lenten journal: taking time


It’s been a little over five weeks since Loretta came to live with us.

Tomorrow (Monday, that is) will only be six weeks since Lila died, and we are still grieving Ella who died in late October. Even with the presence of both absences, Loretta is making room for herself with unabashed energy and affection.

We know so little about her. She was found on the streets of Waterbury, Connecticut and ended up in a shelter in East Hartford, where we got her because, well, she couldn’t get back to where she once belonged. We think she is around two (or that’s what we were told), so we made March 13 her birthday. We can tell by looking at her that she is part Schnauzer–and her behavior confirms that–but the rest is still up for discovery. We know nothing of her history other than where she was rescued. She knows some commands, though I hope I can teach her that “Get back, Loretta” means stay. She also lives with a pretty high base line of fear, particularly when people come to the house. Stranger Danger.

A dog trainer came by the house to give us some advice and talked about the “two days, two weeks, two months” phenomenon: a dog’s behavior will change at those markers as they get used to their surroundings. Unlike the movie title, everything everywhere can’t happen all at once. She showed us how to get our guests to offer treats by throwing them at a bit of a distance first and then dropping them closer. We have also had folks meet us on the Green so Loretta is not as protective of her home. It is still a work in progress.

The Atlantic has an article whose title is incredibly straightforward–“A Cognitive Revolution in Animal Research”–that helped me understand a bit more about what our sweet pup is going through, as well as a bit about myself as well.

Christian Ruiz studies New Caledonian crows. In one experiment, he gave them a log with drilled holes that had food hidden in them. For the crows to get the food out, they had to bend a plant stem and use it as a tool. When they first did the experiment, they gave the birds ninety minutes to figure things out; if they didn’t the birds weren’t included in the study. The article continues:

But, Rutz says, he soon began to realize that he was not, in fact, studying the skills of New Caledonian crows. He was studying the skills of a subset of New Caledonian crows that quickly approached a weird log they’d never seen before—maybe because they were especially brave or reckless.

The team changed their protocol: They gave the more hesitant birds an extra day or two to get used to their surroundings, then tried the puzzle again. “It turns out that many of these retested birds suddenly start engaging,” Rutz says. “They just needed a little bit of extra time.”

For the first couple of weeks, Loretta’s nub of a tail stayed down. She would come to us, but then cower a bit when we got close. She was more comfortable if I was sitting down. We try to walk her and Lizzy! on the Green daily and we have seen both Loretta’s confidence and tail rise on our trips. But yesterday Ginger took her down streets she did not know and she was wary once again.

She just needs a little bit of extra time. Maybe a lot it.

Much of that time needs to come from Ginger and me in the form of patience and compassion as we work to move beyond her fear to find the affection that other people want to offer her. That doesn’t sound hard to do until she starts barking when someone comes over as though they were sent by Vladimir Putin. But five weeks on, she knows her name, she knows we are her people, she knows how to use the doggy door, and she knows when it’s time to eat.

It’s just going to take a while for her to begin to recognize all the love she cannot see.

She’s not the only one. At sixty-six, I am also one who has needed extra time to learn, sometimes because I had to get used to my surroundings, but mostly because I had to come to terms with myself. Regardless of the backdrop, I have been pretty good at getting in my own way. But when I read about New Caledonian crows needing time to settle in and I watch Loretta as she makes her way in her new world, I am grateful for the grace of time that makes room to figure out that we belong.

Loretta is teaching me as well.


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