Downtime

A Special Thank-You to Everyone and Their Wonderful Beasts

Some final tips, plus what I learned from more than a year of writing pet advice.

A man looking unsure while holding a large dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dear Beast Mode,

I adopted a 3- or 4-year-old rescue a few months ago, and she is settling in really well. She’s started to show enthusiasm about food and walks, which is huge because she used to just be mopey. She was very likely abused previously, so I know she will be slow to warm up, but she mostly just lies around all day. We go on three walks a day, and she is always happy to take them. She eats her food and enjoys treats, but she doesn’t play. I take her to the dog park, and she doesn’t seem to know how. She’s interested in other dogs but often runs away from them at first sniff. She doesn’t really play with us either, aside from running with us a bit when she’s in the mood. She doesn’t notice or like toys. She seems offended by the concept of fetch.

Almost all day, she lies around the house curled in a ball, often near me. When we’re gone, she lies in sight of the door, just waiting for us to come home. Does this fall under the spectrum of normal dog behavior? Is there anything I can do to engage her more or make her life better? Should I just thank the Lord I wound up with a sweet little couch potato?

—Mind Races, Dog Doesn’t

Dear Mind Races, Dog Doesn’t

Congratulations on finding a wonderful new family member. It’s a big moment for you, but it’s literally everything for her. The first couple of months are always interesting, but it sounds as if you’ve helped make your sweet, friendly companion feel right at home.

It’s important to note that lethargy can be a sign of a medical problem, and there’s no harm in consulting your vet if this behavior continues to worry you. Otherwise, just keep on being an attentive and caring pal. You’re giving her affection, a routine, and plenty of opportunities to play should the mood strike her. What else could a dog want?

The first thing we learn when we adopt a pet is that they don’t tell us what they’re thinking. While frustrating, it’s also a bit of a blessing. I’d go insane if I had to listen to my dog list all the reasons she should eat dinners with us at the table. (Reason No. 78: I can’t use a fork, so fewer dishes. Reason No. 79: Come on, it’s right there, just give me the damn food.) Your pooch might not be able to put it into words, so I will: You’re doing a great job.

The transition from shelter to home can be a lot to handle, and that doesn’t even take into account any abuse she may have suffered earlier in her life. Dogs carry trauma, so the shyness and apprehension are perfectly normal. She could also just be a chill dudette who’d rather watch soap operas than race after Frisbees at the park. What matters is that you’ve provided her with a comfortable and safe environment where she can grow to become her happiest self.

Questions like this remind me that people sincerely want to do what’s best for their pets, and it’s a big part of what’s made this column so enjoyable to write. It also brings me to an announcement. After spending more than a year doling out weekly pet advice, I must wistfully announce that Beast Mode is going into hibernation. When it began, I genuinely didn’t believe it would last more than a few weeks, but readers’ wonderful questions kept popping up in my inbox, and it was a privilege to answer them. I will still be writing for Slate (about sports, mostly), but this small corner of the website that smells vaguely of cat pee will have to lie dormant for now.

I feel like I’m leaving the house as my dog stares at me through the window, so I’ll try to keep this signoff relatively brief. Writing Beast Mode has been so much fun, and I hope that someday the column can return in one form or another.

I wish there were a more interesting reason behind this decision, but it’s simply a matter of time. There are some big projects on my plate this year, and I won’t be able to give this column the attention and care its readers deserve. Writing advice is humbling and terrifying, but asking for it can be even more difficult. I greatly appreciate everyone who wrote in with questions, and I’m terribly sorry that I wasn’t able to get to them all. In lieu of doing a full accounting of those unresolved inquiries, I will present a smattering of broad advice that may or may not apply:

• Pets can be reasoned with so long as you’re being reasonable.
• When it comes to getting your pet to behave, nothing is more effective than patience and routine.
• When in doubt, contact your vet.
• Positive reinforcement works. Negative reinforcement doesn’t.
• Treats aren’t bribes; they’re currency.
• Fine, they’re bribes, but what is the economy if not a series of bribes? Am I blowing your mind? No? OK, back to the goodbye stuff.

Thanks must go out, as well, to all the experts who helped me every week. I’m just a schmuck who spends too much time with his dog, but these people are professionals, and their assistance was essential in making this column what it was. They spent their valuable time talking to me (again, a schmuck), and I am tremendously grateful for their generosity and patience. If the Beast Mode archives are worth digging through, it’s largely thanks to their expertise. I know I’ve learned a lot.

Pets can drive us crazy, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re the absolute best. For example, my dog is a pain in the butt on walks. For a while I worried that someone would somehow recognize us on the street and shame me, a pet advice columnist, for struggling with his goofy pooch. It’s not that I’ve kept the truth about her poor leash behavior hidden—I’ve mentioned it a few times in here—but the thought of being “exposed” as we worked on her issue made me feel a little unworthy of this post. I bring this up because it’s precisely the wrong thing to take away from Beast Mode. Our pets aren’t perfect, but they don’t expect us to be perfect either. What matters is that we try our best for them. It might not always seem like it, but they’re returning the favor.