Lessons on Coping Taught by My Foster Dog
Story and photos by Nancy Gallimore
Some people knit to relax. Others enjoy a glass of wine. More ambitious types go for a run or maybe lift weights. Me? I scoop poop.
Perhaps not the most glamorous of destressing techniques, but when you have a houseful of dogs sharing a backyard, it’s a necessary and oddly satisfying task. I do some of my best thinking when I’m out there scooping up the dogs’ left-behinds. And honestly, 2020 has given me plenty of incentive to get out there and “destress.”
But even still, on some days, my brain just refuses to calm. My thoughts bounce around like that little white ball in an Olympic ping pong match. There are things like the always-present threat of the pandemic; concern for the survival of small businesses in its life-altering wake; hornets that apparently want to murder us; and depression associated with not being able to do simple life things like go to a movie or get together with family and friends. The list of what-ifs, can’t-do’s, and oh-no’s is long and overwhelming this year.
On particularly bouncy brain days, even the simple, methodical task of collecting my dogs’ poop can’t ground me. But then Ladybug steps in.You don’t necessarily hear her coming; it’s more of a force—something you feel before you even realize what is happening. I have named the event “joy running,” and it’s a beautiful sight each and every time it happens.
Ladybug, a lithe, black and white spotted Dalmatian, erupts from the house, giving the dog door a healthy smack as she blasts through. Then she proceeds to do laps around the yard in what can only be described as running for the sheer thrill of being able to. She’s not chasing anything; she’s not playing tag with another dog. She is quite literally racing about the yard in silly, exaggerated, pointless loops, her mouth open in a wide, tongue-lolling grin, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.
You can step outside to watch the show; it does not deter her. Other dogs can join in—or not. It might be a beautiful, sunny day or dreary and overcast. It just doesn’t matter. This is Ladybug’s moment. Nothing gets in her way; nothing dampens her spirit. If the mood to go on a joy run hits, Ladybug is out of the starting gate like the most eager of racehorses.
Now, the idea of a happy pet dog getting a case of the zoomies may not seem like much of a story and certainly not a life lesson. But Ladybug is not an ordinary pet dog. She has traveled a long path to find her joy.
Ladybug came to our home about 18 months ago after being used as a breeding dog in what we now know was one of the worst puppy mills in the country. Her life likely consisted of being housed 24/7 in a small pen with minimal care and certainly no creature comforts or positive human attention. Her job was to have puppies. Litter after litter after litter.
Add to this story the fact that Ladybug is completely deaf—an affliction with a high incidence in the Dalmatian breed and not a genetic trait that should be bred, but to a commercial breeder it was of little consequence. Maybe that was Ladybug’s one escape in her small, hopeless existence. She couldn’t hear the constant, plaintive barking of the hundreds of other dogs and puppies that shared her plight.
Ladybug was sold just prior to her seventh birthday—the cutoff age for selling productive breeding stock at a professional kennel auction in Missouri. Little did the confused, cowering dog know, it was the luckiest day of her life. Instead of leaving the chaos of the auction house kennel to head off to yet another breeding facility, she was being pulled by the Dalmatian Assistance League of Tulsa. In a nutshell, that meant she was heading home with me to a quite different, immeasurably better life.
Of course, Ladybug had no clue this was change for the better—she only knew she was being taken from the only life she had ever known. She pulled and bucked against her leash as we made our way out of the building. She cringed in the back of my Jeep. She urinated and defecated three times in her crate within the first two miles of our 152-mile trek home. We were off to a somewhat rocky and certainly stinky start.
Integrating Ladybug into our house was an adventure. Everything seemed to startle her. The motion of the ceiling fan made her hit the ground in terror as if the roof might be caving in. A hand innocently raised around her by me or my partner, Jim, caused her to skitter away while casting worried backward glances. A broom sweeping the floor was cause for her to hide in her crate. Every normal household interaction seemed to be met by startle and concern.
The backyard was overwhelming. She would barely step off the porch before she retreated into the safety of the house. After more than six years of living as a kennel dog, it seemed that everything outside of her extremely limited life experience was just too much for her to handle.
Then, seemingly overnight, it happened. One Saturday morning, I glanced out the window into the backyard just in time to see Ladybug running laps. She was outside alone. There was nothing chasing her; she wasn’t chasing anything. She had simply, finally discovered the joy of unfettered running. She made a choice to embrace her new life.
And so, this has become Ladybug’s ritual without fail. Every day, sometimes several times a day, you’ll hear the quick slap of the dog door, and you’ll find Ladybug out having a joy run. Sometimes other dogs join in. Often one of our determined cattle dogs tries to intervene by herding the galivanting spotted blur. Nothing matters; nothing dampens her celebratory laps. And since the day Ladybug decided to take her first solo romp around the yard, she truly is a changed dog.
She is now one of the cuddliest dogs in the house. She no longer startles at normal household objects or movements. She has a silly, playful nature we never dreamed possible in our early months of trying to help her adapt. She seeks our attention and is a constant, loving companion.
Oh, what a beautiful lesson this dog came into my world to teach me. On the days when my brain is all ping-pongy, and I’m feeling overwhelmed by things like facemasks and securing my 6-square-feet of personal space, all the while keeping an eye to the horizon lest a swarm of locusts start to turn day to night, I have Ladybug there to remind me that there is good to be found in every day; it’s up to me to make the choice to find it.
So sometimes you really do need to drop everything and go for that bike ride. Or stretch your body into a namaste pretzel. Or enjoy that glass of wine while you stop to really see the beautiful sunset. Or call a good friend just to share a laugh.
Or maybe you just need to follow a certain spotted dog’s lead—like I now do—and go skip silly, nonsensical loops around your backyard for the simple reason that you can. And in those intentionally carefree moments, the day really doesn’t seem quite so hard; the world doesn’t seem so looming and confusing.
It’s easy to let change drag you down. It’s especially easy to feel stressed out and depressed when so much of day-to-day life feels completely out of control. But according to one incredibly wise Dalmatian, you can choose to shake it all off for a few minutes each day and find your joy.