In the beginning, having no idea what responsibility really meant, I tried to change Ahab’s behaviour. I would return from the store to find a shredded pillow and lead him over to the mess and firmly say “No!” while trying to remain calm. I was angry, and when this didn’t produce the desired result, even angrier. But I hadn’t got a dog to be mad at that dog, and scolding Ahab really wasn’t getting the job done. Instead, I decided to review the facts.
These were the facts: Every time I came home to disaster, Ahab looked guilty. When I shouted at him, he looked sorry. If I could trust my read of his emotions, then he knew that what he was doing was wrong but still did it anyway. Armchair psychology said this meant one of two things: either he was so terrified of abandonment that he couldn’t help himself – and what I had been interpreting as political protest was actually pure panic – or else the damage was dog language for “I’m terrified of being left alone, you stupid schmuck!” Either way, he was terrified.
Since there was no way to stop leaving him alone, I started comforting him when I got home. I would ignore the mess, apologize for my absence, and smother him with affection. I mean smother him. The bigger the disaster, the more love he got. I was going on instinct here, as my plan ran contrary to the advice of most dog trainers. That advice covered the gamut, but a typical example was the 2009 ABC News story “How to Cure Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety.” They suggest more discipline – thus cementing my position as “team leader” – or less affection – this breaking him of his “owner addiction.” Across the board, the experts were certain that my strategy – coming home and treating him, for lack of a better phrase, like a human being – would only reward and reinforce his bad behaviour. As often happens in dog rescue, the experts were wrong.
Within a week, Ahab stopped destroying the furniture. Within two, he left the garbage alone. At the start of the third, he got up from the corner, walked over to the couch where I was sitting, and put a paw on the cushion. He was trembling slightly, trying to hide it, but trembling. It took him a little while to work up his nerve, but eventually he pulled himself the rest of the way up and belly-crawled over. He stopped a few inches away to gather himself. The quivering ceased, his fur lay back down, and he lifted his head to face me directly. Martin Buber once said, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” and this time no different. It really was the first time Ahab had ever held my gaze, I’m not sure what I’d been expecting – maybe fear, wariness, a hint of hope – but what I got was the weight of tradition, a combination of great furry love and truly sober nobility. It felt like Ahab was both offering me his heart and telling men of an ancient trust between our species, a sacred covenant, an honor code I didn’t yet know existed. I’m pretty sure he was also telling me not to screw it up.
Then, our ethics lesson over, Ahab put his head in my lap, sighed once, and fell asleep. Not ten seconds later, he was snoring loudly. I started laughing. It had been such a profound performance. The months of buildup, the fear and trembling, the meaningful look – and for an encore, the melodic sounds of a Panzer tank in the middle of a coughing fit.