Your dog ran away while you were at work. It’s okay, though, because we found her.
I wasn’t sure how to process this text from my 18-year-old sister Gretchen, mostly because she had picked up the dog from the animal shelter two hours before sending it. She and her friend Gabby had been driving to my office last I’d heard (or seen, considering the car selfie she sent me). When did the dog have time to escape? Were they pulling out of the shelter parking lot when it suddenly catapulted itself out of the passenger window? Or did they even make it that far?
What do you mean? I texted back. Where did it go?
Gabby and I chased her for about a mile. When we let her out to go to the bathroom, she just bolted.
After graduating college six months earlier, I had moved into my first place without roommates. While I rejoiced in no longer washing dishes that I hadn’t left in the sink for several days to begin with, I did miss having someone to come home to. I’d been scouring classifieds and animal adoption websites for weeks, but they seemed to only be open while I was at work.
Then, I saw a shelter post online about a four- or five-year-old Chihuahua who was housetrained, quiet, and liked to give lots of kisses. I decided to take a risk and asked my family if they’d pick it up for me even though I hadn’t seen it in person. The shelter volunteers were a little hesitant, but my mom promised that it was going to a safe home so they let her adopt the dog on my behalf.
Gretchen and Gabby met me with the dog at a McDonald’s parking lot a few blocks away from my office. I recognized her Volvo from a distance thanks to the ironically bedazzled dashboard. When I slid into the backseat, she passed me a shivering dog with a cheetah print collar. It was clear that the dog was having a hard day.
“She’s a nervous little weirdo,” Gretchen said. “She hasn’t stopped shaking since we got her. And she’s kinda chubby.”
She was a bit pudgy for a Chihuahua, which made her a little larger than a loaf of bread. I wasn’t sure what was bigger: her tummy, her ears, or her eyes.
“Gabby thinks we should call her Smith,” Gretchen said, “and I agree.”
“Maybe. Does she bark?”
“I don’t know. She hasn’t yet.”
My dog–who my mom suggested to name Yoda because of her expressive ears, and I agreed –continued not to bark for the first few weeks after I brought her home. The only time she’s ever barked was when she heard one of my neighbors walking past my front door. For whatever reason, it caught her attention and she barked once–as loud as it was singular.
It startled me so much that I almost dropped my laptop, but she just stared at me as if she hadn’t made a noise. And she never has barked since, though she does snuffle or– in a really good mood– sigh when someone she trusts rubs her tummy.
As far as I can tell, it’s not that Yoda doesn’t have a voice box. She just prefers things to be quiet. When we go on walks, she crouches down while backing away when we pass loud groups of people. Sometimes little kids ask if they can pet her and when they try, I have to apologize when Yoda darts away from their hands. And when I invite over friends she’s never met before, she burrows into her blankets and shivers while blinking up at them until they go home.
The animal shelter staff didn’t tell us much about how and why Yoda came to be there. I’ve often wondered if she was raised in a noisy home or possibly an abusive one. But I supposed it was just as likely that Yoda’s personality is inherently shy. Other than when we went on walks or when she ate, she mostly watches me read or do chores from her dog bed. She doesn’t like to play with any of her chew toys but prefers to stay burrowed in a blanket with only her ears and wide, brown eyes poking out.
Once she got used to the apartment, she started to walk around. She sniffs around my bathroom and clothes closet and observes my washing machine spin clothes around. When she thinks I’m not looking, she tries to eat a piece of popcorn off of the floor or jump on a chair by the window so she could watch snow fall outside.
As the months passed, she’s almost become a different dog. When I come home from work, she runs to the door as soon as I turned the key in the lock and jump to my knee, then bolts back to her dog bed and the couch and around in circles with her tail wagging. Then, she curls up next to me while I read and scratch her head between the ears.
If I were to take Yoda to a “dog therapist” of some sort, I think she would be diagnosed with social anxiety. Once she gets to know someone, she’s happy to lick them or snuggle by their lap. But until she’s observed someone for a long time, she prefers to stay near people she knows she can trust.
We’re a lot alike in that way. For most of my life, I thought that I just wasn’t good at making friends. I spent many lunches in high school reading by myself, and I once skipped half a semester of gym class because I felt self-conscious about being one of the last people picked in teams (but somehow still got an A- since my teacher hadn’t noticed). It’s not that I was bullied or that I didn’t like people, but I assumed they wouldn’t like me and didn’t always give people a chance to prove otherwise.
It wasn’t until my freshman year at college that I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder at my college’s counseling center. I’d spent a few sessions telling my therapist how my roommates were such great people and all seemed to click so well but that I just didn’t belong. It was then he suggested that maybe the problem wasn’t how others saw me but the way I saw myself. Years later, my ex would repeat this suggestion in his own way when we broke up: “You keep worrying about whether other people like you and not whether you like yourself. It’s not healthy to base your entire self-esteem off of other people’s approval.”
I don’t know why I’m like this. My parents raised me well, and I never had some traumatic childhood moment growing up that turned me into the shy guy that I am today. If anything, it was probably a series of little things that led to me making up excuses to avoid parties and wondering how someone can be lonely yet paralyzed of meeting new people.
I used to beat myself up about how hard it is for me to make friends. That was before I adopted Yoda. There’s nothing that I would change about my dog. Maybe she’s not the kind of pet that people call friendly or playful, but she’s the one who’s there for me after a hard day at work. Maybe it took a little while for her to come out from under her blankets and explore her new home, but that doesn’t make her companionship any less meaningful now.
I’ve been trying to treat myself with the same patience that I give her when making new friends. Every week, I try to do something that involves connecting with new people–checking out local book clubs, volunteering, or even chatting up fellow dog owners on morning walks. If Yoda’s worth taking the time to get to know, then maybe I am, too.