I thought that I was selfless — at least, for the most part — until I adopted a dog. Since then, the reality has hit me and it is painfully clear that I am definitely more selfish than selfless. This realization feels a bit like a smack in the face because I’ve always wanted, or needed, to be a good human and in my mind, part of this meant being selfless. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but I really thought that this was enough to allow for me to care for anyone, and to be a good mom.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias which leads us to overestimate our abilities, was definitely at play here. The days leading up to bringing Otis home I felt confident in my above average abilities to care for an animal despite my lack of experience and knowledge. There I was on my pedestal, thinking that I would be a great dog mom, that it would be easy, and everything I thought it would be. Ha! I wish I could go back in time and give myself a sarcastic pat on the back and whisper, “get off your high horse.”

My partner and I decided to welcome Otis to our home with confidence and certainty. We were two people who had experience with one dog and thought it meant we had any business assuming we’d know how to create a life with another dog. We were pretty much asking for a reality check. For me, this came as a set of realizations that has left me questioning if I am ever going to be the mom I thought I was destined to be.

The First Weekend

The first weekend was hard. Otis, is three year old German Shepherd with a ton of energy, a high level of intelligence, and an unpredictable reactivity towards other people and dogs. He was extremely loyal to his last human so being ushered into a truck with a quiet, strange man he had only met one time one time was probably devastating for him. It didn’t take long before my partner and I were questioning whether we made the right decision.

He was hyper. As in, he did not stop the first 2 days he was with us. Walking him on a leash was terrifying. I held the leash wrong and it ripped off part of my finger and I had to rush back to the house bleeding (I am making that sound far more dramatic than it was). Another time he saw another dog as he was exiting our front yard before I did, and he lunged with such intensity that my hand ended up being crushed against the wood of the fence (again, I’m being dramatic). Oh, and there was this one time he lunged at a baby stroller.

Oh, and I am fighting with my partner about it. I am actually blaming him for Otis. Funnily enough, he was also blaming me. I was jealous that Otis loved him more than me. “Seriously, Casey?” I thought to myself in those moments but yet, I couldn’t help it and continued to spin a narrative around my insecurities. I couldn’t help but think this is the kind of stuff that would come up with my partner if we were to ever have a human child. It terrified me.

So, there I was, thinking I was going to be great at this and I am most definitely the neighbourhood’s “bad dog mom.” I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and admittedly humbled. I looked around and there were all these people who knew what they are doing. I was envious of them and their calm, obedient dogs who walked beside them, didn’t pull, and are able to meet another dog without completely losing it.

The realization that I would project my unconscious conflicts onto my children in the same way my mother did to me was unsettling as it emerged as a reality. It creeped into my mind and became more obvious each day Otis challenged me. I began to soften as I realized how hard it must’ve been for my mother to raise me.

At this stage, I almost can’t believe Otis is bringing me to these deep places of contemplation — I thought a dog was supposed to bring a sense of light and unconditional love to our lives, not existential self-realization. This was far more than I had asked for when we made the decision to adopt a dog.

The first weekend we barely slept. I remember reading online to give it “3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months” before deciding what life would be like with a new dog. After 3 days things got better. We slept, he slept. We found a rhythm. I was left stunned and doubtful we could do this. Otis, with the little tuff of bright yellow hair sticking straight out of the corner of his left eye, and his paws that seemed too big for his body, had completely turned our lives upside down. I kept thinking, “what if this had been a human child?” in a sigh of disbelief and relief.

Falling in Love

I love how cute he is, of course. I love when in the morning we welcome him into our bed and he snuggles in between us and gives us kisses. I love playing fetch with him when I feel like playing fetch. I love watching him drink from his water bowl and turn his head towards us, water dripping, sometimes pouring, from either side of his mouth. It reminds me of when he pees — like he is so excited for the next thing he can’t focus on finishing the first — walking away from the tree still peeing, sometimes all over himself. I love the sounds he makes when he rolls over on his back and rubs his head in the blankets, asking us for belly rubs, and his symphony of yawns in the morning. I even love his smell.

Maybe that is love. Maybe that is how he makes me feel. That is one-sided love. To truly love him, it’s waking up far before I’d like to. It is taking him outside for a walk in the rain and cold before my coffee. It is not having a clean apartment all of the time. It is having to put these ugly blankets over top of the couch for when he is welcomed up. It’s picking up the ball, dripping with his slobber, and throwing it for him over, and over, and over, again.

It is remembering his food. Knowing that I won’t forget to eat myself but if I forget to feed him, he’ll be hungry. He depends on me. He needs me to show up. He needs me to learn and educate myself about how to be a good leader. He needs us to buy a dehydrator and make him treats with his special enzymes. He needs us to order him a new harness. To take the course on leash training. Side note: holy shit, he is expensive.

I am positive that is love. Putting him before myself. Not all the time, but the times that he needs me. My love for him can’t be self-serving. My love for him needs to be because he is a living and breathing creature who is worthy of love, just like us. This all felt like beginning to understand just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what parenting must be like, in general. I can’t believe I used to think it would be anything else.

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This is Otis.

Coming to terms with my selfishness

Just right now he is laying down, bummed out, because I wouldn’t play with him. I want to play with him but right now, I want to write more. Right now I am being selfish. To be selfless would probably wear me out and mean I am neglecting my own needs, which, would mean I am lacking boundaries.

Ah, I never was good with boundaries. So I need to unlearn that selfless is the ultimate way to be. I also needs me to put my needs first sometimes, too, so that I can keep showing up for him. Otis taught me that I am not as selfless as I thought I was, but he also showed me that I feel guilty for taking care of my own needs. Essentially, my dog is holding up a mirror and I am seeing parts of myself I didn’t see before. I am not only deeply humbled but I realize that the part of me that thought I would somehow be a good “dog mom” or really, mom, in general, was deeply mistaken.

As if, loving is innate and not something to be learned. I keep wanting to believe love is this ethereal force that is greater than me and that just is, that it doesn’t need to be forced. I want to think that love on its own will be enough, that it will transcend my humanness. If loving other humans has taught me anything, it is that love may be many things but it sure isn’t easy.

I thought adopting a dog would be a certain way. I daydreamed about it after the pain of losing our last dog had become less throbbing and the quiet that came with the empty house felt intolerably lonely. I thought it would be what I wanted it to be. He is teaching me that is a very selfish way to look at adopting a dog. He is Otis. He has a personality, complete with likes, dislikes, quirks, and fears. He was not put on this earth to serve me.

I am incredibly grateful these are revelations I am having with a dog. I can’t imagine having these with a human child. There is something about adopting a dog with someone that has come with a set of challenges I had never anticipated. What strategies will we use for leash training? How will we remain consistent? Who is going to be the bad guy and take his ball away at night? Who is going to get up at 7am when it is cold and dark and pouring rain to take him for his walk?

I realize that adopting may not be comparable to having a human child but it has taught me more than I could’ve imagined about what it is like to commit to another living creature. Where I am standing now, I think I am going to stick to adopting dogs for the rest of my life. I am still reeling in their power to change us, to soften us, and to inspire us to be better hu

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