The dog, the storm, and the love that comes from a thundershirt.

Ah, there’s a storm brewing. I can tell by the way my dog begins to pace the hall, her toenails tap dancing lightly on the reclaimed floor boards, by the way she grins at me, the whites of her eyes making her look desperate to laugh at a joke that isn’t funny. She sniffs the air, smelling something powerful rolling towards her even as the sky, so far as I can see, remains a thin blue.

When she gets this way, I have about thirty minutes before the sky turns black and the drum beats sound and the army of raindrops hammer down on our old roof. Rat tat tat tat tat, and my dog stands and trembles. Now, she’s 63 pounds and when she trembles, let me tell you, you’re trembling too.

A word about my dog: she’s the same breed that got Osama Bin Laden. She’s the breed they take to Afghanistan to sniff for bombs and to sleep out in the desert with the troops. She’s the preferred dog of the Israeli military. From birth she’s been trained to bite, to jump, to guard, to protect. She’s been taught not to flinch when a gun goes off, to sink her teeth in even harder when you try to shake her off. This ain’t no puppy we’re talking about. Of course, she’s retired now. She’s sleeps most of the time. But don’t tell that to the delivery men who are awful polite when they have to come to the door.

The Rambo of Dogs

But when it storms, she will follow my husband into the shower, pressed up against him despite how much she hates getting wet. She will wind her long golden furry self under my desk, making herself as small as possible. She makes sure you get a share of her despair.

To solve this problem we have bought a thundershirt. It’s a jersey coat that you wrap around her torso and attach with a bunch of velcro strips. The idea is it applies a kind of constant pressure that comforts her. I have to strap it on very tightly and all her hair tufts out, but while she doesn’t stop panting and she still looks a little insane, she’ll stop pacing and park herself in a corner somewhere. Somehow that little jacket makes the unknowable bearable for her.

Not so brave

Man, wouldn’t we all like a jacket like that! Better yet, wouldn’t it be great to have someone constantly looking out for you and knowing the very minute you need a jacket like that? Someone who is willing to risk your gnashing teeth and vicious bark in order to strap this thing on you and calm you down. Someone who won’t let go, even when all you want to do is run away.

I’m not talking about a calm voice of reason. Or a sympathetic pat on the back. I’m not even sure I mean a genuine case of empathy. I’m talking about tackling you as you stand and bundling you in the force of all their love so that you can feel a little more safe.

When we were children, it was whoever raised us. They protected us and looked out for us. But people are not like dogs; we’re fickle. We start to say, hey I don’t want to wear that thunder jacket, it makes my butt look big. I’m not that scared anyway, I don’t need it. You can’t make me wear it, you have no fashion sense, and besides how else am I gonna get brave if I don’t take the damn thing off and stand naked and trembling as the lightning dances around my feet!

But here’s the thing, my dog is old. She’s pretty wise. She’s learned to withstand gunshots and rain and airplanes, but when it comes to thunderstorms she’s not getting over it. She will not outgrow it. It’s desperation we’re talking about. And despite how brave we all are, aren’t we a little bit the same? Aren’t there doubts and fears we will never outgrow? Aren’t there some things in life so uncertain and tragic that the only solution is bunker down and hope someone holds you fast against that terrible tide?

I was always wary of the bossy friend (full disclosure: I am a bossy friend). The one who tells you what to do, that one. Ah, she can be real pain right? Mind your business, bossy friend. Let me live my life! Where I am from it is often better to be the friend that is everlasting accepting, accepts whatever you want, whatever makes you happy. You want to study basket weaving and sell your kidney? Good for you! You want to eat maggots? Good for you! Are you sure? You are? Okay, good for you! Supportive, right, that’s what we call it?

But I’m not convinced this kind of distance makes the heart grow fonder. It’s a fine line with indifference. Sure if Tommy jumped off a cliff, maybe you’re not supposed to do what he says and follow, but somebody’s got to care enough about you to tell you that, right?

Sure, I know, there has to be balance. Absolutely. And limits too. Sometimes, my dog wants to be outside during a storm running around getting soaked in the rain and there is no way in hell I’m getting a thundershirt on her. We have to know when to let go; let it go. Let them get brave. But on the whole, don’t we owe those we care most about a little bossiness sometimes, a little steadfast loving pressure in times of trouble?

Look, it isn’t easy. Would I want to try and fight with myself and brave my forked tongue to get a thundershirt I don’t think I need on me? Nooo way. And yet to those who do it, who do it with love, one day I promise I’ll be grateful.

Still waters ahead

These last few difficult weeks, my dog has been my constant companion. The way she’ll press her good weight against me even before I know I need it. So when the storm hits and I brave her fangs, refusing to let her go as we hide under the duvet and she shivers in her thundershirt, I think, this is the least I can do given all she’s done for me: make her feel a little better about our big angry unknowable world.

Not a cloud in sight

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20 thoughts on “The dog, the storm, and the love that comes from a thundershirt.

  1. you know, they do have weighted vests for humans…mainly for autistism spectrum kids. but i have often thought of getting one for myself, hopeing that it would calm me down and give me a sense of security for a while. great post.

    • when i wrote this I remembered a scene from Grey’s Anatomy where an asperger surgeon had a panic attack and the only way to calm her was for Christina Yang to hold her tight and not let go. So, apparently a serious bear hug might do the trick for you too. So happy you enjoyed the read.

  2. Love, love, love this post. Contented sigh.

    Yes, I agree there are times that support of “whatever you want dear” can be a problem. There are times that I wish someone would have taken me by the shoulders and given me some tough advice right between the eyes. And yet, experience is a good teacher, and there are times I wouldn’t have listened anyway.

    Where I get stuck with advice-giving is I wonder how I can possibly know what’s best for someone else? How do I know what will make someone else happy? I clearly remember a homeless woman telling me about her escape from rehab, and how happy she was to be back with her friends on the street. Was she really happy? Who knows, but who am I to say? Still – other people can see obvious patterns we often can’t, and we all benefit from a little outside perspective once in a while. And I feel sometimes like I wouldn’t be a good friend if I didn’t state the difficult truth. What I’m working on these days is speaking up when I think it’s really important and doing my best to say it with love.

    • It is definitely a balance. I probably wouldn’t have listened (or rather, didn’t listen). And how do we know what will make someone else happy? It’s a good question. I’d like to see someone else who Lilou doesn’t know try to get that thundershirt on her. It takes time and a lot of trust and a lot of experience with someone. I think that’s key. I have some friends who I know well enough to know what I can say and to have an idea of what works for them. And there are those who might remain mysterious till the end- and that’s so much harder to gauge. Hopefully, we have faith that whatever falls out of mouths will be understood in the right vein. As you say, saying it with love.

      • Yes, and I love your point about knowing someone – about it taking time and trust, and experience with that particular person.

        BTW – I love the rambo dog pictures. I fully picture Lilou doing those things. 🙂

  3. I love this post. Love love love it! Somewhere at the beginning I started to cry. I’d give almost anything for a bossy friend. And if they make Thundershirts for people, I might need one of those too.

    • Thank you. bossy friends are tricky, trust me. and they are like an investment, you know… you often don’t enjoy the return until many many years later!! In lieu of a thundershirt you should ask for one big long everlasting hug- i send one through the universe to you.

      • Thank you! I would still prefer a bossy friend that was real over a “Sure jumping off that b ridge sounds like a great idea” friend every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

        The hug goes back to you as well. You might not need it but it makes me feel better to give it. 🙂

  4. I love the post, the comments, and the dog! Just a little different than Cricket I would say 🙂 The odd thing here is that Cricket, although miniscule in camparison to your beautiful beastie, doesn’t give a fig about thunder. We have a fireworks celebration here in Vancouver every summer and I think she just thinks its fireworks of a different kind. She gets to stay out late on those nights so she thinks they rock.

    I saw a great movie about Temple Grandin (who is autistic) who developed a kind of “hug machine” she could get into when upset. Alas, she was and is before her time and at the time they thought it had some kind of odd sexual implication 🙂 I would love to have a hug machine in my house and yes, I have great need of it from time to time.

    I think I am particularly good at being a bossy friend, but I think I let go too soon sometimes. I think I should hold on tighter until the struggling stops. When I was reading your blog I thought of a few times when I know if I had just held on maybe I could have helped someone. I had a friend that had a drug problem, and when I confronted him about it, instead of pretending that cocaine use is just one of those fun things to do of an evening, he lashed out at me and said the most interesting thing: he said ” it’s none of your business, maybe if you were a better friend, or known me a long time, or were family, you would have the right to say something”. Isn’t that a fascinating thing for someone to say in that moment- it was as if he were listing all the people who failed to give him the hug that he so desperately needed. And like your dog, a stranger was just not the one that would be able to get the thundershirt on to him. If anyone ever needed a thundershirt it would have been him. We did remain friends for awhile longer but have lost touch now. I wonder if any of the people he named finally worked up the courage to tell him what he so desperately needed to hear.

    Many thanks BZ for that post.

    • your welcome. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head (as have others) it’s about time. About earning the right, priviledge, responsibility to speak up on some one else’s life. It kind of makes me think about friendship in a whole other way.
      Cricket isn’t scared of thunder? good girl. i am always surprised by how fragile my big dog’s hearts and fears actually are sometimes.

  5. Loved these reflections on dogs, on a sense of security, and on ourselves. The photos of the humans and dogs simultaneously jumping out of planes in wartime particularly made my heart spin around. I look to my dog constantly for a sense of balance, of stability and presence. It unnerves me greatly to see her unsettled, which happens mostly when she sees that I am packing and is wondering (I suppose) whether she will be coming along with me wherever I’m going. She hates fireworks. We have to put her in a quiet, central room in the house, buffering her as much as possible from the loud noise, and she still shivers.

    The piece of your post, BZ, that I will most remember is this idea of having someone to look out for us, to notice when we need the thunderjacket and to be brave enough to tackle us to the ground, if need be, to get it on. I’d like to think I have one or two of these people in my life, and that I am that kind of person to one or two people too. It seems both scary and necessary to love someone that fiercely.

    • If we grab a suitcase around her, she gets a little wide eyed too. Fireworks too. She thought we were under full scale attack on New Years. We also recently learned that hot air balloons are actually fire breathing dragons in the sky and my dog takes it upon her self to defend us, barking viciously into the sky.

      One or two. That’s all we need isn’t it? And it’s as hard as finding one or two. Scary and necessary and ferocity. Perfectly said.

  6. First of all it’s nice to be back… and for this to be the warm first post to come back to! I’ve missed all the sugar here. Expect a lot of comments today; my first day of deep breaths and emerging from the storm.

    Secondly, what a magical post! The familiarity of remembering how dogs react to fear; the curiosity of a thunder vest (what a great idea!), and the broader connection to what it is to feel safe ourselves; as well as all the comments around that. It’s rich sugar indeed.

    We had a golden lab growing up who also hated storms. We came home one night to find her in the bathtub, shivering. Oddly, this is where she would hide during – the place where we thought she hated (it’s where she had her biweekly bath), but where she knew she was safe and surrounded by caring hands.

    And yes, sometimes it would be great to have a thunder vest of our own. I don’t know how many times I’ve started a conversation with my husband with the words, “I’m not telling you this because I need help or advice, I just need you to listen and give me a hug”. And for him, I learned that the three most important words that he can possibly hear are not “I love you”, but rather, “you are safe”.

    Bellacanta, I had a similar experience to you and my heart went out to you when you recalled it. I was hurt and felt betrayed by my friend, and I know it’s a cliche but at some point I knew I wasn’t talking to a person, I was talking to a drug. It’s a very different conversation as I’m sure you know.

    I am not a big supporter of tough love. In my experience, people will live their lives the way they want to, regardless of the advice you may give; and my job as a friend and supporter is to listen, offer advice only when asked (yes, timing is everything) and most importantly, be there to help pick up the pieces when disaster strikes. That’s true friendship. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what dogs do.

  7. Thank you so much for this post, BZ. I love the vulnerability and fierce love in this post. It is such a treasure to have someone – dog or otherwise – to love that way. And yes, I totally identify with your comment, “I’m talking about tackling you as you stand and bundling you in the force of all their love so that you can feel a little more safe.” I’ve fallen in love with people for doing that!

    I was also fascinated by the discussion about bossy friends. I’ve never been much of a bossy friend and I’ve sometimes thought that I’d wished that more of my friends had told me what they really thought. But I think the key here is that this is different than being told what is best for me. I’ve grown to really appreciate the rich wisdom of diverse perspectives but I’ve had to fight mightily for the confidence to respect my own and I still do. So I think I’m more in Pavlova Mud’s camp. (Though you hardly need me to tell you that!) Some truths you can only come to on your own, and the best people in these cases are those who empower you to find your circuitous way there yourself, stumbling, getting lost, and failing… but learning as you go. I know you’ve suffered through many years of that, and for that I thank you and love you.

    I was also struck by this comment, “i am always surprised by how fragile my big dog’s hearts and fears actually are sometimes.” It’s funny… she sounds exactly like you.

    • Daily, I look at this dog of mine and I am terrified by how much I’ve come to love her and in that same moment I am grateful and fearful for it. For what it is and what will come. It is a treasure of overwhelming proportion, and to your point about big dogs and fragile hearts, i’m not quite sure how I’ll manage it when it’s put at risk.

      I do think the bossy friend is a very individual thing and it depends on what kind of person each of us is. While I have a horrible track record for listening, I kind of like being told what to do by the right people, and hate being told what to do by the wrong ones. Very much like my dog, in that respect. And so, it goes back to the point BH made, about time and trust and choice (i.e., I choose to listen to this one, and I choose not to listen to that one). And of course, to make such a choice, you have to begin with trusting yourself. But I honestly feel that when the sh@t hits the fan (natural disasters, all out tragedy and panic), that exactly as Bellacanto mentioned sometimes even the most stubborn, fragile, uncertain, independent of us need some one to bypass all the facilitation. The trick is knowing when and how. Bossy doesn’t always have to mean ‘you should…’. Sometimes, it’s just a thundershirt- or in people terms- a big grand old hug.

      and in that vein, one for you.

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