“Have you tried the Manchego?!” I desperately yelled to my husband from the floor of the hallway, where I was lying draped over our 50 pound dog, crying into the plastic cone he had around his neck to stop him from licking a horrible, unhealing wound on his paw. We would later discover the cause of this ulcerated sore to be a grass awn that had embedded itself between his toes and traveled upward through his paw, bringing with it an infection that wouldn’t respond to treatment and baffled no fewer than five different veterinarians.
Our dog, Babka, was given multiple antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and sedatives that all had to be taken with food, and they all made him feel terrible and unwilling to eat. The more we tried to get him to take his medicine, the more anxious he grew about the medicine and eating any food that may eventually lead to being tricked into ingesting medicine. He had grown suspicious of the ground beef, ground bison, ground elk, organic cold cuts, different kibbles, kibble toppers, bone broths, and every other item we desperately added to his food to try and make it appealing. I couldn’t have told you the last time I had eaten a meal, but we were taking multiple daily trips to the grocery store scouring the aisles for anything that might be exciting for a dog to eat while panic-Googling things like “Do dogs like Chef Boyardee?” and “Pop Tarts lethal for dogs?” His favorite food in the entire world, besides the crotch of anything I have ever worn, is cheddar cheese, and he had just turned away a handful of it to go sulk in the corner. That was almost my breaking point.
Then I remembered that we still had a wedge of overpriced Manchego in the fridge. (Once during the pandemic, the owner of our neighborhood cheese shop told me without making eye contact that I had “decent taste in cheese,” and it was the first compliment I’d gotten from a stranger in 18 months, so I kept going back and buying things I couldn’t afford or pronounce.) The Manchego was our last bastion. We cut off a small piece and offered it to Babka. He nosed it a little, just to release the aroma compounds before deciding whether or not to send it back to the kitchen, and then happily munched away at it and looked up for more. I buried my face in his fluffy shoulder and cried tears of relief. We could at least get enough food in his stomach to give him his medicine. This was the start of what we now speak of with great reverence as the Manchego Era.
If this sounds over the top, it’s because it is. I had dreamed of getting a dog for over a decade, and after seeing countless people I know adopt one and report back on how it had decreased their anxiety and depression and greatly improved their quality of life, I decided I could really benefit from an emotional support animal, too. What I didn’t account for is who I would be as a dog owner and who this dog would be as its own fully-formed sentient being. It turns out I am a medium anxious person and high-key anxious dog owner who now owns an even higher-key anxious dog. On day one, I held him as an eight week old puppy in the car ride home and looked down at him nervous/motion-sickness vomiting into my lap and thought, I’m so glad you’re here. I have years of human anxiety that I’m going to unload on you. And I like to think that in that moment he looked up at me, smirking, and thought, Lady, you have no idea how badly I’m going to fuck up your whole existence. We’ve been inseparable ever since.
What do you do if the dog you adopted as an emotional support animal for you in fact requires an emotional support animal himself? Are you, as a human, ready for that role reversal? Are you comfortable putting a little vest and harness on yourself that reads, “Do not pet me, I am working,” when you and your dog are outside together? Because that’s what we got: a neurotic, extremely sensitive, complicated little guy that needs constant reassurance and comfort to assuage his many, many fears. Same, buddy, same.
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I have had numerous trusted dog trainers tell me that my anxiety will manifest anxiety in my dog, and that is some wild shit to tell an anxious person. But what we imagine something to be and the reality of what it actually turns out to be is often where the best, most humbling lessons are hiding. Admittedly, I was entering into this relationship with expectations about what this animal could do for me; now I find myself prioritizing his comfort and emotional needs before mine. And while this dog has not decreased any of my own anxiety even one iota, this at least feels like a more grounded and purposeful life than I lived before him.