Illustration by Jose Santana Firpo

Long story short: The Downward Dog

He didn’t sign up for this. Truly. He was hoodwinked, suckered, sold a bill of goods. We appeared—on the surface—to be a healthy family. Two parents, four rollicking children, a sturdy (if somewhat chaotic) home filled with comings and goings, and nightly meals that might yield morsels of table scraps just ripe for the picking. He was taken care of, taken out, fed, stroked. And, during the day, he had the whole quiet house to himself. This lasted for a good seven years. Seven years of plenty.

Jack was never trained to be an emotional support animal. He’s just the family dog.

About mid-March, Jack noticed a change. No one was leaving the house. I could see the concern in his eyes. A curiosity, a quizzical look, a certain way his heavy yellow head would tilt in the mornings when the hectic pace ceased and a slow crawl to the kitchen emerged from the teenagers. The household rhythm was gone. Our schedules vanished.

At first, we were too self-focused and worried and fearful and alarmed to notice the needs of our canine. We were no longer going to school, to work, to daily errands or to the dentist. We were home. All. The. Time. Petting the dog.

“Where’s Jack?” one of the kids would ask, first thing when he or she got up. Everyone was fighting for Jack’s attention. Tempting him with treats to get him out of the arms of one child and into the arms of another. There were belly rubs, and back scratches. Backyard runarounds and indoor full-body hugs. Everyone wanted Jack.

What a blessing for Jack, right? All his family, all the time. We were ready to pet him, and throw the ball to him, and call for him to come so we could cuddle him, ad nauseum. We were needy, but we didn’t notice the need. How utterly foolish we were. Blinded by our own human superiority. Our belief that we were—collectively—the gift that keeps on giving. We are home, Jack. Jack, we’re home.

“I think we are wearing him out,” my husband commented, sometime in mid-April. I think it was mid-April. Did we even have an April? “Jack’s going outside just to sleep.”

And there it was. He would stand by the back door, restless to get outside, where he would typically gallop to the nearest ball and run around the yard, often throwing the ball to himself. Instead, Jack collapsed on the back patio. Slumbering for hours.

Is he trying to get away from us?

It felt like a betrayal. In the months of quarantine and social distancing, we had fewer humans to distract us. Fewer events to attend. Fewer places to go. We were all together, all the time. And our “man’s best friend” was growing weary of us. Growing tired of being petted. He started leaving dog treats on the ground, unchewed. He’d had enough.

How low do you have to go to be rejected by your dog? Yep, we’ve hit a new low.

We are too much. That’s the long and short of it. And it’s taken a worldwide pandemic to reveal the truth.

“What are you doing for self-care?” my therapist asked me, her face a fresh distraction through the laptop via a teleconference.

“I’m driving around alone. Sometimes with no destination,” I admitted. “I’ve parked at the LSU Lakes and watched the geese.”

“Good. Good. We all need to be alone.” Her eyes were reassuring. Her smile brilliant. Because of facemasks, I hadn’t seen a real smile in weeks. “Your dog just needs some self-care, too. He’s taking care of himself, so he can take care of you. That’s healthy.”

Healthy. Jack is healthy. And he doesn’t need to pay someone to tell him that. He knows that he needs to be alone, and that’s OK. And he’s full up on treats, so he doesn’t need to eat past full. Why can’t I instinctively know that when I’m tired, I need to rest, and when I’m full I need to leave the treats alone? Maybe he’s smarter than we think.

The hopeful takeaway is that we, as a family, aren’t too much for the dog. The lack of social distancing is. We are not broken; the system is broken. It’s not all our fault. I take my hand out of the cookie jar, knowing that I’m not truly hungry. I plan an afternoon nap. I call the dog, and he comes running.

Maybe Jack’s an emotional support animal after all.