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The Neurotic Dogs
When pondering whether my neurosis is learned or genetic, I often turn to the family dogs, Frazier (9) and Jake (4), and see the likelihood of a learned origin. My parents' characteristic anxiety has effectively seeped into both dogs' personas.
My mother and father are both card-carrying neurotics with drastically different sensibilities. The former engages in an overt style of panic characterized by covering her eyes when our car seems close to hitting another car that's three hundred yards down the road. The latter is more of a concealer; I would cite one of his quirks in this sentence, but the ensuing disownment would be harsh.
Frazier, a beige mix of bijon and poodle, arrived in our home when I was in the 9th grade. For the first few months, he struck us as an emotionally balanced individual, but it wasn't long before the wide, glassy eyes and quivering lower lip set in. Like his human siblings before him, he experienced separation anxiety in the absence of his parents. Unlike his human siblings, Frazier saw it fit to pace around the unoccupied house for hours, howling to the ceiling and holding his paw against his beating heart. Such behavior, though unquestionably neurotic, was at least grounded in recognizable childhood symptomology. It wasn't until the arrival of Jake, during Frazier's fifth year, that Frazier experienced a full-fledged nervous breakdown.
Given the instability of Frazier's ego, the appearance of Jake--an energetic full-blooded poodle with black hair and a trim gray beard--was emotionally catastrophic. When he wasn't lying on his stomach leering into the abyss, Frazier went as far as to commit acts of physical violence upon his younger brother. We knew not to be fooled by the innocent look in Frazier's eye when his leash somehow ended up around Jake's neck.
Jake, who entered our home as somewhat of a free spirit, was oblivious to Frazier's brooding melancholy. He ran and played with the best of them. He developed a flourishing social identity among the locals. However, it wasn't long before the torch of neurosis was passed onto Jake. From whose hands or paws the torch came is difficult to determine, but genetic theories strike me as inadmissible.
Jake's inaugural phobia was a fear of vacuum cleaners. We have various vacuums in our home, and Jake's fear of each is proportional to its size and volume. When the biggest vacuum is about to be used, Jake requires an explicit and descriptive monologue preparing him for what is to come. The monologue is best performed with the speaker's hand firmly applied to the top of Jake's head. We've found that with the aid of such verbal reassurances, Jake's anxiety in the presence of the vacuum cleaners has decreased by 3 or 4 percent.
By now, we're pleased to announce that Frazier has overcome his initial aversion to Jake. Not only do they dine together frequently, but they've also come to display the sincerest form of love in our family: they worry about one another. When Jake's out jogging in the backyard and Frazier's sobbing from the window, his tears run rich with affection.
Eric Shapiro is the author of "Short of a Picnic," new in September 2002 from Be-Mused Publications.