We were positive that we knew our little dog, Otto, very well. For years Jim G has insisted that Otto is special, as in “special needs,” and honestly a lot of evidence points toward that. At home in Seattle he prefers to hide under the bed or my desk most of the day. He is always eager to go for a walk, but screams (that’s right, screams, not barks) all the way up the stairs to the street and any time he sees another living, or potentially living thing (such as that vicious pottery donkey down the block). At one point we didn’t know if Otto had aggression problems or something else. A talented dog trainer with a stuffed canine assistant quickly proved that it was just the opposite. Otto is afraid of everything and everybody.
We developed coping mechanisms for the three of us. For example, we try to walk Otto at off hours, when the likelihood of seeing another human or dog is less. We let him spend his days under the bed, and never force him to socialize. If he comes by for a few pets, we give him pets, but he’s always free to go once his tolerance for bodily contact is exhausted. He’s “special,” after all. A sweet little soul, but distant, really quite strange.
At least that’s what we thought until this summer, when we began spending large amounts of time in the Methow Valley near Winthrop, Washington. We are building a house in a meadow there, surrounded by space and views and big skies and not much else. Our lot is in a neighborhood, but with lot sizes of over an acre it is certainly not crowded. Jim G and I both find it easy to relax in Methow, at least when we aren’t busy building. But for Otto the move has been life-changing.
He’s lying on the couch next to me as I write this. That’s right, lying next to me, between Jim G and me in fact. And he’s been there for an hour or more. We went for a several walks today, whenever we felt like it. Off leash. No screams. No frantic behavior. Just a little dog enjoying the smells and sounds and sun. We don’t worry about meeting other dogs here. It happens all the time, but Otto just handles it. He bounces with Rocket. Blue and he mutually ignore each other. And we all know to stay away from Cujo, the snappy Chihuahua. And Otto barks here, when he needs to go outside, or when he is playing, or when Rocket gets too irritating. No screams. He acts, dare I say, normal, like a dog. In fact, he just laid his head on my leg, and one of his ears flopped onto the keyboard, making it difficult to type for a bit.
We described this transformation to our friends Bob and Susan last week, while they visited the meadow with their dog Flora, who had a wonderful time dashing about while Otto watched calmly. Our theory is that Otto is simply a country dog, not a city dog. In the country he is relaxed. In the city he is overwhelmed, overloaded, frantic. In the city he screams, but in the country he snores and, dare I say, purrs.
“Well,” Susan said, “you weren’t listening very closely to those screams, were you?” Listening or not, we didn’t understand what Otto was trying to tell us in Seattle – “I’m overwhelmed! I love you and all, but all this is just too much!!!”
I thought about Otto last weekend, when Rev. Allyson Robinson visited SFBC. She talked about her journey as a transgender woman, and how at one point she just didn’t want to lie to herself or her loved ones anymore. And that reminded me of my own coming out as a gay man, when I could not stand to keep lying to myself or my family. And little Otto, who’s never tried to lie, just unable to communicate the simple truth to us that he was overwhelmed by city life.
Truth may seem inconvenient at times, especially when it involves someone behaving differently than we prefer. But it can also be liberating. It can allow a human being to find her or his true self, to even find true love. And it can help a little dog enjoy walking outside, in the open air, free from fear.
Otto still likes going home to Seattle, at least he is always ready to get in the car when it’s time go head out. But he has found himself here in the meadow, along the gravel road that our neighbors have dubbed to “Ottobahn.”
Old dogs, and old people, can actually learn new tricks. When we pay attention. When we listen to ourselves and to each other.