This is my dog Wasko. Wasko is a German Shepherd.
When you think of German Shepherds, it is likely that you think of heroic, noble things. Perhaps you think of police dogs, valiantly apprehending dangerous criminals.
Perhaps you think of service dogs, providing a liberating sense of self-sufficiency to those whose physical impairments would otherwise make independent living problematic. Or maybe you just think of a noble family pet, selflessly and patiently providing love and protection to small children to whom he is devoted.
Sadly, Wasko is none of these things.
The first time I met Wasko, as a (relatively) small 10-week old puppy, he greeted me by submissively urinating onto my shirt.
Instead of recognizing this as a sign of things to come, however, I brushed it aside.
It was a sign of things to come, however. Though Wasko came to accept me and my immediate family as acceptable companions, each interaction with someone outside of this small circle inevitably resulted in a prolonged episode of shaking, trembling, and pissing, and any departure from my immediate presence resulted in hysterical, panic-stricken howling. Though I had already fallen in love with this small, strange creature, I was forced to admit that he might perhaps have some problems.
I was confident, however, in my abilities as a trainer, and threw myself into rehabilitating him. I practiced leaving him in his crate for short periods, attempting to prove that no period spent in the crate would be eternal. I tried to time my returns to his crate with his few hiatuses in howling, attempting to demonstrate that loud noises were not what had convinced me to come back.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure these pauses in howling were the result of a natural need to breathe rather than any true understanding that he did not need to make sounds. Nonetheless, I was convinced I was getting somewhere.
I also placed great importance on socialization. I took Wasko everywhere- to sidewalk cafes, to the vet’s office, to the park, to the campus of the local university, on buses… In short, I took Wasko everywhere you can possibly take a dog and to a few places where you probably shouldn’t.
None of it did any good, however, no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise. Ultimately, the only thing I was accomplishing was making myself look like a horrible dog abuser. You get a lot of funny looks when you’re having to drag your now-50 pound puppy down the sidewalk as he drools, shakes, and occasionally pees in terror.
Eventually, it reached the point where I was becoming known around town as “the girl with that poor dog.” I was afraid that someone would soon report me to Animal Protective Services. So, though I had resisted it for many weeks, I sought the help of an animal behaviorist, who put my poor dog on Doggy Prozac. I admit to being something of a cynical person, and I was more than a little skeptical of the overwhelming rhetoric of peace and love that exuded from the behaviorist’s office like a 12-year-old girl’s Bath and Body Works lotion. But I was desperate.
Sadly, Doggy Prozac did not just “relax” my dog, or “take the edge off his nerves.” Doggy Prozac turned my dog into a red-eyed, slack-jawed stoner.
Even with adjustments to the dosage, Wasko still looked (and acted) like he had smoked a healthy dose of cannabis. Or perhaps something stronger, such as the sedatives the dentist gives you before a root canal. When people tried to give him treats, they just sort of dribbled out the side of his mouth.
We persisted, however. The behaviorist assured me that all he needed was time (lots) and positive reinforcement. After all, we were attempting to teach Wasko an entirely new worldview—one in which such things as cars, my grandparents, and random passersby were not potential sources of imminent danger, but ordinary occurrences to which one need not pay attention. So I continued to wait patiently, and spent a small fortune on treats with which strangers attempted to convince him of their good wishes.
After more than a year, we took Wasko off his drugs.
This is where the disappointment kicks in. Though Wasko did demonstrate some improvement in social coping skills, he was by no means cured.
I suppose I should have felt grateful for whatever improvement, no matter how small, but ultimately I just felt disappointed. More than that, I felt like the whole thing was somehow my fault. I wondered if I should have taken him to the behaviorist sooner, or if he would have done better in the hands of a better, more experienced trainer. I felt like a complete failure as a dog owner and human being.
Eventually, my mom got frustrated with my moping.
And this was how I began to think of Wasko not so much as ruined, but just… different.
To be sure, he still displays unusual and somewhat disconcerting tendencies, such as bunny hopping in the yard while chasing grasshoppers. He also frequently barks at shadows.
Additionally, his abilities to interact with the general public seem to wax and wane with the phases of the moon. Sometimes he acts almost like a normal dog, other times he becomes irrationally terrified of perfectly harmless things.
He does, however, possess a number of doggy virtues for which I am duly grateful.
For one thing, Wasko has never peed or pooped in the house. In fact, his fastidiousness concerning bathroom duty borders on neurosis, for Wasko refuses to relieve himself in the house, in his crate, in the outdoor kennel, or even within a certain radius of the house in general.
As you can imagine, this means that taking him out to do his business can take quite some time. Almost never, however, have I had to clean up his poop in the yard.
Additionally, Wasko is a very talented hunter. Aside from his grasshopper fetish, Wasko has a slight fixation on squirrels, cats, and anything that moves in a similar darting fashion. We have no need for a cat (which is great, because they make me sneeze and I remain unconvinced that they are not possessed by Satan), because Wasko frequently delivers fresh field mice to my door.
Rodents are one of very few things on this planet that make me want to shriek with horror (even cockroaches don’t faze me), so it is especially difficult to act pleased when Wasko makes these offerings. But I try my best to hide my disgust, because I don’t want to warp the poor dog any more than he already is, dammit.
I feel I should stress at this point that my slightly dysfunctional dog is not, in fact, an idiot. Wasko knows how to sit, down, heel, come, shake hands, track, jump over obstacles, and to bark on command. He does these things reliably and well (mostly), and learned them with an ease and enthusiasm that would make some schoolteachers green with envy. This juxtaposition of talents and ineptitudes has made me want to pull my hair out on a regular basis. I honestly feel that Wasko is intelligent enough to be a police dog or bomb dog or any other kind of canine hero—were it not for the fact that all of these occupations require interacting with the general public.
In fact, I have frequently wondered if Wasko is afflicted by some form of canine autism. He is not unintelligent, but he interacts with the world on his own terms, and his panic in seemingly ordinary situations reminds me of the behavior autistic children sometimes display when they become overwhelmed with sensory stimuli in a public place. Likewise, his obsession with chasing shadows and grasshoppers reminds me of the way autistic individuals may fixate on a small details that seem irrelevant to others.
It is this hypothesis- which I doubt that I or anyone else will ever be able to prove- that has come to be Wasko’s greatest contribution to my life. Through Wasko, I have come to appreciate the fact that what may be easy for some may be immensely difficult for others, that patience is indeed a virtue, and that different does not mean worthless.
To be sure, my outlook on the situation has not always been this sanguine. Living with a dog with such anxiety problems requires all kinds of compromise, and that can be draining. I’ve always enjoyed taking my dogs to the park, for example, but doing this with Wasko can be more stressful than enjoyable, as I never really know when he’s going to have a meltdown. During one particularly memorable trip to the park, for example, he panicked about having to cross a bridge over the creek.
When I look back on it, though, I find that the mishaps I felt to be the most disastrous (while they were occurring) wound up being the most memorable, and that my time spent with Wasko has been one of the greatest lessons I have learned from any entity on this Earth: Ultimately, we have to appreciate our relationships both with our pets and with other people for what they are rather than for what we might wish them to be. We’re all a little messed up, after all. Maybe we all do the best we can, and that’s all you can ask for.
For Wasko. You’re a good boy. I love you.
All words and images © 2015 Shelby Jarrett