My dogs and cats have taught me a lot of things over the years, though I’m sometimes slow to learn. Lucy taught me something this weekend — and I now feel foolish to realize she had to teach me something that should have been obvious.
Lucy hates vacuum cleaners. This is common with a lot of dogs and cats, but her fear is the worst I’ve ever seen. She seems to think her life is in danger and she goes into a terrible panic.
You might remember that when she came to live with me two years ago, I was told that she would always be a “special needs dog,” because she was terrified of the world. She’s made so much progress that I almost never see that side of her anymore — but the vacuum cleaner still brings it out.
I can be stubborn, for reasons that have to do with both personality and training, and I’ve been stubborn about the vacuum cleaner. I’ve said all this time that she had to get accustomed to this device eventually, so I’ve not kept her away from it.
Saturday, I brought the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom and Lucy came with me. She eyed the device warily, but she doesn’t run until it’s turned on, so she stayed at first. But then I plugged it in and flipped the power on.
I was cleaning near the door to the room and there was no path for her to run except coming right next to this terrifying machine. I could tell that she was in a state of full panic and didn’t know what to do. She was scared, but I was determined that she eventually get accustomed to the sound, so I just kept working.
She jumped up onto the bed in an attempt to escape, but still the loud machine got closer. She cowered in terror. Then, in the midst of her fears, she urinated on the bed.
I looked over at her doing this and I was enraged. I switched the vacuum cleaner off and started yelling at her. I chased her out of the bedroom — for fear she might do more. I let my anger get the best of me and I just screamed at her, which didn’t help. (If you know me, you know how rare it is for me to become angry or raise my voice.)
Now Lucy was confused. Her only human — the one who she has relied on for two years to take care of her and love her unconditionally — was yelling at her. I’m sure she had no idea why.
Later, I moved the vacuum cleaner to an area near where her food and water bowls stay. I didn’t put it there intentionally at first, but then I thought maybe it would be good if she had to get past that hated machine to get to her food and water.
For the next 24 hours, she avoided her food and water bowls as much as possible, because that terrible machine that caused her so much fear was still there.
Late Sunday afternoon — when it was time to feed her — I finally listened to her. She obviously didn’t say anything in words, but as I put her food out and looked into her eyes, I suddenly realized how wrong I’ve been.
You see, I’ve been right in believing she needs to get over her fear of the vacuum cleaner. It won’t hurt her. She has to live in a house with such a machine (even if I don’t use it often enough). All of that is reasonable.
But here’s the thing. When I looked into her eyes as I put her food out Sunday afternoon, I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter. She was still scared. She was going to continue to be scared. And my stubbornness was all about my selfish need to be in control — about something that would never matter.
I moved the vacuum cleaner far away from her bowls and she happily went to eat dinner. The fear was gone, because I was no longer trying to force her to do something she was too terrified to do.
Here’s what I realized in that moment. There are all sorts of situations in our lives when we are right about something, but when it doesn’t matter to prove we’re right or to force others to obey what we want them to do.
There are all sorts of times in our lives when people need us to simply move the vacuum cleaner — instead of explaining to them why they shouldn’t be afraid of the vacuum cleaner.
That’s true with animals. It’s true for children. It’s true for people with work with. It’s true for the partners we claim to love.
I’m ashamed now that I didn’t simply accommodate Lucy’s fears about the vacuum cleaner before now. It’s obvious she’s always going to be scared of the device. Why didn’t I simply respect her fears by making sure she was out of the room before I started something that was going to scare her? It was about my egotistical need to be right and in control. I was wrong.
There are things you’re scared of that don’t scare me. There are other things that terrify me which you would find silly to be afraid of. If we love people and respect people — or animals — we will honor others’ fears instead of trying to show how our approach is right and how their attitudes are wrong.
Trying to force other people to do things our way isn’t about love or respect. It’s about control. There are some times in life when we have legitimate reasons to force people to obey certain rules — which is why we don’t let children or animals play in roads — but there are plenty of other times when our attempt to teach is really just a thinly disguised effort to control others.
I appreciate my Lucy teaching me this lesson. I’m sorry I’m sometimes slow to listen to those I love.