yes, she’s wearing cowboy boots. so?
The scene should be unremarkable.
A little girl sits on the floor with the family dog. She reaches out to stroke his fur. Her mother chides her gently. “Not too hard, baby. Remember to be gentle with him.” She pets him again, repeating her mother’s words in her own sing-song lilt. “Not too hard. Remember to be gentle!” The mother shakes her head slowly, looks to the father. They exchange a tired smile.
It’s the older sister that speaks first. “Can you believe she’s sitting with him? I mean, seriously, you guys! She’s SITTING on the floor with him! Great job Brooke!”
Yes, the scene should be unremarkable.
But it’s not.
When we brought Winston home, Brooke was terrified. For nearly two weeks, she did not set foot on the first floor of our house. She had to be down there of course, as the heart of our house is on the first floor – the kitchen, the den, even the office that houses her beloved computer. So she was there when she had to be. But being the ingenious little critter that she is, she figured out how to work her way from one room to the next literally without setting a foot on the floor. She walked on the furniture, and when there was no furniture to be found, she clawed her way up the side of the nearest parent and hitched a ride like a little stowaway.
For three weeks or so, she was a caricature of fear. If the little guy so much as turned his body toward her she would shake, scream, cling and climb. Anything to get herself up and away – further from the danger. She spent a good deal of her time trying to convince us to put him in his crate or that Daddy wanted to take him for a walk. Again.
We unearthed an old baby gate and used it to create safe zones for her. Rather than penning him in, we essentially penned her in. He was happy as a clam to have the run of the house and she was thrilled to have a place that she knew was Winston-free. She’d stroll around the den like a peacock, knowing that she was ‘safe’ while he happily explored the rest of his new home (excluding the girls’ rooms, which still remain off-limits.)
Slowly – bit by bit, we moved the gate. It migrated around the house, eventually settling by the stairs. Brooke knew that Winston would not come upstairs, but she also knew that he had free reign of the first floor. She remained wary. She was on a constant vigil, demanding to know his whereabouts at all times. If she was convinced he was far enough away, she’d walk between pieces of furniture. Tiny steps on little tiptoes, then right back up again. But it was progress.
One night she fed him a treat. Out of her hand.
We discovered that as long as she was sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, she felt safe. They are high enough off the ground to give her comfort and low enough that she could pet him as he roamed by. Eventually, she discovered that if she laid her palm out flat to him, he’d lick it. It tickled her hand and made her giggle. It became a routine at the table, accompanied by a favorite script from Annie. “Come here Winston! Come on Winston! Come on boy! Good Old Winston!” She grinned from ear to ear as he came to her chair to see what was up.
She began to walk on the floor holding just a hand. She protested for a while, but she did it. She’d land on a chair or the couch as though she were sliding into home, but she did it. As she walked the floor, she reassured herself with lines from the social story I’d written for her. “Winston won’t bite me. He likes to sniff and lick me. He will not bite me.” Once I heard her say, “My best friend Winston will not get me.” I had to laugh.
Night after night, I’d ask the same question. I phrased it seven different ways to Sunday. “Honey, do you want Winston to stay here and live with us?”
Every night, without fail, she made her feelings clear. He loves us. We love him. He would stay. And every night, without fail, I’d go to bed in awe of her strength, her conviction, her limitless bravery. Fear be damned, we were going to keep this dog.
It’s been six weeks now. The baby gate is gone. When Brooke wakes up in the morning, she fills Winston’s water bowl and puts it on his mat. She still wants to know where he is, but less out of fear than interest. When he barks at a squirrel outside, she says, “Thank you, Winston, that’s enough.” He doesn’t listen, but she says it anyway. I have to remind her to be gentle. I’ve caught her putting her fingers right into his mouth, exploring his teeth and feeling around his soft, floppy lips. One day she seemed to be trying to touch his eye-ball. Obviously, we’ve since set some ground rules.
So yes, life with Winston has gotten good. But here’s where it gets sublime.
I am picking the girls up from school. I’ve begun to chat with another mom about setting up a play date, so I’m not in my usual spot for pick-up. I can see Brooke’s class, but they don’t see me.
A classmate’s mother has come to pick up her daughter. She stands nearby with her poodle, who is on a leash. A few months ago, Brooke would still ask Ms N to pick her up as soon as she saw the poodle. Ms N would refuse, so Brooke would cling to her instead. More recently, we’ve all been thrilled that she’s stayed calm when she saw her, instead assuring herself (and anyone else who could hear) that it was OK, because she was on a leash.
But on this day, something remarkable will happen.
Brooke will walk away from Ms N. She will walk right up to her classmate’s mom and say, “May I please pet your dog please?” (Yup, not just one, but two pleases. She’s nothing if not polite.)
The classmate’s mom will look shocked as she says, “Of course, Brooke. Go ahead.”
Brooke will squat down RIGHT NEXT TO THE DOG and pet her. She will scooch around the dog to get closer as other kids join in (something that in and of itself would have had her running just weeks ago.)
Her teacher will scan the crowd for me. She will find me, both arms up in the air, celebrating. Ms N will see me shortly thereafter and breathlessly tell me what happened, not knowing I’d seen it all.
Brooke will still be petting the dog.
Yes, the scene should be unremarkable.
But it’s not.
Ed note: The background story of Winston (and the more general story line of how we came to bring a dog into the home of a child who has historically been terrified of dogs) can be found by clicking here ….