This beautiful boy to the left of this page is my dog, Lemmy. Lemmy is 5 ½ years old. My relationship with Lemmy has taught me many lessons that have not only improved his life and mine, but have helped me employ knowledge, skills, and understanding in my work with others to improve their lives as well.
This blog post is the beginning of our story that will set the stage for the rest of the series.
I adopted Lemmy from a city pound which was in the process of transitioning to a no-kill shelter. His mother was collected by animal control and taken to the pound. They had a policy of immediately executing a death sentence to any pregnant dogs who entered the shelter, but Lemmy's mother didn't appear pregnant, so she got to live to give birth to her litter. When the pups were born to the shelter employees' surprise, they were given an additional chance to live when the director of the shelter decided to ignore the existing policy and try to adopt the puppies out instead of putting them down.
When I met Lemmy, he was shy and ran to hide in the dog house he was sheltered in at the time. He was the last of 2 pups left from a litter of 10. I coaxed him out of the dog house and got to know him a little and chose to adopt him. He was 8 weeks old at the time and was named Rocky, a name I changed because I didn't feel like it fit him. He looked nothing like his mother who had a black coat, looked like a border collie mix, and was quite a bit smaller than Lemmy turned out to be. Lemmy is a Great Pyrenees mix, and definitely falls in to the large dog category.
Lemmy's fear of the unknown was evident from the beginning. He was comfortable when we were at home with just me and my other two dogs. He was playful, exploratory, mischievous, and irresistibly adorable, just like any puppy. He was intelligent, eager to please, and easy to train. But when we went outside of the house, he was afraid and uncertain and all the training we did at home flew out the window. Looking back now, it all makes sense. Lemmy's brain was being wired, even before his birth, for entering a world that was going to be unsafe and uncertain. His mother's brain and traumatic experiences transferred that understanding to her pups as they were developing in the womb. I don't know what she was like as a mother, but it's not unreasonable to believe she may have been scared, uncertain, and feeling unsafe even after they were born. She was in an unfamiliar foster placement. This can make anyone unable to provide a high level of nurturing and support to their offspring.
One afternoon, after some initial leash training in the house and back yard, Lemmy and I ventured out on our first walk together. We exited through the front door and as we rounded the corner of the house the neighbors dogs began barking. Lemmy screeched and squealed in terror, tried to run back home, and pulled on the leash ignoring me altogether. I was confused. Lemmy had gotten to know these dogs for weeks through the chain link fence that divided our yards. He played with them through the fence almost daily. What was going on?
It is important to note, at the time, I had just begun developing a working knowledge and understanding of the effects of complex developmental trauma on brain development and functioning in humans through training in the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT). NMT is the model developed by Dr. Bruce Perry and the Child Trauma Academy. While I had spent the last few years gaining the knowledge, putting it into practice in my profession and in my life was another story.
I'm embarrassed to admit that when Lemmy fled from the terror he perceived and began ignoring me and our training, I did not respond well. I reacted with a mix of concern for Lemmy and disbelief at what seemed to me, an overreaction to the situation. Unfortunately, this concern turned to anger and punitive energy as Lemmy continued to ignore me and try to run to the house, choking himself on the leash and ignoring my commands. I reacted with that emotion and energy and further scared Lemmy. The consequence of this, I realized later through continued learning and inner exploration, was that I forced Lemmy into submission and taught him that when he is afraid of something else, he can't rely on me for comfort and supportive care, but only for more fear and punishment. Even though I had the knowledge of what was happening in his traumatized puppy brain in that moment, I didn't have enough experience or practice in employing that knowledge to improve his life and our relationship. I immediately fell back on the deepest, strongest pathway in my brain, which informed me that dogs must submit to and obey their masters, no matter the circumstance. In that moment, I began creating a relationship with Lemmy that I don't believe either one of us wanted to have.
Lemmy and I continued our short walk. I was oblivious to my mistake at the time, but I began teaching him to rely on me for belonging and safety; a belonging that would sometimes be accomplished through fear and submission. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cry from the guilt I feel from this situation, and many after that, in which I created experiences for Lemmy in our relationship that taught him to submit and be afraid of me. I'm forever sorry for harming him emotionally & psychologically and I work every day to remedy that. While these type of incidents were few, they peppered a recipe of healthy, fulfilling, and enriching experiences with uncertainty and fear, dishing up a serving of insecure attachment for Lemmy.
In his first two years of life, Lemmy began displaying concerning behaviors. He wouldn't eat the first day or two I was out of town, even when my mom, whom he had developed some attachment with, was keeping him. He would become afraid and sit in a corner of the room with his nose facing the wall whenever I would pull the laundry out of the dryer to fold it and put it away, or when any kind of flapping material held in a human hand emerged in his environment. If I raised my voice the slightest bit to grab the attention of one of my other dogs, he would flinch and blink as if I had attacked him, run to the opposite side of the room or yard, and watch my every move. It was as if he was waiting for something really awful to happen. When I let myself experience it, seeing all of this made my heart sink. I loved Lemmy and I did not enjoy seeing him having these experiences. Had I caused this somehow? I was so good to Lemmy, why was he so insecure and afraid of me at times? Oh, hindsight, why aren't you there when I need you most?
This led to a path of discovery, that I am still on today, that has not only helped me repair my relationship with Lemmy, but continues to teach me how to engage in healthier relationships with myself, my family, my friends, my co-workers, and my clients. I began to learn how to employ the knowledge I gained about the neurobiology of trauma and development to every part of my life. My relationship with Lemmy continues to grow and improve. Hopefully, by the end of Lemmy's life, I will have made significant progress in improving his and my well-being and he will leave this world better off than when he came in.
Please keep an eye out for the next post in the Lemmy's Lessons blog series.