An Ode to Bad Dogs

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.

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10 Responses to An Ode to Bad Dogs

  1. yogawithmaheshwari says:

    Love this post. There’s nothing quite like the relationship with our dogs, is there?

  2. Lovely. Many years ago, I got Rosie, a naughty-and-smart terrier cross from a rescue centre and took her to training classes (for us both, as she was my first dog). When we graduated to the ‘advanced’ class, all the other dogs were collies except for two Belgian Shepherds. I used to love watching their little black masks and twinkly eyes to see what they’d get up to next – they were clearly super-smart and just waiting for any loopholes that came their way.
    Rosie, like Iske, was a constant through some bad times. She died last year aged nearly 17. Still miss her, but glad to have had her company right through and into the good times.

    • halia466 says:

      RIP sweet Rosie, She sounds like she was such a great girl. Terrier mixes are so full of spunk!

      • aren’t they just! we have a greyhound now and she is so innocent and laidback, no tenacity at all – one ‘NO’ and she left the open dishwasher forever.

      • halia466 says:

        My black dog is like that: she’s a Belgian but not a malinois. We say “black is the new blond” around here. She is our “Omega” in the pack, our peacemaker and punching bag. If any of the dogs feel stressed, they growl at sweet Lily. She wags, licks their cranky faces and all is right with the world.

  3. Nancy says:

    I think we all have a “Cinder” living amoungst us…mine goes by the name Cayenne. I adopted her 4 yrs ago from a “no kill shelter”. She was 9 months old. Part Border Collie, part Shepherd, and I swear, part Coyote! She came to me 7 months after my 19 yr marriage came to sudden halt. Never expecting another blow when my husband committed suicide. He was 52. And here I was also a caregiver to my mother with Dementia. My only saving grace, was Cayenne. She made me get out of bed when all I wanted to do was crawl into a hole. Everyday, there she was for me, making get out for runs and getting me through another day. Taking her to obiedence class was an outlet for us both. I wasn’t surprised when the trainer said , “you may want to enroll her again”. I think we both just wanted to have some fun. Cayenne is going on 5 yrs old, and she is my rescue dog. She rescued me. When your lucky to have that wonderful dog in your life, you know that everything is going to be ok.

    • halia466 says:

      “You may want to enroll her again.” Very nice. Cayenne is a great name. I wonder, if she looks like a coyote, if she is part malinois? Or maybe she is just a trickster?

  4. sbsmith116 says:

    Good read but need more Lily

  5. sbsmith116 says:

    Reblogged this on Peace_Love_Das and commented:
    Good words by a good friend

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