What rescue dogs can teach us about vulnerability

Face your fears.
Face your fears.
Image: Sarah Todd
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The first time I laid eyes on my puppy, she was standing on a table at an adoption fair in the middle of Manhattan’s Union Square, quivering slightly in the midst of all the good-willed commotion. She was small and black, about five months old, with big, shining brown eyes that gave her the look of a lost baby deer.

I gave her a pat. We exchanged souls. “I think I’m going to get this dog,” I said to my friends. Two hours later she was in my apartment, curled up on the bed in a tight little doughnut. She was called Squirt—a sporty, preposterously unsuitable name for such a gentle and sensitive creature. I named her Daisy.

Like a lot of people, I have a hard time being vulnerable. I find it easier to act cheerful even when I don’t feel that way, directing my attention outward: taking classes and planning happy hours, listening to friends and family and colleagues when they talk about their problems and brainstorming solutions. I hate the idea that someone might look at me and think I seem sad, or anxious, or lonely. And I really hate asking for help.

Daisy, on the other hand, had no way of hiding the truth: She was vulnerability in one 20-pound, floppy-eared package. While her past is largely a mystery to me, it’s clear that she had some hard times before landing in my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. She barked and howled if left alone for more than 30 seconds. She ran away from strangers who stooped down to pet her on the street, peering out from behind my legs. The sound of motorcycles and ambulance sirens made her shake. She jumped at the sound of construction and car doors slamming; skittered away from kids on skateboards and scooters; panicked at the sight of a plastic bag blowing across the sidewalk. People in hats freaked her out. “She’s scared of doors,” I would explain to shopkeepers apologetically while she stood frozen at the threshold, refusing to come in.

Since I got Daisy in May, she’s given me all the things I hoped to find in a dog: love, companionship, a friend to go on long walks with during the day and snuggle with on the couch at night. She wakes me up in the morning with licks and a wagging tail. At night, she sleeps curled up in the crook of my legs, right behind my knees. As an emotional support dog, she makes me feel comfortable and safe.

At the same time, as a rescue dog who needs a fair bit of emotional support herself, she’s made me more cognizant of the everyday presence of fear, trauma, and stress—and the importance of accepting the dark and needy parts of ourselves rather than trying to deny them. Which is to say that she’s given me a lesson in how to be vulnerable, and how to see vulnerability in others in a new way.

The sensitive soul

“Feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human,” Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston whose work focuses on the importance of vulnerability, wrote back in 2010. “It is when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.”

But even if we know on an intellectual level that it’s perfectly normal to worry and flail, most of us want to seem outwardly confident and strong. Which is why it’s been so interesting getting to know Daisy, who does not care about maintaining appearances.

What prevents some people from feeling love and belonging, according to Brown, is a deep-rooted sense of shame. As she explains in her viral TED talk, they go through life worrying, “Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” And so they avoid sharing the messy parts of themselves—the very act that’s necessary to form deep bonds.

author with her dog
The author with her dog.
Image: Sarah Todd

Daisy, on the other hand, is entirely open about the fact that she gets sad and lonely and anxious sometimes. As a dog, she has no sense of shame about that or anything else. She still moves through the world knowing that she deserves love—which she demonstrates through such means as licking a stranger’s nose, or bowing with her front paws outstretched when a friend enters the room, or propping her chin on my knee and sighing to convey her deep pleasure and lasting sense of peace.

“The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging,” Brown says. Now I think that means they behave like Daisy, uncertain of a great many things in life, but sure that the parts of themselves that hide and whimper by no means disqualify them from connection.

The judgment-free zone

Indeed, I would never dream of judging Daisy for being needy—which she most certainly is, in a cute way—or for the time she had a nervous breakdown because she saw a yellow balloon tied to a chair. I love her whether she’s scared or exuberantly bouncing around with her ball. While she’s gained a lot of confidence since I got her, and will continue to grow with time and training, she’ll probably always tend toward the highly sensitive end of the spectrum.

That’s why I find it so touching when other people accept Daisy’s shyness and nerves as an element of her entirely lovable personality. “She’s part flower,” my friend Nalis says with great affection for the delicate temperament that makes Daisy prone to crying meltdowns when she receives a particularly delicious bone.

“You have all the feelings, don’t you,” a woman said at book club upon meeting Daisy, as the dog did her traditional prancing dance of joy and fear.

Parents with small children seem particularly understanding, perhaps because their own toddlers are often similarly emotional and hesitant around strangers and new situations. “How sweet,” one woman said at a bookstore while Daisy and her baby stared at one another with apprehension.

When people are understanding with Daisy, it suggests to me that they know, or are learning, how to be kind to themselves. But I’ve also learned from the people who take Daisy’s jumpiness more personally. “Scaredy cat,” the barista at the coffee shop said to Daisy when she retreated from his outstretched hand. “She doesn’t like me,” a friend concluded, sadly stirring his spaghetti.

I feel bad when Daisy disappoints them—particularly since it goes against the expectation that dogs are indiscriminately affectionate creatures. Watching a dog back away from you can also feel oddly targeted; it’s not uncommon for people to think of dogs as furry psychics, possessed with the ability to render instant, accurate assessments of other people’s characters.

Daisy’s reactions, however, are truly nothing personal. Simply the act of being tall, or wearing a sweatshirt with the hood flipped up, is enough to set her heart aflutter.

This, too, has given me a lesson in vulnerability. Watching how people respond when Daisy gets shy or scared, it’s clear to me that they’re not really judging her. Her hesitation just sometimes hurts their feelings. So often, what feels like rejection is actually just another person’s anxieties taking a form that we don’t understand, which sets off our own anxieties, which the other person then interprets as rejection or criticism, and on and on until we’re all backing away from each other, filled with unease.

Asking for favors and bending the rules

Daisy hasn’t only modeled the art of vulnerability for me; she’s forced me to be more vulnerable myself. Since her separation anxiety still makes it difficult for me to leave her alone for long, I’ve had to ask for a lot of help this year. I text friends to see if they can watch her when I have a date or tickets to a play or a work event. I check to see if I can bring Daisy to dinner parties, and keep a running list of venues that will look the other way (or even sneak her a pat) so long as I keep her in her carrying bag.

It makes me very uncomfortable to be a person who needs favors and asks to bend the rules. I was raised not to impose on other people; now I feel like I’m always doing it. But in making myself vulnerable on behalf of my vulnerable pup, I’ve found that most people are incredibly helpful.

When I nervously told my landlord I was getting a dog, he said he understood why having a pet was so important to me; he was a cat owner himself. My dad drove eight hours to pick me up and bring me back to Ohio for my mother’s birthday when I wasn’t able to take Daisy on the plane.

The people at the nail salon around the corner from my house didn’t just let me bring Daisy inside while I got a manicure; they fed her treats and stroked her velvety ears. Recently, when I needed a last-minute Daisy sitter, two friends dove into wildly generous research mode, discovering a treasure trove of local dog-walkers and acquaintances who might be able to keep an eye on her for the afternoon.

Because she’s an emotional support dog, my office graciously lets me bring Daisy to work—where I’ve been particularly moved by my coworkers’ kindness. When I had to go to an important event shortly after getting Daisy, when her separation anxiety was at its peak, my coworkers graciously teamed up to care for her, lying on the floor with her to comfort her and holding her in their laps until she napped. When Daisy chewed up a colleague’s computer cord, she laughed it off, and IT thoughtfully provided a new one. I know that I can always count on someone to watch her if I have a meeting or pop out to lunch.

Have I learned to love asking for help and relying on other people? No, it still feels awkward, and I worry that I’m being selfish and alienating people and doing everything wrong. But I reach out anyway. And in the process, it’s gotten a little bit easier for me to practice vulnerability in other areas of my life, too.

One evening this past fall, for example, while eating dinner with a dear friend, I took a deep breath and shared something I’d told only a handful of people in my life. My friend said all the right things and shared a secret too. We both cried. It was still warm enough to dine outside, and the restaurant on the corner of a quiet street in the West Village was a beautiful place, with twinkly lights and wobbly wood tables and a facade the color of pine trees. Under the table was Daisy, curled up in a ball near my feet but still inching toward me, always wanting to get closer.