We Need To Talk About Ruthie
Ruthie is a bully
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Anyone who reads my newsletter regularly knows I have an Australian cattle dog, or red heeler, named Ruthie, that I adore. I love this buttery soft stout golden animal with all my heart. She is angelic in sleep and graceful when leaping over logs. I have surely mentioned all of this. What I might not have mentioned is that she's also extremely anxious and therefore a pain in the ass.
She lets out an ear-splitting bark whenever anyone gets within 100 feet of our house and continues to bark when they come inside unless she has seen this person a sufficient number of times — let’s say 200 times. It’s impossible to walk her anywhere but in the woods. All motorized vehicles, but also skateboards, bikes, shopping carts and big dogs send Ruthie into an absolute frenzy. She pulls, darting left and right, or jumps on me, pushing me towards home, or abruptly wraps me up in her leash. Her extreme fear of everything from automatic garage doors to the human cough is probably why when she sees the one thing she is not afraid of — dogs significantly smaller than her — she lunges at them. She has never hurt a dog, I have either prevented this or she has stopped short of real damage. But it’s a problem.
I tried to explain Ruthie’s issue once at a party, to a large group, after Ruthie had once again brought shame on our family by snarling at a puppy. “She’s really not terrible,” I said. “She just has this thing about smaller dogs, and it’s not that I think she’d actually hurt them, but she does scare them, but I think it’s just maybe because she herself…”
My friend Katie interrupted me. “I work in an elementary school,” she said. “We have a name for that. You can just say ‘Ruthie is a bully.’”
A few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles and went to the home of a friend who has a small, young dog. The moment we arrived Ruthie lunged at this dog and growled and she didn’t quite snap her jaws, but she didn’t not snap her jaws. Actually she did snap her jaws; it’s just when you own a pet you never want to admit that they are this terrible. I had been hoping this dog would be too big to elicit this reaction from Ruthie. I was mortified and frustrated.
My friend was very nice. I was feeling pretty unstable that day for a variety of reasons and Ruthie’s aggression was not helpful. I poured my heart out: “I would protect Ruthie with my very own body if I had to,” I said, “But even I have to admit she is a loose cannon.”
My friend said I should take Ruthie to a trainer and there was a nearby pet store where for fifty bucks you and your dog could have an hour alone with one. I wasn’t going to be in LA forever so I couldn’t stick with this trainer but this seemed like a good place to start.
I made an appointment and the very next day Ruthie and I drove to downtown Santa Monica for our big important meeting. Ruthie is fine in the car, unless you happen to be going downhill. As soon as you start going downhill she gets into the front seat, turns her whole body toward you and taps you with her paw. Tap. Why must Ruthie go downhill? Tap. Ruthie does not like going downhill. Tap tap tap. Luckily this trip had no downhills.
I found a parking place on the street. As gently as I could, I eased a trembling Ruthie out of the car. On the sidewalk she began to pace. Cars sped past, I had a good grip on her leash and she’s only thirty pounds, not big enough to pull me over, but I always picture her slipping out of her harness or the leash clasp somehow opening, and how that would be the end of Ruthie and I would never recover. As I dealt with the parking meter, she crammed herself between my legs, quivering.
The pet store had one of those doors that weighed about 1000 pounds and Ruthie did not want to walk though it and it seemed to take a full minute to get into the store. A short guy with curly hair, probably 25, materialized. “This must be Ruthie,” he said. “I’m Leon, your trainer.”
Leon was small and round, with a sweaty forehead and beautiful curly black hair. He was not a smiler, so I stopped smiling too. He looked as if he would rather be home arguing on Reddit about whether or not warlocks should ever be intelligence based but I figured he wouldn’t have decided to work training dogs unless he liked it at least a little bit more than other jobs he could have. He led me and Ruthie into a corner of the store set off with a waist-high clear plastic barrier, the training area. Ruthie took a few steps with us then did an about-face and headed back for the door, working her legs against the floor when she met the limits of the leash.
We somehow all made it inside the space. “Your dog is very nervous,” Leon observed.
I said she sure was.
“We had a dog once so nervous it broke through this thing.” He touched the plastic barrier. I said that I would have liked to see a dog break through a thick piece of plastic, that it sounded amazing. This seemed to alarm Leon. He gave me a disapproving look, closed his eyes and shook his head quickly, as if trying to wake up from a dream.
He sat down in a chair and I sat down on a bench at a right angle to him. Ruthie stood lengthwise along my knees facing away from him, still shaking. “This dog is very, very, nervous,” he said again.
“But not the most nervous dog you’ve ever seen,” I said, holding up a finger in mock victory.
Leon frowned. “No,” he said with forced patience. “The dog who broke through the plastic was somewhat worse.” He took out a clipboard. “What do we know about this dog? Its history?”
“Zero,” I said.
“When you got her at the animal shelter they didn’t tell you anything?”
I told him this was correct. “They just made sure our other dog, she’s dead now, but they just wanted to make sure she and Ruthie wouldn’t kill each other, and then we all went on our merry way.”
He was annoyed by this negligent animal shelter. “So Ruthie was not aggressive with your other dog?”
I explained to him that she was mostly aggressive with smaller dogs, though since then I have observed Ruthie can be bad with almost any dog. She has a slight chance of ignoring dogs exactly her own size, but even then, she can’t resist an initial tussle. I think the only reason she ignored our former dog was her extreme age and feebleness.
“Her aggression is an outgrowth of her nervousness,” Leon said. “This is a reactive dog, a dog that says to itself, “I’ll ask questions later.” I thought this was funny and made Ruthie sound interesting. Leon tucked his legs up underneath him and tugged his T-shirt away from his belly. “She goes after other dogs because she doesn’t have self-confidence. What we need to do is give this dog some self-confidence.” He sighed. “Can you get her to sit?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, “I can.” Sitting is about the only thing I can get Ruthie to do, but only if she also feels like it. “Sit,” I said. I said sit five or six more times and she finally sat.
Leon reached into the bag of treats next to him. The noise of his hand in the bag alarmed Ruthie. She stood up and began to pace. “Sit,” I said again. “Sit. Sit. Sit, Ruthie. Ruthie, sit.”
“Don’t say her name,” Leon said. “Only say her name as a reward.”
“Sit,” I said. “Sit. Sit.”
“Good dog, Ruthie,” I said.
“Good,” Leon said to me. He extended his hand with the treat in it toward Ruthie. As I suspected, Ruthie did not take the treat. She wouldn’t even look at it, or at Leon. She stood up again. “Sit, Ruthie,” I said, “I mean, sit. Sit.” She sat. Leon tossed the treat on the ground next to her. She didn’t even look at it. I tried giving her the treat. She sniffed it then turned away.
“Ok, wow,” Leon said, “If the dog doesn’t take treats, I’m fairly limited in what I can do for you.”
I knew that taking treats was important and that training dogs was pretty much all about taking treats. But I hadn’t imagined was that if your dog is not what they call “treat motivated,” that was pretty much the end of the road.
I felt like I might burst into tears, and also sort of relieved. To be honest, the reason I hadn’t done anything about Ruthie so far was that a few people I know who had suggested dog training to me without having met Ruthie met her and then were like yeah, forget it.
We’d been here for a solid twenty minutes and she hadn’t calmed down at all.
“Should I just . . . go?” I asked. I thought about walking out of there, into midday Los Angeles, and how frightening the prospect of it was: how it was frightening to do anything with Ruthie at all. “I wish she could just be a normal dog,” I said, knowing that an emotional confession to Leon would not be rewarding, but unable to stop myself. I shook my head and said, my tone turning desperate, “I love her so much.”
“Your love for Ruthie is not in question,” Leon said irritably. “No one here questions your love for Ruthie. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about getting the dog to behave.”
We both looked at our phones. We were 22 minutes into an hour-long appointment. Were we just going to sit here for 38 more minutes watching Ruthie tremble while I told Leon more about how much I loved her?
“Let’s see if we can get her to relax,” he said. “And we'll just talk, you and I.”
He asked me a series of questions.
“Does the dog come when you call?”
I hesitated. “Sometimes?”
Leon told me if Ruthie did not always come when I called that she did not come when I called.
“How is she on a leash?”
I told him that she might trot happily out of the door but as soon as she heard a noise she would turn around and jump on me.
“Does she eat and go for walks at regular times?”
I said she generally ate in the morning and at night but it was not at all at “regular times'' and also, was it really terrible that we sometimes fed the dog from the table.
“Yes,” he said, “Extremely terrible. You have to stop doing that. You feed her your food? Human food?”
I said we would stop.
He said we had to feed the dog every day at the same time and take her for walks at the same time. Yikes, I thought. My partner and I both work for ourselves and get very busy and obsessed and for the most part live like old college students with incomes. When I am not working a lot I can actually be a bit like a Stepford wife, cooking and cleaning and doing Peloton and taking Ruthie for long walks with a blonde lawyer named Debbie. But when I have a lot of work, I’m basically a feral slob. Ruthie and I just sit in bed all day while I work and at the end of the day I put a coat on over whatever disgusting thing I am wearing and take Ruthie out and sometimes we feed her at 10 p.m. when a TV show ends and we realize we each thought the other one already fed her.
We were at time. We said goodbye quickly and with some embarrassment. I had prepaid.
When we got back to our home in Northern California, a friend suggested before I bothered doing anything I should take Ruthie to dog socialization. She just needed to get used to dogs, to new experiences, and then she’d develop confidence and feel more secure and less aggressive.
They had a free one at the local shelter. All the dogs were her size or bigger; and the idea was just to let them run around a large pen and get used to each other. Any skirimishes were broken up by dog professionals. I brought Ruthie every single morning for a week and she more or less just hid behind my legs. Every once in a while she’d venture out but she’d run back to me quickly, with a pained expression.
Many attendees told me hopeful stories about their pit bull Maggie or their border collie Zeus and their remarkable transformations as a result of dog socialization. Ruthie did not get a story like this. On day eight, the woman who ran the enterprise looked at Ruthie and then looked at me and said I could keep bringing her if I wanted to but she wasn’t making any progress. “But she has to,” I said. “How can she just not change? How can that be? She’s got to eventually change!” The woman just made a grim face.
On the way to my car from the large fenced-in pen where the dog socialization happens (or in our case was supposed to happen) Ruthie had to pause at a smaller pen and bark at a family of adorable puppies cavoriting inside of it. “Jesus fucking Christ Ruthie,” I said. “Why can’t you be normal.”
Once in the car I kissed her head and took in her wonderful cinnamon smell. “You’re a good dog,” I said. “I mean, not really. But I loved you from the moment I saw you, even though it was evident you were a basket case, and I will never stop loving you. I will love you until the day I die and even after that my love for you will not die, it will circle space like a comet. I know you can’t change. I can’t either. I will never take you out for a walk at regular times. I will never feed you dinner at regular times, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure it would matter, because you seem entrenched in being a jerk sometimes, which I fully understand. So we will just stumble through, being jerks together. Is it a deal?”