By Ali Shapiro
In puppy kindergarten class we are working on stay. Like most of the important commands, stay is taught in stages. Stage 1 is Duration. At first, the dogs only have to stay for a second or two before we release them and reward them with treats. Then, gradually, we up the ante. The dogs have to stay for ten seconds, then thirty, then a minute before the release.
The next stage — they all start with D — is Distraction. We tell our dogs to stay, then start jiggling our car keys, jumping up and down, bouncing tennis balls, tempting them to disobey. They watch us, heads cocked, quizzical.
The final stage is Distance. “Stay,” we say, and then we start leaving. First we take only a step or two away from our dogs before returning to release and reward them, but soon we’re taking four, five steps, then six, seven, ten, and eventually we’re out of sight, in the next room, our dogs still where we left them, still as statues, patient shadows unstitched from our heels.
My adult life breaks down into two distinct phases: Before and After Dog. I moved around a lot in the years B.D., couch surfing, house sitting, subletting, and periodically driving trunkfulls of laundry back to my parents’ apartment in New York City. For a while I lived on a 28-foot boat in Seattle, for a while on an organic farm near Cape Disappointment, the southwesternmost tip of Washington State. Cape Disappointment. At 28, I was equipped with an ancient Volvo wagon and not a single piece of furniture.
So of course I applied to graduate school. I wanted a reason to go somewhere and stay there for more than a year. I was awarded full funding to study poetry in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, but instead I went rogue, hurtling through my classes and drinking like I hadn’t since college, which is to say frequently and messily. I accumulated two lovers and ricocheted between them until all three of us were heartbroken. By then it had started to snow, and I had started to notice a pattern in my behavior, a trend of reckless and perpetual departure in the guise of purposeful exploration. In my heart there was a heavy, homesick feeling, but my head was restless; I couldn’t stop — the way, in cartoons, the character runs off the edge of a cliff and his legs keep on going, even though the ground is long gone.
In 1518, Hernán Cortés was commissioned to initiate trade with the indigenous tribes along the Mexican coast. Instead he went rogue and pursued other, less honorable goals, such as brutally conquering the Aztec empire. By the time Cortés landed his fleet on the coast of what is now Veracruz, his men were understandably suspicious of their leader.
So Cortés, fearing a mutiny, proceeded to scuttle—or, in landlubber terms, deliberately sink—his own ships.
Cortés’ bold move is perhaps the best-known example of what various theorists call “precommitment strategy.” In battle, precommitment entails one side cutting off its own options to make its threats more credible — sinking its own ships, for example, or burning the bridge over which its troops might retreat. Precommitment strategies are also used to help people stop gambling, or lose weight, or achieve other goals that are typically derailed by our susceptibility to the allure of bad choices.
The dog was my precommitment strategy, implemented suddenly and all at once, a sneak attack I launched against myself. In the course of two days I signed a new lease with a dog-friendly landlord and brought home a 12-week old puppy. I knew nothing about dogs. I hadn’t even unpacked. On my last dog-free night I got drunk and went dancing until four in the morning, the whole time thinking about the dog, about how I’d have to start going home sober and alone and at reasonable hours, because I’d have no choice, because there’d be a dog—because like Cortés I was sinking my ships, only the mutiny I was preventing was my own.
The other humans in puppy kindergarten are all equipped with husbands or wives or children, Midwestern-friendly and blonde as their Golden Retrievers. My dog, Winnie, is a dark, brindled mutt, somewhere between a pitbull and a hyena.
“Or maybe an African Wild Dog,” suggests one of the husbands. He’s a big, clean-cut guy with a slouchy beer gut and a blank-eyed smile.
“Yeah, or a Dingo,” his wife adds helpfully.
She reaches out to pat Winnie on the head, but the dog shrinks away from the outstretched hand. I shrug, awkward-apologetic. Like me, Winnie is nervous around strangers; like me, she is generally uncomfortable being the center of human attention. We crave petting but we’re skeptical of closeness, protective of our personal space.
And yet, neither of us likes being alone. When I leave her at home, Winnie barks, whines, howls, paces, and pees all over her crate. When I try leaving her not in the crate, she pees on the rug, claws at the door, and tears at the blinds in my living room. In puppy kindergarten class we learn the name for these symptoms: separation anxiety. One of the Golden Retrievers has it, too, and his owner and I try to commiserate, but it’s clear that the misery is mostly mine: “Yeah, we wash a lot of towels,” says the owner with an ‘oh well, that’s life’ eye roll. “But he’s a pretty good boy, other than the mess in the crate.”
My own anxiety is through the roof, inversely proportionate to my dwindling security deposit. I had imagined that having a dog would make me feel calm, grown up, settled. Instead, I dread coming home to the stress and the mess, so much so that I almost entirely stop leaving. It’s not hard, exactly; as a fully-funded grad student, my obligations are limited to a once-a-week seminar on the history of the sonnet. So I pretty much plan my life around the dog.
It’s not hard, but it’s lonely.
But then again, isn’t it just what I’d wanted? A forced hand, all the choices made for me, a domesticated antidote to my own wildness? A reason to just sit, and just stay?
Two dogs were executed during the Salem Witch Trials. The first, accused of giving a village girl the “evil eye,” was later exonerated by then-minister Cotton Mather, but only after villagers had already shot it. The second dog was guilty of “acting strange,” supposedly because a human evildoer was tormenting its spirit. Though the villagers in this case agreed that the dog was the victim, they decided to shoot it anyway. General panic had appropriated the concept of the “animal familiar,” a corrupt little spirit that acted as an extension of the witch’s self and could be sent to do her bidding.
It’s not lost on me that I’m describing the same symptoms to my veterinarian and my shrink. That while the latter is indulgent, the former is skeptical. He tells me, “Separation anxiety is really most common in Velcro dogs” — those epitomes of doggish devotion who can’t bear being separated from their humans by more than a few inches or moments at a time — “And, well…” We both look at Winnie, who is curled in one corner of the vet’s office, her back to us both, her nose to the wall.
And it’s true that Winnie seems to prefer a more separate togetherness; if she’s sleeping on the living room rug and I sit down on the sofa, she moves into the kitchen and then pokes her head back in occasionally, like I’m the puppy she isn’t sure is completely housebroken. Because she is actually the puppy and I’m actually not sure, I check on her occasionally, too, and so that’s what our time at home is like: each of us in our own room, every so often peeking in to see what the other is doing.
But there’s still the fact of the barking and peeing, so Winnie and I graduate from puppy kindergarten to the expertise of Dr. Camille Ward, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Camille listens as I describe the problem, which isn’t really a problem anymore, since I’ve virtually stopped leaving Winnie alone. “Are you sure it was separation anxiety?” Camille asks. “Are you sure she wasn’t just…a new puppy?”
By now it’s summer, and Winnie lies pancaked on the floor of my living room, the very picture of canine calm. But I cling to my evidence: the scratches in the door, the wrecked blinds, the basic assumption of my sanity, which would seem to preclude my invention of such an inconvenient and stressful situation.
Camille instructs me to follow a “desensitization and counterconditioning protocol,” the first step of which is to desensitize Winnie to the common “triggers” that predict our separation. “So for example,” Camille explains, “Let’s say you get up every morning, shower, dress in your work clothes, pick up your car keys, and leave the house. Go through that routine enough times, and the dog starts to get sensitized to the triggers. The smell of your work shoes? You must be leaving. The sound of the shower? Uh oh.”
Winnie rolls over onto her stomach, rests her head on her paws. She looks up at me, liquid-eyed and inscrutable.
“So to desensitize her,” Camille continues, “You need to separate triggers and events. You pick up your keys, you go read a book on the couch. You get out of the shower, then take Winnie out for a walk. You put on your work shoes, you start cooking dinner. You’re showing her that those triggers don’t really mean anything anymore.”
I look at Winnie. She looks at me. I ask Camille, “But what if I don’t really have work shoes?”
Now Camille’s head is cocked, quizzical. “Well, this is just an example,” she says. “Your triggers will vary according to your daily routine.”
I say, “But what if I don’t really have a daily routine?
The answer is: make one up. So I invent my routine backwards, starting with its disjointed parts. For a few days I put on my shoes, then take them off again. For a few days I put them on and get into bed, or into the shower with the water off, or just sit back down on the couch. The next week I add keys: I pick them up, put them down, carry them around. These are my keys, I find myself thinking. These are the keys to my house.
Soon enough I start putting the parts in order: shower, get dressed, put on shoes, pick up keys, open front door. Winnie barely blinks. “So that means you’re ready for the next step,” Camille says, which is counterconditioning, which means getting Winnie to associate the triggers with a good thing instead of a bad one. The good thing is a Kong full of dog food, and it’s supposed to appear just as I’m about to leave, then disappear upon my return.
At first I’m only opening and closing the front door before coming back to take away the Kong. For ten minutes twice a day I open and close, open and close, never even stepping outside. Winnie doesn’t seem to notice my movement. She stays right where I left her, fully absorbed with her delicious task. “It’s time to start leaving,” Camille tells me, but I linger at the threshold another week or so before finally crossing it. Then I’m gone, then I’m back, then I’m gone for thirty seconds, a minute, five, and every time I return I find Winnie where I left her, licking the Kong on the living room rug, everything normal save for the faint odor of meat.
Standing around in your front yard doing nothing for 10-plus minutes at a time is a great way to get to know your neighbors, and soon enough I get to know mine. They invite me to block parties. I babysit their kids. One day for no reason the mailman shows me pictures from his recent trip to China. I smile and nod and exclaim, the whole time thinking, My mailman. I have a mailman.
Camille says I’m supposed to keep adding time gradually, that I shouldn’t push Winnie out of her comfort zone too fast. But one day I leave to go stand in my yard for 10 minutes and instead I keep walking. I’ll just circle the block, I tell myself, but instead I walk all the way downtown. I buy a sandwich. I eat it on a park bench. I don’t get back home until almost two hours later. I approach my house on stealthy tiptoe and peek in the window: and there’s Winnie, asleep on the couch.
When I was a kid, my dad would leave me a few times a week at Jodi’s Gym, with big-haired Jodi in her neon leotard and the rest of the Tumbling Tots. As specified in the class description we were ages 3 & up and so mostly the point was just not to get injured. The floor and all four walls were padded with colorful mats. Jodi would bounce around from tot to tot, saying in her buoyant voice “You did it!” as she lifted our little bodies and twirled us into weightless cartwheels. All around her the other tots giggled or jumped or ran in circles or cried or obediently stretched.
“You were one of the criers,” my dad tells me — a large rectangular mirror lodged in one wall of the gym was made of one-way glass to facilitate parental spying — “You always cried when I left.” He’s telling me this story because I’ve been complaining about Winnie. He calls her his granddog.
“So one day,” my dad continues, “I finally just asked you — I mean, I felt a little silly asking my four year-old for parenting advice, but I didn’t know what else to do — I said, Al, what’s the problem here? And you looked very serious and you said to me: You’ve been having trouble saying goodbye.”
Later I learn from Camille that there’s another way to teach stay: feed a steady stream of treats while the dog is actually in the process of staying, instead of rewarding her after she’s already stayed. This way, Camille says, the dog wants to stay for as long as possible. The old way, she can’t wait to be released.
And all I can think is that I must’ve learned it the old way: that stillness, for me, has always been a function of resistance; a thing to be endured, not enjoyed; a waystation, a standby mode; a kind of purgatory. The dog was supposed to strengthen my resistance, force me to settle, keep me at home. Because that’s what I thought home was: the opposite of wandering, of waiting, of always wondering what comes next. I thought home was Veracruz, a battleground, a place that quashed wanderlust, razed curiosity, shut out the beauty indigenous to the whole wide unsettled world. A place no one with access to a seaworthy ship would ever actually choose to stay.
I thought home was where the heart is—and where it stayed, caged and afraid. But for the expected red muscle I swapped in the Kong, also red, and let it deliver a version of stillness that is its own meaty reward. I knew she was there, the dog, leashing me to my address, my neighbors, my mailman, my key, my routine. But from that center of gravity the leash spooled out endless and loose. And in the end what I learned was not how to stay but how to leave and return, how to come home again and again.
Ali Shapiro teaches writing in Ann Arbor. She’s the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, scholarships from the Fine Arts Work Center and the Vermont Studio Center, and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes in various denominations. Find her online at www.ali-shapiro.com or follow her on Twitter @alishapir0.