|Leaving Our Chains
Woman's Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives (Seal Press), Spring, 2006
by Susan T. Lennon
Sporting his new training collar, my puppy follows me into our tiny hall bathroom. I've recently quit my big insurance job, and I adore my new life – as “mom” to a clumsy four-month-old yellow Labrador retriever. Harley is a flash-eyed underpants-stealer, with too-long legs and a too-stout tummy. Absent-mindedly, I wash up, thinking about the adventures that await us today. Yesterday, it was a shredded bed followed by careening around the living room like the Tasmanian devil, me laughing despite myself.
High-pitched yelping startles me, and the soap slips from my hands as I realize that Harley is no longer snuffling around my ankles; he's wedged up under the toilet. Squinting, I see that his metal collar has snagged on the pipe-and-valve fixture down there and when he tries to break free, the O-ring twists itself over and around. With every move he makes, the links tighten into a hangman's noose.
Cold waves of panic surge through me as I kneel beside him, trying to figure out what to do. Cursing the trainer who’d insisted that Harley wear the collar, and myself for hiring her, I drop to my knees for a closer look, blathering reassurances so he won’t struggle and make the situation worse. He's panting, and his soft brown eyes roll white with fear, imploring me to help. I crouch beside him, clueless. I know nothing of plumbing, never mind saving a life.
Scrunching my eyes shut, I hope for one of those adrenaline-crazed, super-human, ultra-maternal bursts of strength you read about. Bare-handed, I first attempt to pull the pipe from the wall, and then, when that doesn't work, try to break the chain apart.
I fail. I need help.
“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” I whisper as I get up and rush to the kitchen phone. Grabbing the handset, I take a deep breath and punch in three numbers.
An operator answers, "Nine-One-One, state your emergency, please."
My sweaty hand can barely hold the phone as I blurt, "You've got to help, my puppy is trapped under the toilet, choking … he'll die ... send somebody, quick!"
"Uh, who exactly is gonna die?"
I can't believe my ears when she responds, "Ma'am, we don't do dogs. We're strictly a human rescue. Call someone else."
My response can still make me blush, but at the time, I didn’t even hesitate. "Listen, if you don't get out here you WILL have a human emergency on your hands! I’ll have a heart attack or a breakdown if anything happens to him!" Then I slam down the phone and rush back to Harley, slipping my finger between the chain and his neck so he can breathe. My heart is pounding. This can't be happening.
I'd long wanted a dog, and daydreamed about it during the last miserable months of my high-pressured corporate job. I could no longer handle the continuous strain of competition, the perpetual need to watch my back, and the ongoing pseudo-drama of insurance minutiae. After eight years of trying to adapt, the stress had taken its toll. I just didn't fit in. I was scared, but I wanted to start my own writing business, get healthy, and simplify my life. With a dog, I explained to my dumbstruck husband, I could set up shop at home, and success would be guaranteed – because how could I leave our dog home alone every day?
Shortly after I quit my job, I carried my squirming ten-week-old fur ball home – and soon my headaches fled, my intestines untwisted, and my nails started to grow.
Harley had become my lifeline, tugging me back to a contented, pantyhose-free world; one where nurturing, trust, and playfulness ruled. I couldn’t even contemplate going back – Harley needed me.
The feeling was mutual.
My husband had recently remarked, with a smirk, that I’d smiled more in the weeks since this blonde boy joined us than I had during the past decade. I wanted to do everything right for him. To take my mind off worrying about whether I could make a living as a home-based writer, I devoured books and articles about caring for a canine. I spent every waking moment with him, reveling in his doggy-ness, seeing the world through his eyes, inhaling the scent of his ruff as if it were an aphrodisiac. I sang him to sleep, dangling my fingers into his crate. And despite my husband's rolling eyes, I'd even hired a professional trainer to teach me about how to raise a well-adjusted dog.
Click! The trainer had insisted that Harley wear this steel trap of a choke collar, claiming that it was the only way to "correct" his behavior as he grew. "You have to show him who's boss," she'd said.
Sitting here on the cold tile, trying not to cry, it hits me that this metal collar and its strong-arm training dogma reflect everything I'd grown to loathe about my job – and what I'd allowed my life to become. Harley didn’t need a shackle to jerk him into submission, just as I didn’t need to prove my worth by accepting the choke chain of other people’s expectations.
But what if we couldn’t escape? In some weird way, both of our lives seemed to be at stake here. If I couldn't save Harley, my feelings of grief and failure would force me back to the world I’d so newly left. It seems overly dramatic now, but I felt that if I couldn’t even take care of a puppy and make my dog-dreams come true, I’d never be able to find my way. And at 38, I wasn’t exactly a kid anymore – it seemed like this was my only chance.
Doorbell! I beg Harley to be calm and race down the hall. Flinging the door open to a pair of burly police, I hustle them toward the bathroom, guns and gear clanking as I babble.
One guy hunkers down to assess the situation. I suck in my breath as his rough hands maneuver Harley’s head away from the fixture. He looks over at me and asks for a wrench. My feet are glued to the floor – I honestly don’t even know what a wrench is. Raising an eyebrow, his partner lumbers off to the squad car to get one, and when he returns, he hands it over with an exaggerated sigh. Expertly, Harley's rescuer shuts off the water, removes the valve head, and waves the collar aloft in mock victory. They're laughing at me, but I don't care.
I pick Harley up and hold him as we sink into the couch. After he settles, our eyes lock. Wordless communication with another species is potent. I felt that we both knew that somehow we’d just saved each other, and that the bond we'd created through those agonizing moments would change us.
Harley is ten now, and we were right. My dream of a simpler, home-based writing business came true, and, during these years, Harley and I have spent endless hours together. We are happy animals, appreciating the moment, still leaving our chains behind.