Every time somebody asked the question, the invisible hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. I would plaster on a smile and reply, “Oh, she’s definitely the one in charge.” Every time. Same question, same reply. It happened a lot.
I was twenty something when we drove to the middle of the state to pick up our newest family member. We were told there were three black females left. We could have our pick. The puppies were loose in the farm yard when we arrived. They were exuberant and full of life, playing with each other. We were getting a dog.
On the drive home, I rode in the back of my in-laws station wagon with Elsa. We’d named her that after the lion in the movie Born Free. I had no idea what I had just gotten myself into. I was a push-over looking for love, who had no idea how to train a dog.
The black furball gave me unconditional love all right. It just came with all sorts of naughty, destructive behaviors. It was a trade off I was willing to accept.
We had purchased a spacious, metal kennel before we brought Elsa home. Since my husband and I both worked full-time, Elsa surely needed to be confined during the day. That lasted for about two weeks. Once Elsa became acclimated and figured us out, she set to work. “I’ve got their number,” she must have thought.
Elsa began to throw what I would call excessive temper tantrums every time we would try to kennel her. We devised a system to keep her penned in the spare bedroom while we were gone. Yup, she won.
Do you know what she did with her freedom? She entertained herself and soothed her teething mouth by chewing the baseboards and window sills down to nothing. A tasmanian devil had nothing on her.
The most frustrating behavior Elsa exhibited could have been easily corrected with a stern master who possessed a little common sense. I did not. There was acreage in Milwaukee near the county hospital. In that space, people could rent plots of land for gardening. It was a popular spot for people to walk their dogs, giving them some freedom. Leashes were optional.
Elsa was chock full of energy. She had grown into the big paws that we considered a good trait when we chose her. “Big paws, big dog,” people said. When we got our second dog, I was happy her paws were small.
At her peak, Elsa weighed close to ninety five pounds and was as strong as an ox. I only outweighed her by about a stone. My strength of body was no greater than my strength of will. When I walked Elsa on a leash, she had the upper paw. If she wanted to go someplace, she took me. It was that simple. I hated it when people called us out on it!
For that reason, I drove her to walk off leash at the county grounds almost daily. It did not matter if it was ninety-five or ten below. Elsa needed to run. The problem was, she never wanted to leave the place. Freedom was fun!
If I did not catch her in an unsuspecting moment to clip on her leash, I might be stuck trying to catch her for an hour or more. There were times I found myself near tears wondering if I should just drive away and leave her there. Of course, I never did. And, I continued to play out the same crazy game of chase over and over. Why did I let that happen?
I’ve grown a lot wiser and have exerted stronger will over our second dog. I think Elsa and her antics helped teach me lessons to make me a better parent, too. The day she left this world, I was inconsolable. She was my friend, my teacher and a true love.
What brings all of this to mind? I recently read a book called The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. The author proposes the concept of our minds having two parts. The first, is our instinctual brain. He compares it to an elephant. The second part, he calls the rider. The rider is in charge of logical thought. It is tasked with controlling a big, strong, sometimes unruly elephant.
I see an obvious parallel between my relationship with Elsa and Haidt’s concept of the elephant and its rider. Elsa was my elephant. As her master, I never managed full control. What did happen over the years was a working relationship that we both could live with — quite happily.
I’m not sure where I’m at with the inner relationship between my elephant and rider. I know there is still more I can do to help the rider gain mastery.
Every day, every experience is an opportunity for exploration and growth. Just maybe — one day, I’ll be able to watch my rider skillfully direct my elephant.