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We all have different learning styles, different ways we make sense of the world. I look for relationships. Even as a kid, I needed to know what something was similar to so I could begin to categorize it and assign it a place in my mind. I need an angle, a point of entry, to understand a concept.
For years, I worked to find a solution to Harley’s thunderstorm phobia. I wouldn't call it severe, but it’s moderate. He dug in corners, paced relentlessly, wore a worried expression that broke my heart. I felt helpless. We don’t get much rain in the desert, but when we do, it’s often accompanied by a terrific light and sound show that rivals the Fourth of July on the Esplanade. Even worse, it happens almost every day for about six weeks during the summer. I’ve never been able fully understand his emotions during the storms because I couldn't find a corresponding situation in my own world to build the simile. I could only sympathize with his anxiety because I hadn’t yet found the right relationship that would allow me to express empathy. Today, Amy and Mickey helped me find it.
As I was starting work on Mickey, Amy and I were discussing the emotional challenges of parenting senior dogs. She told me she begins to feel the dread of losing a loyal companion well before—often years before—they are likely to pass. Mickey, for example, is a relatively healthy 10-year-old Border Collie mix. He is active for his age, doing therapy dog work and canine freestyle obedience with Amy. He’s not going anywhere soon, but Amy still frets about his passing. She also pointed out that, counter to rational assumption, the losses (both two- and four-legged) don't get easier, but instead the grief is cumulative and the losses become more difficult. We know and can anticipate how difficult the grieving process will be because we’ve been there before. Unlike our dogs, we are not trapped in the moment: we weave our past and future into our present.
As she spoke, I realized that I, too, often thought about the day I'd lose Harley and shared her sense of constant, low-grade anxiety surrounding this unavoidable reality. Her description of this anxiety and its compounding effects sent a current through me. I've heard—or seen—that set of emotions before. I knew it immediately: Thunderstorm phobia. I had my relationship.
Now I get it. The uneasiness of the unknown. My body’s physical reaction to changes brewing in the world around me. My sudden attention to small details, formerly insignificant sights, sounds and smells. It's unnerving and unsettling.
I watch him process those things almost every afternoon during the Monsoon. And he does it all without the benefit of time. He cannot project backward (“I survived yesterday's storm”) or forward in time (“The storm will stop soon.”). Unfortunately, though, he can learn associations. I imagine it’s like clicker training with a really big clicker (a flash of light) and positive punishment rather than a reward (scary wind and noise). This concept means thunderstorm phobia often has cumulative effects.
I realize now that we’re both apprehensive about gathering storms. I’ve lost enough family and friends (two- and four-legged) to know I'm dreading the loss of Harley. Once the Monsoon starts again, he’ll remember how scary the lightning and wind are. But we each have our way of comforting the other: I'm armed with his Thundershirt, Through a Dog's Ear music, a dropper full of Rescue Remedy and fresh understanding of his mindset. Harley has his silly grin, nuzzling muzzle and reassuring licks. I’m confident that together, we can weather any storm.
Photograph by Lyn Sims