’t know what is.
Indulging in a profound relationship with a bad dog offers among the sweetest joy I’ve known.