If I could use one word to describe Nala on Christmas, it would be this: Velcro.
Other people used other words for her. Some were “mellow,” “well-behaved,” and “sweet.” Others were “protective,” “loyal,” and, most commonly, “mama’s girl.” One aunt referred to her as “dependent.” At that moment, Nala was sitting against my legs, her chin in my lap and eyes completely focused on me as if she was trying to drown out what was going on around her. That’s why I worried.
We were at my parents’ house for Christmas, someplace she feels very comfortable. Normally when we visit, I barely see her. But yesterday, with the high energy of Christmas, the excitement of 20 people more than she was used to seeing, and the special event of being around kids, it was not a normal day for her. Nala was at my side wherever I went. If I sat, she lay at my feet; if I stood, she leaned against the back of my legs. Normally a sucker for attention, she refused to leave me when others called her. They could come to her to pet her, but Nala refused to leave me.
At first, I wondered if it was because of my niece. The 17-month-old spent much of the day in my arms and Nala, who adores my nieces, might simply have been keeping an eye on the youngest of the family. But when my niece ran off to see her mom, Nala didn’t budge. She was stuck to me like Velcro.
I knew it was something more when it came time for her 6pm feeding. She followed me to the kitchen, where I poured her a bowl. Nala sniffed it, then left the food to follow me when I walked out of the room. This dog never misses a piece of kibble, so for her to ignore food was a major red flag. We had taken her bed along, which is normally her safe place, but she couldn’t care less about it. The only time she stayed on it was when we positioned it next to her dad and me at the extra long dinner table. What was going on?
The explanation came later in the evening. Once most of the family left, Nala relaxed. It was a smaller group, less excitement, no kids, and Nala finally ventured off on her own. She didn’t go far, but she no longer needed to be touching me constantly. The craziness of an unusually large family gathering, complete with a few new people, was simply too much for her to take.
When we got home, Nala’s dad and I talked about it. He was right when he said it’s good Nala knows who she can turn to when she’s anxious, and that our bond is so strong it’s me she seeks comfort from. I can’t help but worry, however, that my aunt is right – it’s dependency and it’s not healthy. We’ve already dealt with my dog’s separation anxiety and I’d hate to see her regress after all the progress we’ve made. Still, her dad has a point. There’s a reason why the Delta Society looks at the bond between dog and handler when they test dogs for therapy work – they want to know that when faced with strange situations and new people, the dog will find comfort and confidence in their handler. A family gathering on a holiday is no less an unusual experience when it’s so different from a normal day. Nala found comfort and confidence in me.
Should I indulge her when she’s nervous? Absolutely – she needed comfort and I gave it to her. Should I keep an eye out for signs of her separation anxiety flaring up? Definitely – I want to nip it in the bud if it starts to rear its ugly head. Should I worry? Maybe. Should I be glad we both know who she can rely on for reassurance? Undoubtedly. She’s been mama’s girl since the day I brought her home and that’s the way we like it.
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