On Rejection and Good Dogs

I forgot I had this blog. I’m still writing, just not here.  I’ve been writing short stories and little essays and submitting them to various publications. So far, no one wants them.

I don’t necessarily think that means I’m a bad at telling stories. (I’m not perfect, but I’m not objectively terrible) I think it means I’m not a good fit for their audiences, which is understandable. I’ve read plenty of books where I think, “This is not for me, but I’m sure someone loves it.”

Of course, there’s a little sting that comes with rejection, but it’s not so bad. No one’s mean to me. No one tells me that I’m terrible and I should stop writing. No one shows up at my house and steals my dogs or slaps me in the face. I can handle a polite “no, thank-you”

I decided to post my most recent rejected work here. People ask me a lot what it’s like to volunteer at an animal shelter. This is what it’s like on a bad day.


All Dogs Are Good Dogs

I have a reputation at parties. If you cannot find me, I will be on the floor talking to the dogs. In general, they are better conversationalists than most party-goers.  Dogs are always sincerely delighted to make anyone’s acquaintance and they have the best stories.

I am a firm believer that all dogs are good dogs.

My fondness for good dogs has lead me to volunteer at a local animal shelter. My duties mainly include walking dogs and scooping a lot of poop. That’s okay. I love these dogs. I will scoop poop all day for them.  However, at the shelter, I have finally met a dog that I do not love. He’s a jerk.

I know, it surprised me too.  Actually, it didn’t just surprise me. It bowled me over in a foundational-slipping, paradigm-shifting, mixed-metaphor sea change. What was this nonsense?

I am aware that Mr. Vonnegut has claimed that the Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of heavenly routine. I am not certain of this dog’s innocence, so I’m going to call him Pete.

Pete is in a word, non-descript. In several more words, he’s a medium sized dog with pricked ears, a sharp muzzle and a stocky build. He looks like many of the dogs I’ve handled in the past and I expect us to get along just fine. Pete is a dog and I love dogs.

I discover quickly that Pete is a leash stealer who wants to knock me down. That’s fine. I’ve interacted with lots of dogs who are still learning their manners. I offer him a treat in exchange for the leash. He lunges for it, teeth flashing, as his mouth closes on my fingers and arms.  He grabs the leash and shakes it again.  Drops the leash, throws himself at me, grabs the leash.

I offer him a toy instead, which he accepts, and we once again try to walk.  We take three steps before Pete drops the toy and tries to wrest the leash from my hands. He shakes his head sharply, quickly, back and forth.  I offer a second toy. I have come prepared. Many dogs are minor trickster gods in disguise and you must be ready for their wiles.

However, Pete is not a trickster. He is a force of nature and he does not want my damn toys. He throws himself, open mouthed against me, again and again. I feel as if I am being pummeled by a 50lb Incredible Hulk. I am not afraid, but it hurts.

I turn against his blows, giving him less flesh and fewer limbs to latch onto. If he breaks my skin with his teeth, he will have to be placed under Bite Quarantine. It is essentially Solitary Confinement for Dogs, and I fear if he ends up in solitary it will hurt him. Pete is not well. In fact, if Pete were human, he would be screaming obscenities and throwing fists while sobbing that no one loves him.

No one wants to hear that dogs can suffer mentally and emotionally from the neglect we heap upon them. No one wants to know that dogs mourn the loss of their former families. It’s difficult to explain how the shelter is simultaneously a safe and loving place, but how it can also be a terrifying experience for dogs. These indecent thoughts hurt too much to belong in polite conversation.

Shouldn’t the fact that we love dogs protect them from the consequence of our poor decisions?

Shouldn’t the fact that I love dogs with my entire soul make me the best shelter volunteer ever? (Spoiler: It does not.)

I hate this dog for hurting me. I hate myself for hating a dog that’s obviously suffering. I hate this dog for making me aware of a darkness lurking under my love.

His behavior feels like a betrayal of my love for dogs. If all dogs are good dogs, maybe I am simply a bad human. I don’t know how to respond to a dog that is purposefully using me as a punching bag. I want to push him away.  I am ashamed that I feel an urge to kick him. I want someone with more skill, experience and capacity for love to take him from me.

There is no one else. I will have to do.
“Sorry, Pete,” I tell him as I take a deep breath, “I’m the best you’ve got.”

Pete is obviously disdainful. I am an idiot and he knows it. That’s okay. This idiot wants what’s best for Pete, even if he is a jerk who makes poor choices. I feel like telling him, “At least I have friends, Pete. You asshole.”

I manage, finally, to take him to a quiet place.  We work on sit, which he already knows.  We work on shake. He knows that too.  We work on down. He does not know that one. For the next twenty minutes, I point at the ground, he does a dramatic belly flop, I push a clicker, and he gets rewarded with hot dogs. We do this over and over again.  It calms him enough I can return him to his kennel without causing harm.

I am unbearably relieved to be done with Pete. That feeling lasts until closing time, when a fellow volunteer stops me. Pete has made a mess in his kennel. Of course he has. He wouldn’t walk and I stuffed him full of hot dogs.  I want to leave it be, but I can’t. It is cruel to leave an abandoned dog wallowing in his own filth.

“Do you want to clean the kennel or handle him?” I ask.

The other volunteer hesitates.  She is intimidated by Pete.

“I’ll take him.” I offer, “I can manage him.”

We both know this is a lie, but she’s grateful for my deception.

In the back runs, Pete once again cannot handle the beehive in his mind. He immediately starts to throw himself against me. I try to remember my volunteer training. “Be a tree, be a tree,” I recite it silently to myself, like a mantra. Trees do not mind dogs crashing into them. They do not respond to mania or disdain or desperate demands for attention.

This is good advice for most dogs. It does not work for Pete.

“Knock it off.” I tell him sternly and I stand on his leash instead.

He erupts into protest barking when he realizes he cannot throw himself against me. I roll my eyes. I’m so not a tree. I am a terrible tree. However, now that I’m not in pain, the first wafts of sympathy drift in.  I know the humans in Pete’s life, myself included, have failed him completely.  I’m sure he was loved in his previous home.  The problem with love is that it is too easy to love a puppy. Their sweet breath, floppy ears, and roly-poly bellies inspire a fanatical devotion. As he left puppyhood and grew into his adolescence, his family fell out of love with him.  It happens every day.

Clever dogs can be difficult to love and Pete is desperately clever.  If you are both clever and starved for human touch, frantic habits will fill the void. Dogs and people share this truth. Pete has learned to treat humans like vending machines. If he just hits them hard enough, attention and food will come spilling out.  It makes him both fascinated and distrustful of these chattering apes.

I understand. I’m fascinated and distrustful of chattering apes too.  I don’t go around pummeling them, but I understand.

Before I leave, I write a note for the behavioral staff.  They are the experts that can interpret what actually happened. I’m only a volunteer who got her feelings and body bruised by a dog. I think it’s good that I don’t like Pete. I might be willing to overlook his behavior, which would be disastrous for him and his eventual new family.  However, as I examine my welts later in the evening, I hear my inner voice berating me for being angry with Pete.

I tell my inner voice to shut up. I dislike Pete and I am angry, both with him and his situation. It feels good to acknowledge that.  It feels good to know that I can respond with patience and basic decency even when I am discouraged and in pain.

I learn later that Pete only abuses specific people, and I am glad to leave his care to the volunteers that he adores. However, I cannot avoid him forever. Several weeks later, he is delighted to once again make my acquaintance. I am delighted to be greeted by a happy and healthy dog. As I bend to pet him, he snatches the extra leash draped around my neck and runs off with it.

It’s comforting in a way. Pete is a jerk, but he’s still a good dog. All dogs are good dogs.

Godspeed, Pete.


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