Have you ever heard of a dog that gives you the middle finger, snubs you when you call,
believes you exist solely to please her even though she doesn't have to please you, and channels the worst parts of your mother to boot? A dog that intentionally tries to trip you when you walk downstairs, and, in the middle of your hard work, purposely shuts off your computer by sitting on the outlet? A dog that laughs at you when you yell and scream for obedience? That was my dog Maud, who owned me and my partner, Mike, for 12 years.
In August 1995, we purchased a Welsh terrier. At the time, Mike and I had been together for two years, and had lived together for seven months. We thought a dog would be a good way to start a family together.
Mike was raised with schnauzers, and I was raised with a sheltie named Taffy. He was the most obedient and loving dog, and got me through many hard times in my childhood by sitting next to me with a worried look on his face, as so many sheltie's do. He wanted to please me and I, in turn, wanted to please him.
I wasn't keen on terriers because I thought they were dominant and temperamental. Ultimately, after researching the breed, we learned that the Welsh terrier was sweet, friendly, and good with children.
We agreed to name our terrier Maud for two reasons: I liked the lead character from the popular television series Maude, and Mike liked the name after running across it in English literature. Looking back, this was a preview of how differences would surface as a result of this dog, for better and for worse.
In my workshops later, I used Maud as part of my shtick about how relationships can focus on the wrong things. During any conflict, what a couple is arguing about is rarely the real issue. But I didn't know this in 1995, when Maud became part of the power struggle between Mike and me.
We purchased Maud as an 8-week-old puppy. Early on, when I called her to come in from outside and she defiantly ignored me, I knew this wasn't going to be the right dog for me. After the third time she did this, I stormed into the house and announced to Mike that Maud was dominant, hyperactive, and disobedient. Being a psychotherapist, I diagnosed her as having an attention deficit, along with hyperactivity, and oppositional defiant disorder. But Mike wouldn't hear of sending her back. It was as if she was his flesh and blood. To me, she was simply an animal that needed to be medicated. I knew I couldn't live with her! But after I saw how attached Mike was to her, I agreed to keep her. What a mistake that was . . . or so I thought.
Over the years, Mike and I fought about the dog. He'd gaze out at her in the backyard and see Kimba the White Lion. Id see a four-legged Nazi who was out to get me. Maud became the centerpiece of our arguments and Exhibit A of how we viewed things differently. We took her to dog-training classes. She flunked both level one and level two--and required a two-month stay at a dog retreat so she could be trained to listen.
I knew she was just a dog, but many times in my reactions to her bad behavior, I felt as though she was out to get me. What pushed me over the edge was an issue I had with Mike: he wasn't as emotive and affectionate as Id have liked. When I brought it up, he'd respond that he didn't know how, and just hadn't been raised that way. But when we brought Maud home, he was instantly affectionate, calling her cutesy names, rubbing noses with her, and giving her everything that I wanted from him. I remember asking Mike, If I wet my nose and wag my tail, will you treat me the way you treat Maud?
After nine months of fighting over Maud, we entered Imago Relationship Therapy. In due course, I discovered that I was projecting onto this dog the traits of the adults who'd raised me.
These were the adults who ignored me and said and did things to hurt me. Even though I had done a lot of therapy around this issue--not to mention being a therapist myself--this dog had found a way to pull out my reactions from my past. In therapy, we learned that Maud was simply a metaphor for how different Mike and I were. He reacted to her by staying calm and acting like the alpha male, and she often (but not always) responded by obeying him. But when she snubbed and disobeyed me, Id scream and yell and stomp my feet, which she viewed as an invitation to a playful sparring match.
Maud could also be very sweet and friendly. She loved people and loved me, and we enjoyed playing with each other. I always got tired out before she did, ending with her standing over me with a paw on my chest, begging for more, while I huffed and puffed, begging for mercy.
She had a big personality and always let you know when she was in the room. If I didn't pay attention, shed get up and stare at me. And if I didn't respond to that, shed whine. And if that didn't bring me around, she(d pace back and forth, staring intently at me. This behavior was particularly annoying to me on days I needed to write. I cursed her for making me get up to play with her. When I was in the middle of a thought, shed insist on going out. If she wanted to go for a walk, shed pace and whine until I gave in. To get a break, I tried shutting her in another room. But shed have none of that. Shed whine and scratch the door, barking louder and louder until I let her out. I have to write! Id scream. I can(t be disturbed. But shed just look at me with that terrier frown, which I know was really a smile turned upside down.
I joked that I marked the calendar every day she was with us, as if I were serving time in prison. Mike joked that Maud had a calendar, too--marking off each day she had to be with me. Ill never get another terrier, I repeated over and over.
As she grew older, something shifted in my relationship with her that I didn't realize at first. I learned that her need for play was a sign that I needed to play more. Her need to go outside made me aware thatI needed a break from the computer after hours of writing. Her demands for walks (and I do mean demands) increased my awareness of my own need for exercise. I realized that if I didn't become more of an alpha male with her, shed dominate me completely. I learned how to show her that I was in charge, although I was still willing to meet her needs. And best of all, I learned that Mike and I needed to stop fighting over Maud and get down to our real issues.
Maud died on June 30, 2007, 10 days after her 12th birthday. When she turned 12, I joked that I looked forward to her Bark Mitzvah the following year, when she turned 13. Now that will never be. But I realize how much I loved her, even in all my anger and outrage. I see that she was my teacher, and led me kicking and screaming into her classroom. I miss her terribly and have wept every day since her death. Our house isn't the same.
The biggest surprise, though, is that when we went to buy another dog, it was a Welsh terrier. Shell arrive in September, when shes 12 weeks old. One thing is certain: Ill listen
carefully to this dog.
Joe Kort, L.M.S.W., is a gay psychotherapist and author of two books on gay male identity and relationships: 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives and 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love. His new book, Gay Affirmative Therapy for the Straight Clinician: The Essential Guide is forthcoming. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to email@example.com.