A few weeks ago, a nasty, shocking thing happened: my adored dog, Bella, set upon another dog outside our front door. A young lady had come to collect an item I had offered on the local Freecycle group and brought her dog with her. Having told her that I would leave the item outside behind the green bin, I wasn’t expecting her to knock. But knock she did, and my son innocently opened the door, accompanied by Bella…
Normally, Bella is impeccably behaved when the front door is open. She may sidle to the doorway, wag her tail, shuffle forward for a head scratch if a hand is proffered. She may stand in the open doorway, observing me as I upend tins and cardboard into the recycling bin by the shed, her nose twitching as she sniffs the air. Always, she appears serene and mildly inquisitive.
This lulled us into a false sense of security.
We know she isn’t a ‘dogs dog’. I adopted her from a rescue centre; she had been picked up as a stray, so we can only guess at her history before she came to live with us. In the early days, her tendency to cower if ever voices were raised made me suspect she was accustomed to being scared: she was skittish, agitated, almost blurry at the edges with bewilderment. Her gaze rarely engaged directly with us, in the way of someone who is distracted by something going on behind them. To my dismay, when I took her to a special behavioural class for rescues she became so stressed around the other dogs that I had to stop attending, as even the trainer had become exasperated with her.
I didn’t much care for that trainer anyway.
For the last six years, simply keeping Bella away from ambient dogs has worked well enough. Avoiding the issue, in other words. Blindly, I sensed that the path towards any sort of harmony was mangled with thorns and I was not sufficiently thick-skinned to hack my way through it. Easier, then, to shrink back into the daylight around the fringes of the matted forest that is Bella’s psyche…
Yes, that’s a melodramatic description. It puts me instantly in mind of fairytales, which caution always against straying into the black-throated woods that are laced with ill will. Stay in the sunlight, be virtuous and incurious, or the big, bad wolf will gobble you up…! Bella had uncloaked her feral side and I had scarpered. So much simpler to croon over the bits of her that are easy to love. She is soft, warm, huggable, docile, solid, solemn. She is devoted to me, while also conning and playing me at every opportunity – yet I cannot help but admire her wily, stubborn ways. Sometimes, when she is draped in deep slumber across my lap, snoring and wheezing, her lips twitching as she dreams, I am so overcome with affection that it brings a tear to my eye.
Like the sickening crash of a vase hitting a stone floor, the incident outside our front door shattered me. For the rest of that day, bristling yet numb with distress, I could not bring myself to look at Bella. I went through the motions of feeding her, letting her in the garden, but would not sit with her on the sofa. Shortly after the event itself, when I came back indoors after driving the owner and her dog home, Bella wagged her tail in the usual way, stretched, sneezed, looked expectantly at me. As if she’d done nothing out of the ordinary. In response, I stared blankly back at her, mouth set grim, eyes two pits of recrimination. She registered a fleeting confusion before slinking away to her bed, shrunk in on herself.
Mercifully, the dog on the receiving end of Bella’s rage was entirely unscathed. Some weeks after the event, I can write about it with detachment, talk about it with an eyeroll. Had Millie the cockapoo been harmed, I would hardly be able to stomach thinking about it. It cost me over three hundred pounds at the emergency vet clinic to establish that Millie was perfectly fine, but it wasn’t the financial outlay that upset me so much as the cost to my feelings for Bella. It was a day or two before I could bring myself to hug her again, longer before I caught myself using my silly Bella voice. Longer still before the realisation dawned that, of course, Bella’s monstrous fury against the intruder on her drive is as much a part of her as her softness, her big, sad, cataracted eyes, her gentleness. To truly love Bella, I have to love, or at least accept, the beautiful and the ugly.
Oh, there are so many ways in which Bella is enchanting, her quirks comedic, her soulful expression beguiling. It is, in the normal course of things, a delight and a privilege to be her protector. Yet there is an uncomfortable truth, an arrogance inherent in that role in which I have cast myself: yes, Bella needs my care and protection, but I am equating those things with ownership of her, and that is unpalatable. With a sense of ownership comes an expectation that the owned thing will give us pleasure, fulfil our needs. We cannot own another living being. As soon as we allow ourselves to believe we do, we are exerting control. I have no right to control Bella. What she needs, what she deserves, is my love. Always. No matter what.
I realise my expectations of Bella are profoundly unfair, a reflection of my own insecurities and wishes. I wish that she would not unravel into a writhing snake-pit of wrath when another dog encroaches on her territory. I wish she would calmly permit a vet to examine her and understand that it is in her best interests. I wish she would not display the ugly side of her nature, because it upsets me, and undermines what I think I know of her.
I wish she would be what I need her to be, all the time – when what I should be wishing is for Bella to be what Bella needs to be. For her to feel safe, for her to live a life filled with as much joy and ease as possible.
When she attacked Millie the cockapoo, it horrified me, because I knew that Millie was benign: small, defenceless, unsuspecting. Bella’s reaction was, by my standards, utterly irrational. But Bella is a dog. In that moment, she was an angry, defensive dog, reacting out of pure instinct. She was stressed. Threatened. I realise how badly I let Bella down by turning my face away from her hurts and vulnerabilities. Metaphorically speaking, I abandoned her alone in an overgrown forest, where lashing out against perceived threats is her only defence.
And besides, how often do I react irrationally when under stress?
Loving the festering, the dark, the wild, the instinctual, the angry, the irrational, the unlovable – whether in ourselves or another being – is a radical act. The mysterious, forbidding forests of fairytales are a metaphor for the subconscious, for the shadows in ourselves that we fear to explore, yet we need to make peace with the dark side of our nature if we are ever to wholly love ourselves. No need to plunge straight into the thick of the woods, all bravado and glinting sword. Better to begin by wandering the perimeter, where the light still falls, where we can peer into the gloom with the sun on our backs.
Bella’s shocking outburst has led me to the edge of the forest. I owe it to her to walk calmly beside her. To show her that she is safe. We are safe. Here, where there is plenty of space between the trees, I can observe those shadows that snake alongside us – different shapes, but cast by the same source of light.