I grew up scared of dogs. No, there was no traumatic event. No run-ins, no dog bites, no being chased while walking home from school. Just an imagination overactive enough to make me believe that every puppy that crossed my path was really Cujo in disguise.
Not helping things out was our next door neighbor’s dog, a big, slobbery spaniel that made a beeline for our yard every chance he got, running full speed ahead, ready to jump on anyone in sight to greet them, and hell-bent on stealing sneakers, slippers, or anything he could get his teeth on.
The fear abated somewhat as I grew older, as long as friends’ dogs were small and somewhat aloof, but my comfort level was never, well, comfortable. If you’d told me then that I would become a dog person one day, I’d say you were one kibble short of a bowl.
That all changed when I came out from New York to visit B. in Santa Barbara, two decades after we had originally met and dated. Two decades — through college, law school (for him), and careers — of keeping in touch somewhat sporadically. (My favorites were when he sent me a Valentine out of the blue one year telling me he’d always thought I was brilliant, fascinating, and sexy and, by the way, was I married?; and the bouquet of birds-of-paradise he sent while on a trip to Hawaii “just because.” Of course, if you ask my mother-in-law, she’ll tell you that it was me who pursued B. all over the country during those years, the Valentine and flowers notwithstanding. Trust me, I’m right.)
But before I got on that plane, we spoke on the phone every day for two months. And because it didn’t take us very long to realize that when I did finally come out to Santa Barbara it would kind of mean forever (that chemistry we’d always had was still there, bigtime), we talked about everything and planned for the future. (B. even mailed me two postcards of the Santa Barbara Riviera — remember, this was before smartphones — with instructions to tape them together in order to get the full panorama effect. You’ve gotta love that kind of joy. And that very man.)
One of the things we talked about then was his dog, Ilsa. (Gulp — a dog? Really?) B. described her as an Australian Shepherd-spaniel mix. I heard two things — the first being “shepherd.” Living on the East Coast where Aussies weren’t really a popular, known breed back then, I could only think “German Shepherd” — one of those breeds I was clearly terrified of. The second was “spaniel,” which set off alarms in my head about the childhood dog next door. B. made it clear that he and Ilsa came as a package (not that I would expect, or want, him to think of her in any other way), so I knew I needed to be brave.
“She’s really perceptive,” he told me. (“She’ll sense your fear and stalk you if you get up in the middle of the night to pee,” is what I heard.) “She’s so smart,” he bragged. (Smart enough to pin me down while he was at work, I imagined.) “She loves to play,” he went on. (Sure, she’ll love to play with my head after biting it off, I catastrophized.) “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to behave when you first meet her so that she feels good about you,” he promised. (“You might want to make sure all of your affairs are in order before you get here,” my brain translated.)
When he later mailed me photos of Ilsa, I realized that she was neither a German Shepherd nor bore any resemblance to my childhood spaniel nemesis. That was something. And when he opened the front door after we got home from the airport, his caution to “crouch down so that you’re at her level and she doesn’t feel threatened” fell on deaf ears. Hers. And that was everything.
Because Ilsa came right over to me, tail wagging at about a million miles an hour, and nudged her head into my hand. And that was it. I was welcomed into her home, no questions asked. (My getting out of bed in the middle of the night was met by her lifting her head up off her doggie bed, looking at me for about two seconds, and returning to her bunny-chasing dream.) Like the greatest last line in movie history (from the movie featuring the character for whom Ilsa was named), our meeting was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
And so I became a dog person. For the next 15 years, Ilsa and I were like E.T. and Elliott. Any animated discussions (you might call them disagreements) between B. and me inevitably ended up with Ilsa sitting on my foot and glaring at B. When I’d take her out for a walk at night if B. was still at work, she’d glue herself to my leg, committed to protecting me from any unknown passerby. When I didn’t feel well, she was right next to me, offering the kind of unconditional love that dogs give us so freely. (Of course, when she was in need, B. was still the alpha dog.)
With all the gifts Ilsa gave me (her love and devotion, her soft belly to rub, her seemingly unending patience for doggie hugs), not the least was the confidence to give up my fear of dogs. Once we lost her, I became one of those annoying people who, when out walking, will always ask anyone with a dog if I may have petting privileges (in pre-social-distancing times and, hopefully, again soon).
She gave me the courage to face down my longtime fear. And unleashed a joy I didn’t know was missing.
©2021 Claudia Grossman