Through the Doorway: More Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

ronan intro

This is Ronan. He is my dog, my Sheltie, my 2013 Mother’s Day present. Bridget, my first Sheltie and the first dog who was ever really mine, had died some months back, and the family thought that I should have another.

Like most of our dogs and cats, Ronan was a rescue. My daughters visited him at the shelter and got in the kennel with him. He seemed like a good, friendly, well socialized dog. They brought him home.

He limped badly on his left front leg, putting no weight on it at all. But we were hopeful. He was a young dog; with good care he should recover just fine.

But no. On examination, the leg injury was found to be an old one. The cartilage in the elbow joint was completely worn away; the vet was fascinated by how very absent it was. There was no way to make the leg right. The vet could either fuse the joint together, giving Ronan a stiff leg which he still wouldn’t be able to walk on and which would require lifelong pain meds, or amputate.

This was such an easy choice that I was surprised to be given two options. The fused limb would have no greater function than as a torso decoration. It would be worse than useless; it would be in the way, impeding mobility and causing pain.

The leg came off, and Ronan made a quick recovery. He’d been tripoding around for so long already that the adjustment to three legs didn’t seem to trouble him at all.

ronan recovery

I like Shetland sheepdogs. They’re small, intelligent, and Scottish, and they have the herding-dog mindset that’s so attractive to me. It’s natural that I would compare Ronan to Bridget, though he’s his own dog and has his own place. It didn’t take long to realize that Ronan is a very different dog indeed.

They were different in appearance. Both were initially overweight, but Ronan is just a bigger dog altogether. Bridget eventually slimmed down to twenty pounds, about average for a Sheltie. Ronan started out at a whopping thirty-eight. He’s down to twenty-six now–slender for his dimensions, but still high by Sheltie standards, and that’s with just three legs.

Like Bridget, Ronan has a sable coat, but his facial markings give his face a completely different character. Bridget had a thin white stripe down her nose; her face looked closed and shrewd. Ronan’s stripe is broad, creating a wide-eyed, perpetually surprised expression.

But the most significant difference is in personality. Bridget came to us with many anxieties; Ronan not so much. He is outgoing, for a Sheltie, and largely free from hang-ups.

Largely, but not entirely.

Anytime you have a rescue dog, there will be some mystery about its past. You make inferences based on behavior, but you don’t really know. And there is always something. Even Ready, our Australian shepherd/Border collie mix, who had the most well-balanced personality I’ve ever seen in a dog, was afraid of brooms—not of being hit by a broom, but of the sound the bristles made when drawn across the floor. It just seemed to give him the willies; when I’d start sweeping, he’d skitter off. Had he been spooked by a broom as a pup? Who knows? It was a cute quirk but not that big a deal. Bridget, on the other hand, had a lot of behaviors that made us suspect she’d come from a household with an abuser.

Ronan’s hang-up was one I’d never dealt with before. He wouldn’t come when called.

I’m not talking about when he was excited about a tennis ball or distracted by food or expecting a bath or something. I mean that under ordinary, unremarkable circumstances, this dog would not come. He wouldn’t just ignore the command; he would get up and go the other way, like Jonah fleeing the presence of the LORD and going to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. There was no haste in his movement, just a steady, grave plodding in the opposite direction.

Never before had I known an otherwise well socialized dog to refuse to come. “Come” is usually the easiest command to teach, assuming the dog likes you at all. It wants to come; it wants to be with you.

But Ronan wouldn’t come, and I don’t know why. If he’d feared abuse, I’d expect him to fear people in general. But he seemed comfortable with us. He did prefer the company of women to that of men, as Bridget did, and I’ve heard this is typical of the breed. But his run-away-when-called routine was for women and men alike. He didn’t mind when I approached him; he seemed to welcome my presence and to enjoy being petted. But when I called him to me, he actively sought to get away.

Does he associate something unpleasant with being called? Maybe something to do with his injury? Maybe people used to call him over and then feel the injured joint in a way that hurt him. But it would have to happen an awful lot for him to build up this level of aversion.

Within the house, the behavior wasn’t much of an issue. Ronan would come easily enough to eat (assuming there wasn’t a male family member between him and his food dish). Going from inside to outside wasn’t a problem either. The only real trouble was getting him to pass through an exterior door from outside the house to inside the house.

It isn’t that he dislikes the house. He likes it fine. But something about passing through that doorway in that direction spooks him.

This was a real pain in the early days, especially for the guys. The girls and I had enough trouble getting him inside; when Greg or Daniel tried, it was downright comical. It’s not that he’s a fast animal. With his three-legged gait, he’s easy to catch. But then what? The guys couldn’t exactly tackle him. He’s unsteady, and they didn’t want to knock him down; and he might snap at them. One day Daniel chased him around the house in several sluggish and time-consuming laps before Ronan wiped out on a corner and came down hard on his stump, which hadn’t completely healed. At that point Daniel gave up, for good.

Catching Ronan became a woman’s job. The process evolved over time. At first we’d catch him, pick him up, and carry him up the porch steps and into the house. As heavy as he was in those days, this was a real chore. Then someone had the bright idea of using the leash. This was a big improvement. Once leashed he would succumb to the inevitable and come along with surprising docility. Sometimes the leash wasn’t handy and we were in a hurry, so we’d grab him by the back of the ruff and pull. Then Emilie realized you didn’t always have to pull. Often you could take him gently by the ruff and just guide him inside.

Bridget was extremely reserved, almost a one-person dog, but Ronan is sociable. He never shied away from the other dogs, but he was initially wary of Buddy, the Great Dane mix. Buddy was very much a puppy when Ronan met him, though they were about the same size; he was forward and clumsy in his movements, and his friendly overtures made Ronan nervous—understandable, since Ronan was none too steady on his remaining feet. If Buddy got too close or too nosy, Ronan would snarl, and Buddy would jump back, startled. It was fun to see a Shetland sheepdog make a Great Dane back down.

Buddy is more graceful now, and he and Ronan get along fine. Ronan likes being with the other dogs and does his best to join them in play. He can’t keep up in a running and chasing game, but if Buddy and Feather are running back and forth together from point A to point J, Ronan stays in the middle of their course and runs with them from points D through F as they pass by.

He likes wrestling games too, though the other dogs don’t actually wrestle him. He hovers nearby as they wrestle each other; he moves around them in an arc and occasionally darts in, close but not touching.

It can be sad to be on the periphery. Being close is nice, but it’s not the same as being in the thick of things. Most of the time Ronan is just a glorified spectator. But recently Greg saw Buddy actually playing with Ronan one-on-one. Buddy now weighs sixty pounds, most of which is muzzle and leg; he not only outweighs Ronan by over a hundred percent but also towers over him.

Buddy seemed to know he had to be careful with Ronan. He lowered himself to Ronan’s height and waggled. They “wrestled,” and when Ronan came at him Buddy rolled onto his back as if Ronan were really owning him.

Ronan loved this game. He is free from the self-examination that would cause a human being to realize that a pretend wrestling game with an opponent who is only going through the motions and letting you throw him is not the same as the real thing. Knowing that we are coming up short in some way and that allowances are being made for us can chafe at our pride, but maybe we are too short-sighted. The truth is, none of us is truly whole, and in the community of grace we are all making allowances for each other most of the time.

ronan derp

Any reduction from the normal and healthy is a loss and should be recognized as such. However resilient an individual animal may be in recovering from the loss of a limb, the fact remains that dogs were meant to have four legs. Over his lifetime Ronan will have a lot of unusual wear and strain on his frame due to compensating for his missing limb. Arthritis is likely in the future, and he falls down a lot in the present. He will never again run full-tilt in a double suspension gallop with all limbs fully extended.

pictured: not Ronan

pictured: not Ronan

 It was Emilie who took Ronan to the vet back in the spring to have his leg examined. I remember when she texted me the news that the damage wasn’t reparable. She was pretty down about it; we’d only just adopted him, and now he had to have an amputation. She apologized for gifting me with a dog who had issues. I replied that everyone has issues sooner or later and this one wasn’t that bad. A dog, like a person, is a whole package, an assortment of temperament and history, physiology and character, adding up to something wonderful and unique. Ronan is a gift, and I’m glad to have him. He is a very different dog from Bridget, but like her he has taught me much about myself and about God.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan still has issues with coming when called. As long as he isn’t being called inside, he comes just fine, but when an exterior door is involved, things are a little dicey. It seems to help when no other animals are crowding him. It also helps if I back away from the door, though with all the swarming cats and whatnot this is not usually possible. Once in a great while, when everything is just right and he has plenty of space to negotiate the threshold and isn’t overthinking, he passes through the doorway entirely on his own. Most of the time, though, he still needs help. But he no longer runs away. Sometimes he just laps a few tight circles, allowing himself to work off a little nervous energy without putting actual distance between us, and making it easy for me to catch him.

And sometimes he doesn’t even do that. Sometimes he just stands and looks at me, as if he’s thinking, I know you want me to come through that door, and I’d like to do it, but I don’t quite have the courage to do it on my own. So I’ll wait here, and you can come get me and guide me through.

It’s not brute force that makes this work. I’m not muscling Ronan through the door; I’m just guiding him, and he isn’t resisting. The thing that makes the difference is my presence. Just having me there gives him the courage he needs.

My dog is far from perfect in obedience, but his heart is inclined in the right direction. I’m not so perfect in obedience myself. Sometimes I don’t want to come when called; sometimes I’m unsteady on my feet and afraid I’ll be knocked down. Like Ronan, I don’t have to come through the doorway on my own.

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