“As the Lodge Turns” Episode 61: A Lot to Learn

On this episode of “As the Lodge Turns”…

I can’t say I didn’t expect this outcome, but I wish I’d been able to hold out for more than five seconds before being knocked to the ground! For a few moments I can only lie where I’ve fallen, perfectly still, my nose pressed into the soft turf.

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That trusty beagle balance has scored a depressing total of zero points this afternoon.

“Whoa…did I break him?!” Niko asks Lucy, his bark a mix of genuine concern and cautious wonder.

“I don’t think so. Beagles are unbreakable, after all,” Lucy says with an assurance that makes me want to crawl into a dark hole.

My back leg twitches, but the only pain I feel is the crushing blow to my pride.

“Aren’t you, Bing?” Lucy asks, carefully sniffing the back of my head. “Even though you lost, you did it with…what was that word you used earlier? You know, it’s that food you eat with syrup…”

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Right now I’m sure ‘like a pancake’ describes my losing style better than ‘with panache.’

“I have to hand it to you, Niko, you’re pretty strong. I’m kind of jealous,” I say, mustering a laugh as I sit up. “You’ll have to give me some pointers so I’ll actually stand a chance next time!”

Niko smiles down at me, and there’s a hopeful glimmer in his eyes that I’ve never seen before. Did I say something he wanted to hear…?

“You’re really nice, Bing. Not all dogs get angry when I try to play with them, but you’re the only one who’s wanted there to be a ‘next time.’ Thank you,” Niko says, casting his eyes down to his paws.

At first Niko seemed like a lively, oversized puppy, a bit too energetic and not the most conscientious playmate. But suddenly I feel a powerful weight to his words, as if he’s known hardships that I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Beneath that playful exterior, I detect the faint shadow of loneliness…

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“I don’t see why other dogs would get mad at you. You’re so much fun to play with! A little rough, maybe, but I still had a great time,” I say, trying to brush aside my earlier complaints.

“Well…I can’t always tell if other dogs want to play or not. My social skills are a little behind, I guess. I work with a really great trainer a few times a week, but I still have a lot of catching up to do,” Niko says, tracking the movement of the current chase game with a wistful gaze.

A little behind? Catching up?

Before I can ask for the answers to my questions, Niko seems to anticipate them.

“I spent the first year of my life tied up outside with my sister. We didn’t always get food, and we couldn’t really go inside the house, but we made do. Lots of human kids in the neighborhood would stop by to play with us, and other dogs too, so it wasn’t all bad. But then, when my sister took a turn for the worse, some people came and took her away from me. After that, my mom and dad convinced my old owner to let them adopt me so that they could give me a better life. And they have! I love them more than anything, and they’ve given so much attention and affection that it almost feels like a dream. My sister is also in a new home, and she’s so much happier too! We’re both very lucky…”

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I can’t believe what he’s been through. Sleeping outside? No food or warm, soft bed? No parents to spoil and love him like he deserves?

My mouth goes dry. I’ve had a pampered life compared to him, so what could I possibly say in reply to his difficult upbringing…?

Niko lightly paws at the ground, lost in his thoughts.

“I used to be shy, but now that I try to be more assertive and playful, things don’t seem to be getting much better. Don’t get me wrong, lots of dogs at the Lodge are willing to play, and I love coming here. But I’m still learning, and some days it feels like I’ll never make up for what I lost that first year,” he says, his bark lowering as if he’s embarrassed to admit this fear.

Lucy and I stare at Niko for what seems like hours, neither of us sure how to encourage him. His fears are understandable, and he probably wonders where he would be today if healthy socialization hadn’t been delayed.

But we’re all like that, aren’t we? We all misunderstand each other, and even ourselves. Even dogs that spent their formative days in loving, happy homes have a ton of things to learn.

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“Niko, I didn’t grow up the way you did. I had a lot of things handed to me, just because I was there, and I didn’t think twice about it. I’ve never had to adjust to a whole new life the way you have, or question where I would be if things had been a little different. But look at how strong you are compared to me. And I don’t mean physically! Your experiences may have set you back in a lot of ways, but they also gave you incredible strength, and the ability to really appreciate your life. A lot of dogs are still learning how to find those things in themselves; I’m still learning too! But just playing with you and listening to your story has made me think about what I usually take for granted. You’ve given me that gift, and I want you to remember that when you feel left behind, or at a big disadvantage. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re here – to share our stories and our strengths, and to learn from each other,” I say, my bark a clear, confident sound that surprises me.

Niko stares at me with wide eyes, but he makes no move to speak.

Oh no! I might have sounded arrogant…I hope I didn’t upset him…

 Suddenly, he pushes his head against my side and keeps it there. I feel him breathing against my fur, and in a panic I search for Lucy’s face. She only smiles at me with an amused light in her eyes.

“You may be a little clumsy on your feet, but your words are always on point,” she says with a laugh, joining our strange “group hug.”

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“Thank you, Bing,” Niko says, pulling away to look me in the face. “Whenever I feel discouraged, I’ll try to remember that I’m not the only one still learning!”

As we race to the middle of the yard, an idea pops into my head.

“Hey, everybody! Niko’s it! Let’s catch him!” I shout in my loudest bark.

In the blink of an eye the other dogs make a beeline for us, their faces bright with determination.

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“No fair!” Niko says, but he flashes a huge smile as he tears off in the opposite direction.

…to be continued…