Every spring, registered voters throughout New England show up at a designated place and time to practice democracy in its purest form. It's called annual Town Meeting. Everyone has a chance to speak, debate, and vote on budgets and bylaws.
I almost always bring a puppy-in-training with me because town meetings are a great way to desensitize dogs to crowds and noise. The dogs eventually fall asleep through the proceedings, though a few have managed to make their presence known. One year, I was returning to my seat after casting my ballot on a controversial question. Murmers of appreciation rippled through the crowd as I walked by with Holly, an adorable yellow Lab. I noticed the cable television camera and smiled to myself at our moment in the spotlight. Then Holly squatted and flooded the floor beneath her.
Another time, I was trying to settle Freedom, a black Lab, on her blanket when a woman, furious about a question up for debate, marched toward the microphone. She passed us at the precise moment that I admonished Freedom with a "No!" Without breaking stride, the woman whipped toward me and hissed, "YES!"
By now, the Town Meeting regulars are used to seeing me with a dog. I brought Tinsel to the most recent one a week ago. The election workers at the door greeted us enthusiastically. People stopped on the way to their seats to say hello to Tinsel. At one point during a hand count, the town moderator leaned into his microphone at the front of the auditorium and reminded me, "The dog isn't allowed to vote."
Tinsel had a hard time settling. She'd chew on her toys for a few minutes, then abandon them. She barked a few times. She whined. She pawed at the seat in front of us like an unruly child kicking the seat back in a movie theater. All the while, I was consulting a mental flowchart, deciding what to do by following each possible response to its possible outcome. Some of my solutions to Tinsel's behavior were straightforward. I stopped her barking by bringing her out into the lobby for a change of scenery. Others were not so clear cut. Several times, Tinsel would leave our row and flop down in the aisle. I knew that if I were to lure her back with kibble, she would take the food, then bark for more. If I stood up to guide her back into the row, I'd disrupt Town Meeting and block the view of the man behind me. If I left her in the aisle, she'd be quiet. I left her in the aisle. Until she stood up and tried to wander toward the front of the room where the Board of Selectmen sat. Dave always tells us not to be afraid to physically put our pups into position. So, I grabbed her collar and her vest, and scootched her back into the row by my feet.
Eventually, Tinsel fell asleep. When she woke up and started whining, my mental flowchart landed on "Take her outside." A woman followed us out of the auditorium and stopped me in the lobby with a warm smile. She told me Tinsel was beautiful and asked for her name, then tapped it into her phone. I figured she had taken a picture of Tinsel and wanted to identify her until she raised her eyebrows at me, smiled again, and said, "I'm from the ADA and I'm going to report you to NEADS." I think I actually cocked my head at her like a confused puppy. The words did not match the tone. Still dripping with syrup, she informed me that I didn't have control over my dog, that I should have had Tinsel on a gentle leader because all NEADS dogs are on gentle leaders, that I pulled Tinsel by the collar and let her block the aisle where the town moderator nearly tripped on her. Well, she had a valid point with the last one, but still, I was confused -- since when does the Americans with Disabilities Act send representatives to town meetings?
I turned my back on her and brought Tinsel outside. When we came back in, I found the woman standing in the back of the auditorium. I poked my finger into the fleshy part of her upper arm, maybe harder than necessary, and gestured for her to come back out into the lobby with me where I explained that Tinsel isn't on a gentle leader yet. Then I asked her if she was really going to report me to NEADS. She laughed heartily, "Oh, no! I'm not going to report you." She may even have patted me on the shoulder. I didn't believe her. That night I wrote an email to Dave and told him what happened.
I'm still trying to figure out how to feel about that woman. In the week since Town Meeting, she's transformed in my memory into Professor Umbridge, the treacly and sadistic Hogwarts teacher who cheerfully tortured Harry Potter. Had I been a new puppy raiser, I would have burst into tears the moment she told me I didn't have control over my dog. Fortunately, I've hammered together some self confidence in the six years I've been puppy raising. I know that socializing a puppy can look messy from the outside. It's like raising a child, when, at the first sign of a tantrum, you process reams of information: your child's personality and personal history, the time of day, the amount of food in his stomach, how long since his last nap, the surroundings, the availability of distractions, the presence of other people ... and then you spit out a response. It's often not perfect, but it's the best we can do for ourselves and for our child.
We're all doing the best we can. And that's what I'll remember next time I'm tempted to judge someone -- even that woman at Town Meeting.