These are the dog days. Hot as a dog, lazy as a dog, wanting to curl up and take naps like a dog. Please, let us lie, sleeping like them, on these summer afternoons.
But the phrase didn’t originate from the habits of our earthly canine companions. Instead, it came from Sirius, the dog star. In July and early August, Sirius rises and sets with the sun. People once thought that the combined power of our daytime star and the brightest one in our night sky brought the full heat of summer.
Here below, our own dog star’s light has started to dim. We got him from a rescue group nearly six years ago. He’s a strange brew of Labrador and possibly Great Dane—100 pounds with an enormous head—and somewhere between eight and ten years old. We might be seeing the shine from Sirius, 8.7 light years away, from around the time he was born.
He was not born under a lucky star, it seems. When he came to our house, he was maybe two years old, maybe four—and along with many charms, he had a slight limp. Soon after, we learned he had a torn ACL and a patella that had somehow been knocked from the front to the side of his knee.
Surgery and a long rehab fixed those, but other problems emerged. At first, he was just afraid of thunderstorms and fireworks. Then any loud noise: garbage trucks, the sound of men’s voices. Then any noise at all: doors that creaked, or the sound of the wind through the elms.
We tried trainers, desensitization with new-agey CDs, toys stuffed with hot dogs and peanut butter to distract him, lots of exercise. And for many years, a combination of these things seemed to work, or work well enough so that trouble flared only occasionally. Every once in a while, he’d get so scared that he’d try to break out of the house or yard. A few curtains got ripped, a door jamb nibbled on. As he got older, I thought, he’d mellow.
This spring something changed. Maybe it was an unexpected thunderstorm, an off-season firework, construction noise from the house behind our fence.
We only saw the consequences. I left one afternoon for an hour to run an errand, and came back to find the front door covered in bloody bite marks. Another time, a window was shattered in the bedroom. My husband fixed the door. Three days later, the door had been destroyed in new places.
He couldn’t settle even when we were home, which was most of the time. He’d pace from room to room during the day and the night. He left his dinner bowl full, returning only occasionally to snatch a piece of kibble. Sometimes his whole 100-pound body would simply shake, in response to something we couldn’t hear or see.
I used to think that the only people who’d do something ridiculous like medicate their dogs were ones who had nannies for their nannies and lived in penthouse apartments in cities where dogs couldn’t run. All a dog needed was to run, right?
Now I still don’t know how I feel about these people, except that I am one of them. We started giving him alprazolam, a benzodiazepine that binds to cell surface receptors that cluster where neurons meet. When drug and receptor bind together, the receptor is more likely to also bind to GABA, a neurotransmitter, which can then open up pathways that dampen how excited the nerves get.
I know this is not a permanent solution. Dogs can become dependent on the drug, may have terrible withdrawal symptoms and side effects. It wasn’t something I wanted to stay on for long, either–I used to take alprazolam when I flew. But I didn’t like that one of my main concerns was whether I had packed the bottle in my carryon luggage, that I started to treat each pill with more care than I used with my passport. Now I take deep breaths and, if needed, hold hands with the person next to me, whether I know her or not. I tell myself that at this speed, the plane is moving as if through water, graceful and buoyant. We are just swimming through the air.
My dog loves to swim, too. But it’s starting to get harder for him to get down the steep stairs to the beach. He has a limp again, perhaps age and arthritis creeping up from that old surgery. And I can’t explain to him in a way that he will understand that the wind through the trees will not hurt him, that we won’t let strange men or jackhammers or garbage trucks do whatever they once might have done.
Next week we are talking to the vet to find out what the next step is, for the knee and for the fear that might have started when the knee first received its damage. Light years, dog years–neither seem to be long enough for him to forget.
I gave him a half a pill at breakfast Sunday morning. After lunch, he curled up on the floor of my office as I wrote, taking a real nap, his eyes all the way closed. He no longer follows me from room to room as I get up to take the teapot off the stove, put in a load of laundry, find my phone. He eats. He sleeps. I didn’t realize how rarely he did these things until he started doing them again.
As he sleeps, I can see the gray hairs that have emerged on his face and between the pads of his paws. Years ago, when he’d have an “incident”, I would feel angry and frustrated, convinced we were both doing something wrong. Now I just feel sad. I can see how scared he must have been, compared to the dog that now will laze in the sunshine, will not let the bark of an unseen dog derail him from catching a ball, that will sit attentively for his dinner. The dog that doesn’t shake. I’m not sure if I’ve been civilized, but I feel like I’m learning something about compassion, both for him and maybe even for myself.
He is outside now, curled up on the sun-beaten paving stones. His eyes are closed. If wind blows through the trees, he merely lifts his head to sniff what it brings and then rests his chin on his paws again. This is his day, perhaps only for the moment, but at last.