We heard the racket above the TV. Snarling. Barking. Whimpering. Loud, animalistic, carnal noises that would haunt me in my sleep.
Tim and I were sitting in our living room on our used, stained, twice slip covered couch. It was a Sunday evening in March, and we were settling down to watch Hinterland or the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. There is a significant dip in the left side of the cushion discernible only to the unlucky person who happens to sit in that spot. We've never bought new furniture. In our six years of marriage, we have used the same old embarrassing stuff. The reason?
We have a dog.
And that dog happens to be Champ.
We rushed to our backyard to find a German Shepherd with a choke collar in our backyard, inside our fence. The dogs were fighting. Tim pulled them apart and I grabbed Champ and took him inside. Champ was limping and had a huge, bloody gash in his back leg. I did my best to hold the wound with a towel, but Champ was too agitated to be still. He was clearly more concerned about getting back outside than his leg. Tim managed to get the shepherd out of our backyard, threatening it with a long wooden garden stake, but it stayed at the fence barking at him. I watched warily, scared that it might hurt Tim too.
That was when Tim called the police.
For fifteen minutes, the dog stayed at the fence, barking at Tim, until one of our neighbors came out and saw the commotion. He recognized the dog as another neighbor's and managed to get the dog back to it's owner's house. The dog, we learned, belonged to a neighbor who we had never met, but lives close by. Whenever we had passed the house previously, the dog had launched at us behind it's fence, and we tried to walk past as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to do with my injured dog. I called and left a message with my vet. I called the neighbor behind me who is a dog lover herself and she gave me the number of the emergency vet hospital. I had texted my friend who lives down the street, who agreed to come sit at home with Titus while Tim and I took Champ.
That is when the police man showed up, parking right in front of our driveway, blocking us in. After talking with him for awhile, he asked us what we wanted, if we wanted to press charges, ask for vet bills be paid, etc. He said he could give them a ticket or a warning. We were surprised he gave us those options, feeling the weight of each decision and the ramifications it might have on our neighborhood relationships.
After learning this was our neighbor who has lived in that house over a year, Tim and I just asked that it be written in a report and that the officer talk to them to make sure the dog could stay contained. Knowing we have a one year old little boy sleeping somehow peacefully through the racket, we were scared for his safety when he plays in the back yard. We had never had any problems like this before in our neighborhood. Our neighbors really look out for each other. We just asked that it was recorded in case something like this happened again, then at least we would have it on record and could move forward if we thought it necessary. We asked that the officer talk to our neighbor about the situation, but we left it at that.
Above all, Tim and I have always wanted to be a light in our neighborhood. And this whole situation was making my heart oatmeal. Immediately I started praying, apologizing to the Lord that a dog brawl and calling the cops on our neighbors would be the way we met them. Lord forgive me, I know this wasn't the way you intended it to be.
After awhile, I was getting concerned about Champ's leg, wishing the process would hurry up so we could get him some care. The officer and my neighbor came over to our house and he introduced us. She was in her sixties, a grandmother type, dumbfounded that her dog could do something so terrible. I immediately apologized about our unfortunate meeting, admitted we were a part of the problem, and asked that she work on her fence and assured her that we would work on ours. She apologized profusely as well, and the meeting ended as peacefully as I could have possibly hoped.
The vet later explained that the wound Champ had sustained wasn't a bite, but rather a tear appearing to come from catching on the other dog's choke collar. The shepherd never bit Champ after all. Champ wore the cone of shame for two weeks after having surgery to stitch him back up. The vet bill was a kick to the gut, but we were grateful everybody was okay.
After recounting the story to many of our friends and neighbors since, I've found their expressions almost comical when I explain that I apologized.
"Why did YOU apologize? Why are YOU apologizing?" they asked.
I apologized because let's be honest. We are terrible dog owners. In my perfectionist personality, it is hard for me to admit how hard I have failed with Champ. We did many things right, but oh so many things wrong. We took him to obedience school, but after he was almost two, and were so discouraged when it seemed like he was doing the same on the last week as the first one. We exercise him almost daily, but nothing is enough to get his energy out. He barks and jumps on people at the door until he feels safe with them. He barks incessantly outside at all our neighbors. He has escaped our house many times and run all over the neighborhood, until he finally stops to pee and we catch him. We crate trained him, but only for the first year, and now when we put him in the crate he barks and whines until we let him out, even if it is an hour later. He has dug holes in our furniture, chewed up our guest's shoes, and still poops in our house when it rains outside because he prefers to stay dry. We thought we did all the right things, but many times I wonder if we should've got a dog at all.
Don't get me wrong, we love Champ. When it is just our family, or close familiar friends, Champ plays lovingly with Titus, letting Titus bonk him on the head, take his food and feed it to him. Champ loves to snuggle with me while I read and write, and yes, sleep. I love his loyalty, excitement to see us, and playful energetic spirit. And he is pretty darn cute too. We are probably better owners for him than many would be. But sometimes, when I realize how unapproachable our house might be because of our bark crazy dog, it breaks my heart. I want all to feel welcome in my home. And it seems Champ feels the opposite most days.
Champ is one of those constant reminders in my life that I'm not perfect, that I can't do everything exactly right. Who knew a thirty pound Cocker Spaniel mix would be God's specially designed sanctification project just for me? Because as much as it seems like we are the victims in this story, we were the offenders first. Champ just happens to be less than half the size of our neighbor's dog and his bark is much bigger than his bite. It devastates me that this may have stunted our relationships with our neighbors, and even more so that we hadn't even reached out to meet this particular neighbor at all until now.
All these thoughts are my particular choke collar that tightens around my neck every time a new person comes to my house, each time we host house church, each time I nervously close the guest room door so Champ doesn't meander in and get any wise ideas.
We have never seen that German Shepherd again. We reinforced our fence and Champ hasn't escaped since. My neighbor has come back to our house several times to check on Champ and brought us a large check for his vet bills, even though we pleaded with her not to.
God's great story includes this chapter, even though I would prefer it not to. I got to explain to my sweet neighbor that we believe in God, that God gives us incredible, unending, indescribable amounts of grace and that we can forgive and give her grace because He gave us immeasurably more. Once again, this is real life gospel, the oatmeal heart variety.
When I think of how many awful ways this story could've gone, I realize that God alone must be the author. Who else could take a horrific scene such as two animals growling, hackles raised, tearing each other apart into an opportunity to humbly ask forgiveness from not one neighbor, but from all of them, and to bring us all closer together as a result? I could have never accomplished that with a batch of cookies and a card at Christmas.
Humility always precedes blessing in relationships. And apologies are a great place to start.
And while we are at it, that choke collar of failure we feel tight around our necks? I don't believe God placed it there. In fact, I believe he came to gently take it off, before we catch and wound others with it. Make no mistake, beating yourself up for your mistakes not only hurts you, but others around you. Give yourself grace to hand that ring of failure in for the gift of freedom God has extended to you.
And pray with me, pretty please, that my lesson is learned with Champ, and that maybe God could turn him into a calm, docile, friendly Golden Retriever.