It wasn’t until Lester, my neighbor across the street, had a stroke and was hospitalized that I learned he had a 110-pound Rottweiler chained in his back yard. Lester’s next door neighbor, Doug, came to us and told us about Lester’s stroke and said he had been feeding his dog, Mike, but he said he had to go out of town for an extended time and asked if we would take care of him. My husband, Willie, and I agreed. . . reluctantly.
Willie had recently had a negative experience with another Rottweiler, so he asked me: “Would you, please do the honors, go across the street, and see what kind of beast we are going to be dealing with?” I agreed. . . reluctantly. So, I went across the street to Lester’s house, went around the side of the house to the back yard. . . and there was Mike.
He was on a short chain attached to a chain link fence, next to what was supposed to be a dog house, but it really wasn’t – just a few pieces of plywood nailed loosely together; it didn’t provide much shelter at all. Mike was lying in the dirt; there was no grass. He’s hunkered down, looking up at me, as if asking, “Are you friend or foe? Are you going to help me or hurt me?” I knew by looking in his eyes that he had not been treated very well. And oh! My heart! My heart went out to this dog! I just felt such compassion for him. I also felt tremendous anger, because it was wrong that this animal had been confined to this life of loneliness and confinement.
It was very strange but at that moment as I looked at him, I was looking at myself; it was like a mirror image of myself. Mike was on a chain. . . but that was ME on a chain! MY life was isolated and small and things had been denied ME. At that moment, this passion rose up in me, and I was determined that I was going to see this dog set free!
I was 59 years old, staring 60 dead in the face, and as happens to many people at that age, I began to look at my life more honestly than I had before, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. It was a bit of a shock, but I had to admit to myself, “You haven’t lived; 59 years and you really haven’t lived!” I felt frustrated and told myself: “I don’t want to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived so far. I don’t want to live another day this way.”
It’s one thing to decide you want to change, but it’s another to walk out that change. And I found that out, very dramatically, when I began to institute some freedom in Mike’s life. His owner had one purpose and one purpose only for Mike – and that was to be a fierce guard dog that scared the s–t out of people! Because of that, Mike was never walked, he was never disciplined, he was not given any attention, and he was definitely not given any love. His purpose as a created being had been denied him.
That’s how I felt about my life, too. I felt my purpose had been denied me. I had chosen a safe life, a secure life. I was actually addicted to security. And I had come to believe that if I would just stuff my own needs and become what other people needed me to be, at least I’d be safe. But it wasn’t working for me anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
When I began to institute this walk of freedom with Mike, I learned one important thing really fast, and that is that to walk a walk of freedom, you need boundaries and you need discipline. Oh my gosh! Did I learn that fast! My first walk with Mike was quite an experience! I call it a walk, but it really wasn’t a walk. Here’s 110 pounds of solid muscle, this strong creature who had never been off his chain, had never been out of his yard. I put a leash on him, walked him to the edge of the front yardand we took off! Both my feet left the ground! I was not so much concerned where we were going, because I wasn’t guiding him; I just wanted to hold on! It was terrible! I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m a CAT PERSON! We have 3 cats. I mean…a Rottweiler? Really?!?
I was so grateful I made it back without Mike pulling my shoulders out of their sockets, without Mike eating a small child or attacking another dog. I thought this was a success that none of those things happened. So, I went home and collapsed against the door and said to my husband, “We need the Dog Whisperer!” And we really did! So, we went out and purchased as many Caesar Milan videos as we could find, got articles off the internet, talked to anyone who owned a dog – it didn’t matter what kind – I went to the dog park and talked to people. I was desperate to learn how to do this.
Well, at the same time I was trying to establish boundaries in Mike’s life, I was trying to establish boundaries in my own life. And it was just as frightening and just as difficult, because I had never done that before. I didn’t know how to do it. I had never learned to live intentionally and honestly with other people; I had never learned to speak my truth; I had never learned to let my desires be known. I had lived so long doing what others wanted me to do that now it felt wrong; I felt guilty; I felt like I was being mean; I felt like I was being a b—h. It just didn’t feel right. But I was very determined. I knew in my heart I needed to do this.
The first major obstacle to Mike’s freedom came when Lester came home from the nursing home after being gone for 5 months. Lester, before he had his stroke, was difficult; he really was an irascible S.O.B. He was mean; he was controlling; and he was incredibly stubborn. And when he came back, he was ten times worse! His mind had been affected; his body was weak; he was scared because he was losing his grip and his old patterns became stronger.
When it came to Mike, he had three mantras: (1) He’s MY dog, (2) He’s not YOUR dog, and (3) He’s just a dog. Translation: You have no business doing what you’re doing; I don’t understand what you’re doing, and I don’t want you to do it! So, my battle plan with Lester was to convince him that Mike has value, to convince him that Mike was a sentient creature that had deep emotional as well as physical needs. But it was rough going with Lester. I’d get on the internet and find articles about dogs and would read the articles to Lester and I’d talk to Lester about dogs – about what they were really like and what they needed. We’d ask other neighbors to talk to Lester about what dogs are really like. We got his best friend, Betty, to talk to Lester because for some reason she could say things to Lester that no one else could. We convinced her to talk to him about how dogs need people and need love and all those sorts of things.
So, we just kept at it, kept at it. I knew Lester well enough to know that if you just kept telling him things, he would eventually think it was his own idea! But it was really rough going. And while I’m trying to convince Lester that Mike had value, I was having the same battle going on inside myself. I knew that if I wanted to walk an intentional walk of freedom, I would have to believe deep in my heart that I had value. I would have to believe in my heart that my dreams were important, my desires were important, that the things that make us tick as spiritual human beings are important. I had to re-train myself because I wasn’t used to thinking that way and I really didn’t believe it.
This battle with Lester and this battle going on inside myself went on for four years. There were many times when I asked Lester or when my husband asked Lester, “Can’t you just give us the dog? We’re walking him; we’re feeding him; we’re training him; we’re taking him to the vet. Can’t we just have him?” Nope! “(1) He’s MY dog! (2) He’s not YOUR dog!” At least he wasn’t saying anymore, “He’s just a dog”, so I felt we were making progress. Even though Lester said we couldn’t have the dog, we did get him to sign a notarized legal agreement that in the event he was unable to care for Mike, we would become Mike’s owners.
I developed a daily habit with Mike that gave me strength. After walking and feeding him, before going back home, I would take Mike’s face in my hands and look him in the eyes and say to him: “Mike, I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but I promise that one day you WILL be free!”
In February, there was an unusual cold spell that lasted for more than a week when the temperatures at night dropped to below zero. Willie and I agreed there was no way we were going to let that dog stay outside without protection. So, we told Lester we were going to take Mike into our house and keep him until the weather turned warmer. We knew he wouldn’t agree if we asked, so we didn’t ask. We just told him it was too damn cold to have that dog outside in this cold weather and that we were going to take Mike inside our house until the weather changed.
It was amazing what happened. Four years of disciplining this dog – working with him every day – Mike was a changed dog! He was ready to embrace a walk of freedom that respected boundaries and respected other people. He came into the house and immediately became a member of the family. He didn’t once chase the cats; he didn’t once get into their litter box or eat their food! He was just so grateful for what we were doing for him that all I’d have to say was, “Mike, no!” And he would obey. That’s all it took. He didn’t chew up anything; he didn’t poop or pee in the house. It was amazing how grateful and obedient he was!
Well, the second day of having Mike in the house, I knew there was no way he was going back to Lester’s! To take this animal who had finally experienced freedom and to put him back in prison? Over my dead body. . . which was quite possible given Lester’s mean temperament. I won’t go into all the ugly details of our ensuing encounters with Lester, but we did keep the dog. He did not go back over to Lester’s.
I really wish I could say that my transformation into freedom was as miraculous as Mike’s, although there have been some amazing steps I’ve taken into freedom. But there are also areas where I still struggle, where I doubt myself. There are good days and there are bad days. On the bad days I asked myself why I am trying so hard to change these lifetime patterns and I question if the struggle is worth it.
I had one of those bad days just last week. I was really down, feeling very low, very discouraged. I was sitting with my head down and felt a nudge on my arm; felt a wet nose. It was Mike. He nudged his big head under my arm and looked up at me and I knew he was trying to comfort me. It was really interesting. It’s as though I could hear him talking to me. And what he was saying was: “I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but I promise that one day you WILL be free!”