My dog Wilma and I take a turn off the main drag onto one of the tree-lined blocks of our Pasadena neighborhood. Across the street a man walks in the opposite direction, talking to himself. I double-check: yes. No smartphone, no earbuds. He stops talking when he sees us. I pretend not to notice.
As soon as we’re out of his earshot, I say to Wilma, “That man was talking to himself.”
“Mmhmm,” she says, sniffing the ground.
When my husband and I first took Wilma to the Pasadena Humane Society’s Reactive Rover class, our teacher told us that a reactive dog might always be that way, and our job is to help Wilma focus on us instead of the things she fears.
We were sad to hear that. We wanted her to be normal. A reactive dog is one who overreacts to certain stimuli, whether it’s children, people, or, like Wilma, other dogs. Before her training she would lunge and bark, threatening every dog she saw even if it was across the street. Now, she’s relaxed enough to sniff things.
Another thing our teacher said was that we would end up talking to our dogs a lot. Boy, was she right about that. What I didn’t expect was that Wilma would respond in plain English.
Thinking of the man we’ve just passed, I say to Wilma, “I don’t have to talk to myself, I have you to chat with.”
“Please,” says Wilma, “I’m trying to focus.”
Her nose is getting dangerously close to a sidewalk snack. It’s an indeterminate thing—food, trash, or worse—
“Leave it,” I say, pulling on the leash.
“Please?” says Wilma, barely allowing me to drag her away from her treasure.
“That was a good ‘leave it’,” I say, gently. I give her a treat. “What was it?”
“And you wanted to eat it?”
John and I adopted Wilma two and a half years ago. For the first six months, our daily walks were stressful. I was afraid she’d see something that upset her, and that’s what happened most of the time. But we stuck with our training, and our walks have become almost stress-free.
Wilma and I chat about simple things. She doesn’t mind listening to my ramblings, but she’s not interested in career, or politics, or budget concerns. So we talk about the moment: the flock of parrots screeching overhead, the scent of wet grass after the rain, the neighbor’s water-wise yard project. Walks with Wilma are a welcome break from stress.
Uh-oh. A dog heading toward us seems to be off the leash. Wait. No. Coyote. My heart speeds up. A coyote won’t threaten me, but—well—Wilma hasn’t seen it yet…
“Wilma, let’s stop by Bill’s and hang out in his garage for a min—”
“HEY! GREASER! GET OUTTA MY NEIGHBORHOOD!” Wilma has spotted the coyote. I grab her harness and hold on while she barks and growls, threatening the coyote’s very existence. If ever there was a thing for Wilma to be reactive about it’s the beautiful, wild animal sauntering past on the other side of the street.
You’d be surprised how strong a 50 pound dog can be. The coyote barely glances at her.
“Wilma, shh, quiet, honey.” I try to sound soothing. She pulls harder. I’m afraid if she pulls free of me I’ll see a dog/coyote fight and I’m not interested in any such thing. It’s no good to be afraid because Wilma can probably smell it on me, but I can’t help it.
Is Wilma being reactive? I think not. I think she’s being normal. Dogs are supposed to bark at coyotes. Coyotes are almost as common in our neighborhood as squirrels. Wilma is equally disdainful of squirrels.
The coyote keeps going, turns a corner and is quickly out of sight.
“AND STAY OUT!”
“All right, good girl, shh.”
She relaxes, shaking it off. I give her a treat. “Are you okay now, Wilma?”
“That coyote better stay GONE.” One fang is showing.
“I’m sure he doesn’t want to tangle with you.”
Our neighbor Bill steps out of his garage. “What was that all about?” he asks.
“Coyote!” says Wilma, pulling toward him and wagging her tail so hard her body wiggles. “We saw a coyote and I told him to leave! He’s gone because I was brave!”
“We saw a coyote,” I say. “Wilma sent him packing.”
“I said that,” says Wilma. I don’t explain that Bill might not have understood her, at least not specifically.
“Good girl, Wilma.” He gives her a bit of his breakfast muffin. She thanks him with a lick of his palm.
Bill and I wave goodbye and Wilma and I head home. It’s been an exciting morning.
“I’m proud of you, Wilma,” I say. “You’re a good girl.”
“I know!” I can tell by her wagging tail that she’s pleased with herself. “He was the biggest coyote ever!”
A woman and her leashed dog come toward us on the other side of the street. Wilma doesn’t notice the dog. This must be a breakthrough.
I wait until after they pass to answer Wilma. It’s not like I’m talking to myself, but why confuse people? When the woman is gone I say, “He was a very big coyote, Wilma. You protected the whole neighborhood. What a good girl you are.”
That tail can’t wag any harder. No sidewalk snacks today, but plenty of treats for my normal dog.
Find more chats with Wilma on Wilma Wednesdays.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena author and voice actor. She has contributed many articles and book reviews to Hometown Pasadena over the years. Find more of her doings, writings, and photography at her website, PetreaBurchard.com.
Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, and her book of essays, Act As If: Stumbling Through Hollywood with Headshot in Hand, are available locally at the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, the Pasadena Museum of History, and Hoopla! in Altadena. Her books are also available on Amazon.com.
Just in time for awards season, “Hollywood Insiders” takes a look at the reality behind the tinsel.
Join Petrea and other authors with on-the-job Hollywood experience, February 16 at 7 p.m. at the FlintridgeBookstore and Coffeehouse.
Petrea will discuss and sign Act As If, and will be joined by longtime Teamster David Marder (It Takes More Than a Donut to Make a Movie), Independent film producer, director and screenwriter William Dickerson (Detour Hollywood: How to Direct a Micro-budget Film (or any film, for that matter)) and Andra Clarke, who will share rare photos taken by her mother and collaborator, Regina Denton-Drew, former cigarette girl and staff photographer for Ciro’s: Nightclub of the Stars.
Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.
Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse
1010 Flintridge Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge 91011