I think it’s funny – and sad, too – that my 10 year old Shih Tzu Elle (pronounced Ellie) tucks tail – literally – and runs to hide in our bedroom every time I cook.
There are a couple of reasons she does this: one, since Paul and I have both undergone changes in our careers, I typically get home later than him so he cooks supper most weeknights. Weekends are wild card and typically are take-out or meals in restaurants. So me cooking has become a strange situation to Elle. Two, once, I set off the smoke alarms in our new home when I was cooking. Well, maybe twice. Or thrice. In my defense, I am a pretty good cook but I am an… um…let’s say artistically-tempered cook, in that the act of cooking for me somewhat resembles the Tasmanian devil on an acid trip. Pots and pans pile up, food is flung everywhere and well…sometimes something burns because in the middle of the act of sautéing, I might get a little distracted by a really cute kitten video on my Facebook feed. Anyway the point is, Elle hates the smoke alarms and now “Mom cooking” equals “Fear, Fire Foes!”
Elle spent the first four or five years of her life with very little social interaction with humans (she was raised only to breed before being rescued and then adopted by Paul and I). Thanks to this and some bad genes, she is a hot reactor. The term might be obviously self-explanatory but if you don’t know: a hot reactor is a psychology and medical term for someone who experiences a high-stress response that is disproportionate to the situation. Basically, they lose their shit when the situation is not one that would call for losing your shit.
With Elle, this is literal. She will often react to stress by pooping wherever she happens to be when she is triggered. She also stands rigidly, bracing herself, while she goes in to a high-pitched, rhythmic, hysteria of barking – whether it be at a sudden noise, a stranger or Paul putting on his shoes to go to work. Every single morning.
The girl has a tough time settling down. She paces the house when she’s over-anxious, panting, shoving herself into small spaces to hide, following us on our heels and getting underfoot, bumping in to the other dogs and again – barking at us obnoxiously. It drives Paul and I crazy and it drives the other dogs crazy. Elle has social status among her three canine siblings lower than that of our two cats. Oh yeah: she also eats poop.
At the same time as it makes me want to look for a tranquilizer dart gun, it also breaks my heart. Elle’s conditioning is so deeply entrenched that she cannot help herself. I’ve been a student of dog behavior most of my adult life and especially in my rescue years, but I cannot seem to make much progress with Elle. I do have to say that when I’m home alone or presumably when the dogs are home alone, much of the day she is restful, as she also is once she’s had her barkathon and Paul and I are relaxing on the sofa or in bed. Compared to how she was when we first brought her home, she’s doing great. The lower eighth of all the walls in our family were gray the first year Elle lived with us, because she would not cross a room; she would instead go around the perimeter, hugging the walls tight with her body and thereby leaving a trail of sorts.
Oddly, Elle makes me think of several people I know. People whose pasts have left their scars, who are lovely folks who just happen to be prone to outbursts of anger or crying or…overreacting. I admit that I am one of those people, and in many ways, watching my hot reactor of a dog has helped me be less so.
Unlike humans, Elle doesn’t have language or reasoning to calm her reactivity to perceived danger when there is no danger. She can’t tell herself that she’s misinterpreting a situation, that what her limbic system is telling her is just a story. Because Elle can’t tell herself stories. But we can. Like many people who suffered a trauma in early childhood, I tend to carry stories with me: something terrible could happen at any moment; if I let myself relax or be happy, everything will blow up in my face; I’m not worthy of my own good regard; I can’t trust my instincts….oh, it goes on and on. I imagine if Elle could process thought in a human way, her dialog might be at least somewhat similar.
The good news for me is, as an adult, I get to choose which stories I believe. So when I start feeling like the most unlikable person alive, I can stop and remind myself that there are many people who don’t just like, but love me. When I find myself in an all-day over-reaction to an off-hand comment or perceived criticism or a news clip that trips my switch, I can realize that -to paraphrase Dr. Martha Beck – I am not currently being attacked by a velociraptor and that also, all is well. All my needs are met, I know how to comfort myself, and I can direct my energy to a place that works for my highest good instead of kicking me while I’m down. When something “bad” happens I can let myself feel my emotions and then let them pass through me. I don’t have to be stuck and I surely don’t need to stress-poop. Most of the time. I can take a few deep, even breaths, pat my panicky and puckish inner-child on the head and continue on my way to whatever delights the day will hold. And I can choose to ignore that voice that says, “you’d better not…what will people say?” Or “if you try, you’ll fail.” Because despite whatever wagging tongues there may be and despite that fact that I certainly can -and often will- fail, life is too delicious to hold back from out of social fear. Elle may feel safer hiding under the bed during my cooking melees but she also misses out when our other three dogs keeping me company in the kitchen get treats and samples.
So. I’ll keep looking for ways to make Elle feel more comfortable and calm (while being grateful she has come as far as she has) and ‘ll also continue working on my own hot-reactor status, refusing to believe everything I think and not letting social fear keep me back from the best possible life for me. And maybe as a favor to both of us, I’ll do less cooking.