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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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January 2010 Archives

Freezing on the First Step

My younger dog has just decided he can't go down stairs anymore. He runs up them eagerly, just as he has for all of his five-year-old life. But he has stopped believing he can come down again.

My older dog thinks he's a moron. I think he's a metaphor, but I'll come back to that.

The dog in question is a fluffy white Shih-Tzu mix who weighs 20 pounds but is supposed to weigh 16. If you saw the third "Star Wars'' epic, you can picture him: Cubby looks like an Ewok. Just not as brave.

I got him five years ago as a friend for my smaller, smarter dog, Teddy, who is 10 now and who, very definitely, did not want a friend then and still doesn't. Teddy looks like a 13-pound version of Star Wars' Chewbacca. He has always been too little and timid to descend a steep flight of stairs, so I have always carried him down.

Over New Year's weekend, Cubby finally noticed that Teddy was getting a free ride. It coincided with an attack of clumsiness, to which Cubby is prone, followed by a loss of nerve.

Following me downstairs one morning, Cubby tripped mid-flight and skidded the last few steps. This scared him. The next time we started down, half of him made it one step, and the rest didn't. He got stuck - plump little rear on the top step, two front paws braced on the one below. He wouldn't go farther down, he couldn't go back up. He started to whimper.

I called him from the bottom of the stairs. I coaxed. I cajoled. I went back up and tried to get him to walk down beside me. I even fetched a piece of leftover turkey from the fridge, went back upstairs and waved it under his nose. Cubby drooled - eating is his favorite activity - but he wouldn't budge.

Finally, knowing I was reinforcing the behavior and that I'd be stuck with this for the rest of his life, I gave in and carried the fat little guy downstairs. It's been that way for days now: He can dash upstairs, but he can't make himself come down again. And he is just heavy enough to throw me slightly off balance when I carry him.

"Cubby keeps freezing on the top step,'' I complained to my best friend. "And then he can't go the rest of the way.''

"A life lesson,'' my friend said, quite seriously.

Of course, I thought: This wasn't a dog problem, this was a commitment problem. Cubby couldn't make the leap of faith that would let him get where he wanted to go.

It reminded me of a conversation I'd once had with a young woman who was learning to fly a small plane. She showed me snapshots of her first solo. The best one showed her sitting in the cockpit just after she landed, smiling in triumph.

How, I had asked, do you manage to be so brave?

She said that if you're going to fly, you have to have absolute faith in yourself. You have to be able to commit to it one-hundred percent - to taking off, to landing and to the journey in between - or you can't do it at all.

Commitment is not a bad thing to remember at the start of a new decade. Now if only I could get that across to the little white marshmallow whining at the top of the stairs.