Our Dog Is Different on Instagram
It started like so many dog love stories do, with a plea from a child.
“Why can’t we have a dog?” she asked as if we’d already said no, which we hadn’t, because she hadn’t asked yet.
My daughter was familiar with the word “no.” Even at the end of her first decade of life, she was already used to settling. As the well-behaved 10-year-old sister to two joyfully recalcitrant eight-year-old twin brothers, she had adjusted to a life of not asking for much. But the dog was clearly something she was willing to push for. She was all big blue eyes then, with a wheat-colored pixie cut — a haircut she’d never have again in her childhood, as she let her hair grow and grow as fast as the rest of her did. That was half a decade ago, before I worried about how we were going to pay for college tuition or whether my kids thought vaping was cool or stupid or at what point their Instagram captions had become more sardonic than my own.
“Why exactly can’t we have a dog?” my daughter asked then. “I need reasons if you guys are gonna say no.”
When we were first pregnant with her, my husband and I used to joke that we were having a baby so we could practice for having a dog. It turned out to be partly true. When you potty train a two-year-old just after bringing home two infants, you learn very quickly how to get pee out of the carpet, or at least how to not care that it’s there in the first place. Our twins were also biters, so we got very good at apologies and convincing people that they did not have rabies. We did our best, but having three kids in two years made it hard enough to feed and clothe ourselves and our human offspring. We weren’t in any position to get a dog.
But once our daughter pleaded her case, it was all over. She was making us an offer we couldn’t refuse. And let’s be clear here: She wasn’t offering us anything. A few weeks later we brought home our dog, Gilbert.
When we were first pregnant with her, my husband and I used to joke that we were having a baby so we could practice for having a dog.
Gilbert is not an easy dog. He’s a rescue and I say that not to brag about our good-heartedness, but to excuse his behavior in an attempt to remove myself from blame. He is 100 pounds of muscle, nerves, and fur, anxious and afraid of all strangers, no matter how small or unassuming. Just ask the tiny pigtailed Waldorf Preschool girls who walk by our house and at whom he barks ferociously every morning. Size doesn’t matter to him. Everyone is a threat.
Gilbert is also what most people would call “aggressive.” He intimidates everyone outside of our immediate family, whether he meets them on the street or if they come to our house. Our front door is made of glass, so when he hears someone approach it he will jump on the glass, growling and barking, Cujo-style.
“He is different on Instagram,” a new friend of mine said recently when she made the mistake of ringing our doorbell after coming to pick me up. We were safely on the other side of the glass by then. And that’s the thing. If I open the door, Gilbert does not try to run out and attack the person. He’s as happy on the other side of the glass as you are. I tried to explain this to my friend, but her only response was, “I nearly pissed myself.”
Yes, Gilbert is different on Instagram. But aren’t we all?
If the doggy DNA test is to be believed, Gilbert is a mix of Pit Bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, and Old English Sheepdog. He was found wandering the streets of San Bernardino in 2012, where he was passed from shelter to shelter, possibly terrorizing a family cat or two before he ended up with us.
I thought he had a scary face, and I couldn’t help but imagine his jaws chomping down on the flesh of one of my three children.
When we first found him on the shelter’s website, Gilbert’s name was Goliath. A week later they had changed it to Gilbert, as if someone had finally done a bit of research and found that Goliath was not actually the hero in the David and Goliath story. Also, Gilbert’s size and appearance already scared people. The shelter didn’t need to scare more people away by naming him after a Philistine giant.
Online, Gilbert was described as a “Lab Mix,” which sounded good to us because our only steadfast rules before starting the adoption process were, “No Pit Bulls, no Chihuahuas.” But when we drove to San Francisco to meet Gilbert we saw immediately that, though he was a mix, and possibly a Lab mix, he was clearly part Pit Bull. He was also enormous, the kind of dog I’d been taught to fear. I was suspicious at first, even though the shelter and the woman fostering Gilbert kept describing him as “mellow.” I thought he had a scary face, and I couldn’t help but imagine his jaws chomping down on the flesh of one of my three children.
Gilbert was good around strangers until he wasn’t. At first, he didn’t even bark when people came over. We took him on walks and he seemed to love the attention he got from strangers. We took him to the dog park where he’d play with other dogs, no matter what size they were. We took him for a group obedience class at a local pet store and he did great, mastering sit, stay, come, and all the rest of it. It probably took Gilbert about four months to get used to us and as soon as he did, he decided that we were his people and he would defend our family from everyone and everything.
The menacing bark began slowly. Whereas previously Gilbert had rolled on the floor with our kids and their friends, accepting pats and scratches and thrown balls, he soon became uneasy around anyone who wasn’t us. Neighbor kids running in the yard with our children suddenly seemed like a grave danger, and Gilbert would bark at them until we put him in his crate. We soon realized that we no longer had a dog we could take to friends’ houses, restaurants, dog parks, or anywhere. That was okay. But then Gilbert began to bark whenever anyone came to our house — and he wouldn’t stop when we welcomed the guest inside.
That’s when I hired the trainers. There was the one who came to our house and told me she’d train Gilbert, but it would probably be better if we returned him to the shelter. I called another trainer. That one recommended a shock collar. A third trainer insisted we train Gilbert by having our kids’ most terrified friends give him treats. That didn’t work so well, either. After thousands of dollars of training that didn’t seem to move the needle or the barking at all, we decided the most effective solution would be to keep Gilbert in his crate whenever anyone came over. If this sounds cruel to you, know that Gilbert is happy to be crated. The crate is where we often find him sleeping when he gets bored with us, even if we haven’t told him to go there. When we’re expecting people to come over, we simply say, “Go to your bed,” and he obeys.
While I’ve begrudgingly learned to ask my children’s permission before I post their photos online, I never have to ask Gilbert.
It’s been almost six years since we adopted Gilbert. While he’s scared many people young and old, he’s never hurt anyone and never once have I felt he was a danger to anyone in our family. My children are teenagers now, and I can see a time in the not-so-distant future when they will leave our house. Except for the sprinkling of grey fur around his muzzle, Gilbert hasn’t changed at all. I always hoped he’d mellow out in his old age and finally learn that he doesn’t have to protect us from everyone, but there’s also something comforting about the fact that he is exactly the same as he’s always been. Because those unpredictable kids running around in the backyard with Gilbert have changed in almost all ways. Meanwhile, Gilbert is still barking at everyone, loving our family fiercely, and wagging his entire body whenever any of us come home. And while I’ve begrudgingly learned to ask my children’s permission before I post their photos online, I never have to ask Gilbert.
Sometimes I wish we could show Gilbert off to our friends, proving to them what a smart and loyal dog he is. For now, I have Instagram, a place where anyone who hasn’t met Gilbert in real life, or who hasn’t read this, might still imagine he is the sweet dog they see online. But, if my children have taught me anything, it’s that we don’t raise and care for others in order to show them off. We take care of each other because that’s what we’re all bred to do. Some of us are just a little more aggressive about it.