Dr. Doolittle

When I was a kid, my sisters used to call me Dr. Doolittle in the loving/mocking way that only a sister really can. ICYMI, Dr. Doolittle was the title character of a movie about a doctor who collected and spoke to animals. (I would love to tell you more, but that’s all I remember about the movie.)

I loved and loathed the nickname. I was painfully shy, so it was true that I preferred the company of books, our family dog, our cat, and the various hamsters, fish and lizards my parents let me bring home to the challenges of interacting with other kids.

So, when we brought Nova home with us 9 years ago, I assumed that I would have the natural skills and talents needed to handle a difficult dog.

Nova had separation anxiety, which is to say that any time we put her in her crate and left our apartment she would cry in her crate like only a husky can. So, like any self-respecting millennial, I googled: how to cure separating anxiety in dogs and promptly tried all the things Dr. Google recommended including:

  • keeping Nova in a kennel while we were away (apparently the confined space is actually soothing, plus it protects all of your belongings)
  • climb in the kennel with the dog to help her feel more secure
  • put a shirt or piece of clothing in the kennel that smells like her people
  • gradually desensitized her to our absence by practicing our leaving routine –
    • putting her in her kennel, giving her a treat, walking to the door. Then we came back and let her out.
    • Next, we put her in her kennel, gave her a treat, walked out the door. Then, came back in and let her out.
    • Then, we followed the routine and closed the door, then came in and let her out…
    • and so on until we could leave, go about our day, and then come home to a relatively sane dog.

This dog was turning into a lot of work.

I watched The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan religiously and began to follow his formula for a well-balanced dog: exercise, discipline, affection.

This was my first summer as a Floridian, and I don’t know if you know this, but in the summer in Florida it is approximately 1000 degrees by 9:30 am. So, I woke up extra early to walk Nova before the ground began to boil to be sure we could get in our hour before it was too hot for her paws.

And nevertheless, in the first few months that she was our dog, she ate/chewed/destroyed:

  1. several bath towels
  2. one of my running shoes
  3. one of my high-heeled shoes
  4. one of my sandals
  5. my favorite bra
  6. the arm of our couch (she did this while locked in her crate, which was particularly impressive to me)
  7. all of her chew toys
  8. The super heavy-duty, indestructible toy

I’ll be honest, given my reputation as “Dr. Doolittle” Nova was kind of giving me a complex.

Every time I’d walk Nova, I’d hear a neighbor call out (with a laugh): “Who’s walking who?”

I’d smile…if I could.

We tried a traditional leash; harness (note: this only made her stronger); gentle leader; the slip knot favored by Cesar Milan on his show.

And still, our walks were definitely more like Nova dragging me down the road than the two of us sharing a walk together. We tried biking with her (that is, we’d be on the bike hanging on to the leash, which we did until she caused a bike accident)

Disobedient dog running and dragging a man by the leash

Eventually, we even bought a second hand treadmill and trained Nova to walk on the treadmill, so she could get enough exercise to not destroy everything in our home.

I would like to say that over time I have regained my title as Dr. Doolittle and that with love and patience, we’ve cured Nova of most of her neuroses, that I mastered my role as my dog’s pack-leader, or that I at least had the good sense to cut my loses and re-home my dog.

But, that just hasn’t happened. I mean, she’s less destructive now, but I think that’s mostly because she’s older and doesn’t have the energy.

She has challenged what I believed about myself in a way that forced me to choose what I’d rather have – the story about myself as being Dr. Doolittle, or to acknowledge the truth that even if I was good with dogs in general, I needed to grow to have a working relationship with this dog. Perhaps another way of putting it is that Nova has not challenged my ability to “talk to animals”, but rather, Nova, like a good zen master, has taught me that I also need to listen.


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